Sunday, September 18, 2011

The price we pay

Over the last few days following the Shoshana Hebshi incident (about which I wrote this blog) I've been musing over what, if anything, it teaches us.

Hebshi's own blog webpage provided a starting point for this train of thought. She has bravely kept her comments section unmoderated and her famous article now has more than 3000 comments. Trawling through them I found that a significant majority of them are fairly brief and say something like "As an American, I'm sorry and ashamed about what's happened". Many attempt to console Shoshana and some advise her to fight a legal case for wrongful detention. Many also point out that the US has changed for the worse since 9/11, becoming more of a police state and thereby handing a win to the terrorists. Some remark that the founding fathers of the United States would be turning over in their graves and quote Benjamin Franklin's resonant observation that "Those who would sacrifice liberty for security deserve neither".

However a rather significant percentage of comments on her blog (maybe one in four or even more) basically defend what happened, saying that the possibility of wrongful detention is the price everyone has to pay for increased security. Many of these people go on to say something like "America didn't start this, the terrorists started it on 9/11 and our government and security forces have reacted as well as they can". They cite the absence of major incidents in the US since 9/11 as "proof" that the security efforts are working well. Others add their fervent belief that the US only wants peace and has been unwillingly propelled into a warlike situation by evil external forces. These are the relatively polite commentators within this segment. Others are much more blunt and go out of their way to support profiling based on race and appearance, and some of these are explicitly abusive to Ms Hebshi.

So what do we learn at the end of everything? The premise that history started on 9/11 when warlike people attacked the hitherto peace-loving US will make a lot of history buffs gasp. Even the less grandiose theory that security efforts of the type recently undertaken on Shoshana and two nameless Indians make the US safer is rather dubious and can be, I feel, taken apart in a few lines (this kind of security is designed to convince the public that "things are being done" and has almost no relation to any meaningful thing actually being done. It's even been defended by saying this kind of action is "what the public wants to see", particularly surprising because the government is obliged to follow the Constitution rather than what people allegedly "want to see".) And yet, Americans are the most likely, I believe, of any people on earth to put a noble spin on the actions of their government and to ignore (or forget, or never bother to find out about) past history. Some of the most indefensible actions of their government abroad over a century, including military interventions, coups and assassinations, are generously sought to be defended (a professor in Princeton actually assured me that US foreign policy has always been sincerely in the best interests of the world at large!). And now apparently even the shrinking of human rights internally to the country is the "the price we pay" for security.

It's not my point that Americans are somehow dumb. The "idea of America" that has been communicated to its people over a long period, and occasionally modified at will by very clever politicans, is rather intoxicating and engaging. It enunciates the concept of a nation with a noble mission (under the watchful eye of an approving God) offering a dignified but strong and wrathful reply to outsiders bent on undermining this mission. Occasionally this story rings hollow in public (recall that during the Vietnam war a US major famously said 'It became necessary to destroy the town to save it,' (from Communism)) but for the most part it provides imagery that is seductive and easy to buy into.

Now this kind of ideology has been gaining ground in a part of India too for some time, and in the last few days it seems it has finally ripened. Almost exactly like Americans, Gujaratis have been seduced to put a noble spin on what their government and particularly their Chief Minister says and does. He has nourished on behalf of himself and his state the exact sense of nobility combined with victimhood that has made Americans focus on the (very genuine) positive aspects of their culture and society and ignore its occasionally destructive actions. As I've pointed out previously on this blog, Mr Modi is simultaneously a very competent administrator and a person whose credentials in respect to basic human rights are highly suspect (I must mention here that despite his recent attempts to imply the opposite, no court has yet exonerated him of some very serious charges).

One scenario that I think delights some people is that Mr Modi will take over India as a whole, maybe as soon as three years from now. From that day, if it comes, India will no doubt be infused with a seductive idea of its own nobility and unique mission under God. Far from criticising our government, as we now do daily, we will learn to spin its every action into a worthy one. The little sacrifices made by some of its (conveniently selected) citizens will be worth the price.

I can't resist pointing out that once this happens, we won't be entitled to criticise America any more...


Unknown said...

In case you missed it, Gulliver of The Economist commented on the Shoshana Hebshi case - you can read about it here.

Unknown said...

As an American citizen, I can tell you that we are in deep trouble.There is a notion (a dangerous one) that somehow Democrats (presumably excluding right-wingers and Republicans) are guardians of liberty (and I sense that you imply similar sentiments). I, for one, frankly see little difference between the two parties -- case in point being, Mr. Obama just signed into law the defense authorization bill (NDAA) that explicitly violates the 4th amendment. He claims he will use the power of the signing statement to not enforce the provisions that are contrary to the constitution (and we are left with his word which doesn't count for much since he has gone back on so many of his promises).

I am quite certain that the NDAA will be used against protestors (the Occupy movement for e.g.), immigrants (see the tent cities in the south west), etc. We will continue to dominate with military power (because we have lost the philosophical/moral power - not sure if we ever had it considering our history of slavery, native people's genocide, etc.) The one thing (from a political perspective), we have to be proud of is the fact that we were the first to give the world a government based on a written document (and not the dictates of a divine ruler). We are losing that, I am afraid and it is happening much too fast.

Lest you think this is a paranoid's rant, let me remind you that America's definition (in fact I would extend that to West's) of liberty has always been constrained by a select few that were supposed to enjoy it. The ones who were excluded changed (based on economic imperatives) whether they were Native Americans, Africans, Japanese, Hispanics, Communists, etc.

Sunil Mukhi said...

Dear Unknown,

I agree with everything you say.

Not sure where in my post I implied that Democrats are better than Republicans, but I'll admit I've often imagined this to be the case and then been disappointed when it turned out otherwise.

Unknown said...

Sorry, did not mean to say you implied it. I just got the sense based on your statements about right-wingers vis-a-vis Hebshi's and the two unknown Indian gentlemen's arrest. I find liberals to be equally hypocritical, perhaps on different matters. Having said that, the parties that supposedly represents these conservative and liberal perspectives, a la, Republican and Democrat, have become hollow shills of the mega-banks and large corporations.