What is happening? The Taj is burning, gunmen are shooting, the police is storming, the Oberoi is burning, the army is descending, people are running; bleeding; dying. Barkha Dutt is talking, Rajdeep Sardesai is talking, Srinivasan Jain is talking, Vilas Rao Deshmukh is talking, L.K Advani is talking, Manmohan Singh is talking, Vikram Chandra is talking, an eye-witness is talking, the army chief is talking, the naval chief is talking, an ex-hostage is talking, the terrorist is talking, Javed Jaffery is talking, Arnab Goswami is talking, is anyone even listening, is everyone listening—But what is happening?
Over the last two days I am struck dumb by the spectacle of violence unfolding on the television screen. And yet as the spectacle lays bare the poverty of language, we rush to pitch words into, somehow fill with phrases/sentences/metaphors, this well of silence lest it engulf us all…It seems to me that we have been seized by a collective horror of being stripped of our descriptive prowess—how else do we explain the incessant media chatter, the barrage of words emanating ceaselessly, round the clock, 24/7, slipping, sliding, enfolding the event, attempting to trap it in a mesh of words. Who knows who or what might slip in through a chink in this barricade of speech, through a few unguarded seconds of silence?
In the era of twenty-four news and live televisual broadcasts, the ‘mute spectator’, the witness rendered linguistically paralyzed by what unfolds before her, is lost. And when words fail, even of those whose job it is to supply them, there are always the images. The images are centrifugal, they gather words around them. When no words can explain what is happening, they can describe what we are seeing. The images can be linked to other images, to other devastations, to other iconic symbols of power laid waste. Without the images, there are no words. To say something, anything, we must be able to see it.
We must be at ‘the scene of the action‘, in the ‘war zone‘, pay attention when the ‘the location of action has shifted‘, rest assured that, ‘CNN-IBN/NDTV/Times Now will be there every step of the way‘, bringing us, ‘live action as it unfolds‘, ‘continuous non-stop coverage‘, up close to, ‘the face of terror‘, as, ‘locations are sanitized‘, and we prepare for, ‘the final assault.’
And we remember, as those who do this want us to remember, another day and another mutilated skyline 6 years ago. This is always-already the day that, ‘transforms a nation’s thinking‘, a ‘decisive moment of no return‘, the day, ‘India gets tough on terror‘, shows its willingness to, ‘take what measures are needed to protect our people‘. This is a ‘global tragedy‘, ‘India’s 9/11‘, the ‘final straw‘. Indeed it is. That other skyline produced two endless wars, over 300,000 dead, the US Patriot Act, the out-sourcing of torture, the globalisation of terror. That skyline gave us London 2005, Madrid 2004, Bali 2005, Istanbul 2003, Casablanca 2007. And now, it appears, Mumbai 2008. What will we do with it, what will it bring us?
For we are no longer in the realm of cause and effect, of injustice and retribution, of revenge and redistribution, of politics and ideology. For as Baudrillard, writing in the wake of September 11, reminds us,
“Terror against terror—there is no more ideology behind all that. We are now far from ideology and politics. No ideology, no cause, not even an Islamic cause, can account for the energy which feeds terror. It (energy) does not aim anymore to change the world, it aims (as any heresy in its time) to radicalize it through sacrifice, while the system aims to realize (the world) through force.”
This is not the revolutionary violence we understand. It does not seek to take-over the system, remake the world in its own image. And it is no longer impersonal violence. It gathers the violence around it and hurls it back in vast, transmuted form—’for terrorist actions are both the magnifying mirror of the system’s violence, and the model of a symbolic violence that it cannot access, the only violence it cannot exert: that of its own death. This is why all this visible power cannot react against the minute, but symbolic death of a few individuals.’
What response can there be to an attack that reverses the rules so radically? We are terribly weak because we don’t want to die. What greater vulnerability than the weakness for life? If like a sacrifice this violence builds no transformative relationship to the ‘real’ world, only a transcendental world, then we can only offer the materiality of the everydayness of life in response. And when that everyday is itself so thin, so sparse, so poor, what hope do we have? For in this terrible barrage of words lurk the shadows of all those words that cannot be said—Bombay 1992, Gujarat 2002, Best Bakery, Srikrishna Commission, Nanavaty Commission, custodial torture. We need to say them. So we may at the least have a symbolic response to the death that cannot be answered.
Maybe there are lessons to learn, as others have said, from an old man who died, attempting to transform the rules of engagement. He learned that if you attempt to confront the system with an equality of violence, you will always be outmatched. Always weaker before the enormity of power arrayed before you. Gandhi fashioned a body that resisted violence, even that committed unto itself; but we are not in possession of monumental bodies. We are only in possession of a tattered set of rules that we once laid store by. Maybe at this moment, like obsessive grammarians, we must insist on repairing, painfully and slowly, the structure of language. Return words like—fair trial, impartial judiciary, freedom of religion, equality before law, secular government—to their proper place in our shared lingustic systems, so they can be used without qualifications…