The cultural damage of the ‘war on terror’

Manan Ahmed discusses Amitava Kumar's new book, among other things, in The National:

ScreenHunter_09 Sep. 05 12.07 It is among the accomplishments of Amitava Kumar’s new book, A Foreigner Carrying in the Crook of His Arm a Tiny Bomb (Duke University Press, Dh80), that it refuses to separate the cultural and the political means by which the War on Terror has been waged. Kumar’s slim volume begins in India, with the wrongful arrest of terror suspects – and with the observation, by a poultry farmer in Walavati, that “What the Americans were doing in Abu Ghraib, they learned from our policemen here”. As he traces the ordeals of the “ordinary men and women whose lives are entangled in the War on Terror”, Kumar endeavours to connect not only the tortuous practices common to states fighting terrorists, but also the ways this “war” has been imagined. He covers the cases of three convicted terrorists, in their own words, and in the words of their loved ones. The three men were all caught in sting operations and accused of planning crimes, or expressing the desire to commit crimes, against the United States; one convicted of purchasing a rocket launcher, another of wanting to detonate bombs in the New York City subway, and the last of funding Sikh terrorists in India.

Alongside his personal encounters with these terrorists, Kumar shows the haphazardly constructed legal cases, the government witnesses, and the clash of half-digested cultural understandings. He peels back the stories that we only know by headlines – the Lackawanna Six, the American Taliban – with a novelist’s eye and a reporter’s doggedness. Kumar is not out to rehabilitate these characters nor to act as their apologist. He keeps a studied distance, a knowing diffidence – but not just to the terrorists: to the prosecution, to their evidence, to the informants used by the US government to provoke the defendants into convictable speech and acts.

It is when he widens his gaze from the terrorists to the arts, to public speech and to advocacy, in order to highlight the efforts of artists to observe, catalogue and explain – and the efforts of the state to control, coerce and regulate – that his book becomes a truly horrific indictment of post-September 11 “failure of imagination”. He correctly identifies “all of us” as participants in the state’s war on terror – sanctioning the drone attacks, extra-judicial assassinations and extraordinary renditions. By focusing on the banality of the state’s cases against the old, the infirm, the misfits, the ill-suited, Kumar reminds us that the war raging far from our doorsteps is also all around us. He wants to bring that war closer, and to make its consequences visible, by exposing the inequities of domestic counter-terrorism prosecutions.

More here.