Witnessing Madness 24/7

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…

10 thoughts on “Witnessing Madness 24/7”

  1. Aarti, thank you for your reflections. I am reminded of two moments as I read your post and watch this tragedy unfold.

    One is the Kattankudy and Eravur Mosque massacres on 3rd August 1990. Close to 150 people were massacred while at prayer, in what was a simultaneous military operation in Eastern Sri Lanka by the LTTE. It was a period that led to further massacres and counter-massacres by the LTTE and Security forces with the assistance of Muslim Home Guards, leading to the deaths in six months of close to 1,500 people. It severed Tamil-Muslim relations, but there was great leadership shown by the Muslim community in continuing to attempt to build Tamil-Muslim relations. When I visited the Kattankudy Mosque fourteen years later, the memory of the attacks were still there, and they had preserved the Mosque as it was, with the bullet holes and the grenade dents, as they never wanted to forget what had happened. The local school principal who showed me the Mosque told me how the entire Mosque was six inches deep in blood when he ran there to help those after the massacres. Fourteen years later, the Muslim youth in the East were still boiling with anger, but the community restrained them and spoke of the possibilities of reconciling with the Tamil community.

    Then I remember Sept 11th in New York. I was in downtown New York few blocks from the Twin Towers, watching them on fire before they collapsed. Perhaps I was naïve, but I thought the liberals in the US would keep some sanity. But over night the American flags went up, the “us versus them” mentality took hold even among those I thought were Left of Centre and the State started rounding up and detaining Muslims, Arabs and South Asians. The war in Afghanistan and Iraq weren’t too far away, as the US launched the war on terror. There was of course American activists who started organizing in opposition to the detentions and in opposition to the wars. But in those initial weeks after Sept 11th, the Bush regime pushed the world in such a disastrous direction that it may take years if not decades before those disastrous moves could be reversed.

    As I was reading your post, I am reminded of how communities react differently to a Superpower. Communities must react differently to a Superpower.


  2. To put it in short and in all honesty –

    Miss Aarti’s appealing cry against terror is very touching but her confusions are dangerous. One wonders if she is worried as a human being, a citizen, a young left intellectual, or what else. These distinctions are important because it will help her give shape to both her perspective and her fears. Let me quote one line in particular which I found utterly misplaced and un-thoughtful – “This is not the revolutionary violence we understand. It does not seek to take-over the system, remake the world in its own image.” This is the communist idea of the 60s. This is about an outdated historical project we have left behind and which has had its course. We can’t equate such ideas with terrorism. We can’t put eggs of all ideas in one basket and think of breaking them up one by one in order to make sense.

    Mr. Kadirgamar’s drawing of the first example is quite interesting, but his reading of the second example is quite straightforward and simplistic. His conclusive lines, am afraid, didn’t make any sense.


  3. Dear Debarshi,

    Thank you for pointing out the dangerous nature of my confusions. Just a quick response to your comment, so we can have a richer discussion on precisely where the danger lies. To begin with I am worried as all the identities you assign to me- as a human being, as a citizen – except one. I am not sure whether I would qualify as ‘young’ ‘left’ or ‘intellectual’ – some who know me, and many who don’t, would disagree on all three counts. So I’ll let that pass, and rely on you to decide the ‘what else’.

    You quote me, and then say:

    This is the communist idea of the 60s. This is about an outdated historical project we have left behind and which has had its course. We can’t equate such ideas with terrorism.

    I agree. I do not support that historical project. Nor am I lamenting its demise. In distinguishing what we are witnessing I was attempting to show why an older category of ‘re-making in the name of Islam’ which has been alleged and thrown about as a ’cause,’ cannot be used to understand the nature of what we are seeing today. I hope this clarifies my position :)


  4. Well, you have conveniently managed to sublimate your position and left me nothing to counter in return. Very wisely clever I must say :)


  5. I will try not to be simplistic or unclear. What I want to say is that, the various communities, including the activist communities can not afford to use the language of the Superpowers or of states; the language of “war on terror” and security. We have to strive for the language of co-existence, of peace and of justice. If we can not listen amidst all that talking, and if we can not distinguish our language from those of the Superpower, we will lose the middle ground that we so much need.


  6. I remember looking at a sign “Our Grief Is Not A Cry For War”. That’s rather premature I thought to myself. Who is calling for war? Must be some nutter leftie, jumping the gun. Surely no one will try to capitalize on grief, play politics?

    I had gone to put up posters for the dead Bangladeshi waiters from WindowOnWorld restaurant. Union Square Park. New York on September 12th.


  7. Dear Ahilan, Naeem,

    Thank you for the comments. And its really important to read them together. Ahilan your evocation of the Muslim response to the mosque massacre, and the poster that insists on the autonomy of grief from retribution that Naeem gestures to, pretty much sum up the sort of space we will need to inhabit, and insist on, in the coming days.

    I have been increasingly worried by how deep the language of retribution seems to have entered our vocabularies, such that to say anything else is immediately derided as “weak” “effette” etc. Almost as if its illogical or irrational to formulate any other response.

    Also, Ahilan’s comment shows how finally it is what Veena Das has termed the ‘descent into the ordinary’ that will provide the resources from which any solutions will be forthcoming. For we sometimes forget that finally to live in the world and do everyday tasks is what this is all about.


  8. In a feeble attempt to find, I don’t know what, I hoped (this sounds crazy) to find names of Muslims among the dead police officers. How crazy, no. Anything to give the lie that these attacks were a “Muslim attack”. As if Muslim victims will do that anyway?

    I suppose I am re-enacting that scene from HEY RAM where the rioters are being beaten back, and we see the Muslim surname on the officer’s chest.

    After scanning the list, I wrote to Udayan talking about my straw clutching. He wrote back from Kolkata:

    “The guy they keep showing on TV as a spokesman for the police is a Maj Gen Hooda.

    Sent from my Verizon Wireless BlackBerry.”


  9. Aarti,
    Liked this sane piece and even forwarded it to friends. But the invoking of Gandhi here was so false, even cliched.

    How did he fashion such a body, may I ask?


  10. If somebody has problem in using the language of the big powers, let them go to lick the feet of the terrorists, who supposedly are weaker powers (isn’t it all relative these days)? Let people survive and use any fucking language you like. I have given up some of my rights, I have had my privacy invaded in China, so have all the others; many in the so called democratic US, Britain have allowed the bigger power to supercede. As a result people don’t die there like dogs. Give me military, give me a dictator as long as the survival of the people is ensured. The terrorists should sometimes be allowed to show their muscle power; let them do it on the people who are sidelining the real issue. Let them kill some politicians; some people won’t feel the pinch unless they are given the same shoe to wear which many of us have worn. Come leviathon demonstrate your power. Save me from these dogs.


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