Published : Dec 02, 2005 00:00 IST

At the Hall of Names in the Yad Vashem Holocaust History Museum in Jerusalem, pictures of Jews who were killed in the Shoah (the Hebrew word for the Holocaust). The Nazi Holocaust of Jews, communists and Gypsies is a classic example of state terrorism conducted against a vast segment of the population within the national territory. - Emilio Morenatti/AP

At the Hall of Names in the Yad Vashem Holocaust History Museum in Jerusalem, pictures of Jews who were killed in the Shoah (the Hebrew word for the Holocaust). The Nazi Holocaust of Jews, communists and Gypsies is a classic example of state terrorism conducted against a vast segment of the population within the national territory. - Emilio Morenatti/AP

"TERROR" is an odd word. In very influential European theories of the Aesthetic, from Edmund Burke and S.T. Coleridge down, a sense of Terror was part of what distinguished the Sublime from other kinds of experiences of `Beauty'. In a number of currents in Modernism - German Expressionism, for example - Terror was what was sought to be captured on the canvas, not as the Sublime, in the Burkean sense, but as a property of the modern in its negative aspects: the negative Sublime of lost connections and meanings, as it were. This is the sense we find in the philosophies of Friedrich Nietzsche and Sren Kierkegaard, Fyodor Dostoevsky's fiction, and the writings of later existentialists. When Fredric Jameson speaks of mere pastiche and "depthlessness" as fundamental properties of postmodernist art, he might as well be saying that Terror, in both the Burkean as well as the Dostoevskyan senses, now disappears from this kind of art. You have neither the Sublime nor the negative Sublime; the aesthetic saturates the commercial side of the market precisely to the extent that the market saturates the art practice. That other kinds of art practice - inspired by the Left, or by modernism or the pre-modern - continue in the lower depths of these postmodern times is certainly true, but that fact tells us nothing about what is now dominant and uppermost.

In the politico-military sphere, meanwhile, early 19th century also gave rise to three terms: guerilla warfare, war of national liberation and terror. We owe the term "guerilla warfare" to the Spanish resistance against Napoleonic armies, connoting armed action by small groups and even individuals, which observed no rules of regular warfare, against the regular army of occupation. The term "war of national liberation" we owe to the German philosopher J.G. Fichte who endorsed such a war against French occupation of Germany, and the term was meant to distinguish between illegitimate war (of occupation) and legitimate war (for liberation). Many anti-colonial movements of the 20th century adopted this term and, in practice, much of what went on in wars of national liberation took the form of guerilla warfare. I am not quite sure where the term `terror', in the modern political sense, was used for the first time. From Blanqui onwards, surely, this term was used for a kind of violent action that was centred mainly on assassination and was then extended to cover all sorts of armed action by small, elite, self-referential groups against a state authority they considered illegitimate. Anti-Tsarist groups in Russia used this method frequently, and certain armed groups which arose in India against British colonialism were known as "revolutionary terrorists", as distinguished from those who agitated through peaceful means.

"State terrorism", as a term and as widespread premeditated practice, belongs mainly to the 20th century. Civilian, non-combatant populations have always suffered from wars, and mass murder of such populations was a routine practice on the part of colonising armies across the world. However, it was only in the 20th century that modern states began to use "state terrorism" on a mass scale as a declared instrument of policy and strategy. The Nazi Holocaust against Jews, communists and Gypsies is a classic example of state terrorism conducted against a vast segment of the population within the national territory. Anglo-American fire-bombing of the city of Dresden toward the end of the Second World War and American use of the nuclear bomb against the civilian populations of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are equally classic examples of state terror conducted by one state against the populations of another.

This would bear reiteration. Non-combatant civilian populations have always suffered from warfare, from dictatorships and coercive labour regimes of domestic rulers, and from occupation by foreign armies. But it was really in the 20th century, and increasingly so as decades went by, that mass state terrorism became an instrument of policy for modern governments, including, most notably, those governments who speak the most loudly of freedom, democracy, rule of law and so forth. Winston Churchill was an unabashed advocate of using chemical and biological warfare against "uncivilised" peoples - that is, against the colonised, especially in Africa. Britain invented the weapons of mass destruction, in the biological and chemical arenas, and the U.S. perfected them, in those arenas as well as in the nuclear field. German Nazis only used the less developed chemical weapons, in their concentration camps; the U.S. distinguished itself by dropping the atom bomb on civilian populations in Japan and using the napalm bombs routinely in Indo-China, not to speak of a variety of chemical weapons used in the ongoing invasion of Iraq. In sum, state terrorism practised by democratic states has harmed infinitely more people - millions and millions and millions more people - than all the terrorism (what I would call `retail terrorism') practised by individuals and groups that are not sponsored by states, such as the infamous Al Qaeda.

Black slaves killed, poisoned, attacked their masters on the plantations in southern U.S. History books do not refer to that as terrorism. They are called `slave rebellions' and are treated as justifiable acts against the institution of slavery. The same applies to the tactics used by the French Resistence against Nazi occupation, in which famous writers like Rene Char, Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre and Samuel Beckett fought on the side of the Resistence. And, the same applies to the Algerian War of Independence which included the tactic of placing bombs in shops and cafes frequented by the French. That was captured wonderfully in the film Battle of Algiers later, but Sartre and many other French intellectuals had refused even at that time to condemn the Algerian tactics because they said that these were the same tactics that the French Resistence itself had used against German occupiers. Not to speak of the fact that the scale of state terrorism - the mass killings, the regimes of torture and rape - which the French army of occupation had instituted in Algeria far exceeded anything that the counter-terror of the FLN (National Liberation Front) could muster. In short, objective criteria exist whereby we can distinguish between a kind of violence that can be viewed and condemned as "terrorism" and other kinds of violence that is frequently used in combat for national liberation from foreign occupation. The singular undertaking of the current U.S. administration is that it repudiates the fundamental premises of international humanitarian law such as the Geneva Conventions; it practices and justifies all kinds of violence, including extensive torture and bombings against vast civilian populations, when that violence is undertaken by itself and such democratic states as Britain; and it designates as "terrorism" all kinds of violence - the revolutionary as well as the nihilistic - that arises against foreign occupation, be it in Iraq or Palestine.

THE U.S. war against Iraq has gone through two phases. In the first phase, lasting for well over a decade, Iraq was not only subjected to economic sanctions, questionable under international law, but also to an unremitting regime of U.S.-U.K. bombings against civilian populations and infrastructures, in clear violation of international law. The second phase, that of a war of actual occupation, began in the third week of March 2003 with bombings so intense that in total tonnage terms, the first three days of bombing equalled several Hiroshimas. The U.S. used a specific term for those bombings: "Campaign to Shock and Awe." Significant term. Very close to "Terror". Who was terrorised? Surely the population that was subjected to it. But populations around the world watched those bombings on television, and heard unrelenting commentaries by "embedded" journalists as well as studio-perfected newscasters. The corporate media - the market - thus brought that "Shock and Awe" into the privacy of our homes, with an intensity of image, colour and sound that would be the envy of Hollywood. We were physically safe in our homes but, psychologically, we too were shocked and awed. War movies, and televised war; market and empire; twins. One had to pinch oneself and remind oneself that the "Shock and Awe" one was witnessing on television was not a movie but real life, brought to us, the non-victims of war, with all the production values of a movie. But that "Shock and Awe" entered our bones, like a chill. The invincibility of U.S. power, in all its brute reality. On May 1, 2003, U.S. President George W. Bush donned military fatigue, climbed on to the top of a U.S. warship and announced "victory". Some 16 months later, in its October 2003 issue, a prestigious scientific journal in Great Britain, Lancet, published a report compiled by a group of U.S. and British scientists which concluded that roughly 100,000 Iraqis had died since the beginning of the occupation of their country by foreign forces, the famous "coalition of the willing", of which South Korea was a member.

One hundred thousand dead in just over a year and a half! Is that impressive? Well, perhaps. But only if one forgets that it was the second phase of the war on Iraq, the phase of occupation. What about the first phase? The phase of economic sanctions and aerial bombings, which "softened" Iraq for occupation! On January 20, 2003, two months before the war of occupation began, Edward S. Herman, a distinguished scholar of State Terrorism, had written:

"The numbers killed in Iraq have already been impressive: estimates run from 1-1.5 million, about half of them small children. Back in 1996, Madeleine Albright conceded on national TV that 500,000 children might have died as a result of sanctions, but she said this was `worth it'. Karl and John Mueller, writing in Foreign Affairs ("Sanctions of Mass Destruction", May/June 1999), concluded that the sanctions had killed more Iraqis than had been killed by `all the weapons of mass destruction in human history'."

I read in this morning's newspaper that the estimated Iraqi reserves of 115 million barrels of oil, which already puts it next only to Saudi Arabia and Iran in such riches of West Asia, are only a fraction of what they might eventually turn out to be. Only a small part of the country has been surveyed so far, the report says, and the eventual reserves may go as far up as 40 billion barrels. "No Blood for Oil" is the slogan of the anti-war movement in the U.S. A good slogan. But, under the circumstances, unrealistic. Blood has been shed, in vast quantities. More blood shall be shed, in perhaps greater quantities. But the blood of others. Arab blood. Asian blood. Not the blood of the corporate owners of this world who wish to inherit the oil, and who would gladly shed that blood of others.

Blood is odd. The blood of some seems to matter more than the blood of others. Someone at a press conference asks Donald Rumsfeld, the U.S. Defence Secretary, how many Iraqis might have died under U.S. occupation. "We don't do body counts," he says contemptuously. But every American who dies gets counted. Iraqis are the ones who don't seem to matter, in life or in death. They can get killed, but not counted. The U.S. mourns its own dead. Even so, the U.S. dead are brought back secretly, their caskets don't get shown on television, they are not buried with a public ceremony that might be filmed and televised. The fear is that any such public viewing, again and again, might inflame public sentiment against the war. It is an informal but strict censorship, and the media complies. And this corporate media complies so gladly because the dead come overwhelmingly from the poorest classes. The U.S. maintains a voluntary army, and only the poor, usually from the racial minorities, do the volunteering and the dying. Not a single relative of the President, the Vice-President, the numerous members of their Cabinet, members of their staff, members of the U.S. Congress, heads of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), etc. - not one relative of all those people has died in the war they have collectively unleashed. A war made by the rich, to serve the rich. Fought by the poor, who are hidden from public view even when they die.

IN this world of `war' and `terror', which repudiates all universalist values, death too is relativised. The death of some is worse than the death of others. September 11, 2001. A bunch of hijackers, freelance seekers of martyrdom, ram their hijacked planes into two legendary buildings, the Twin Towers of the World Trade Centre in New York, killing roughly 3,000 people. I had just arrived in Toronto from New Delhi, to teach there for a few months as a Visiting Professor, and watched it all on television as a horrid human tragedy was turned into a Spectacle of historic proportions. The Twin Towers just kept collapsing across the television screen all day, in fire and smoke and gore, almost ritualistically, while the caption "America Under Attack" just hung there in a corner of the screen. Commentator after commentator kept assuring us that it was the largest attack ever mounted on continental U.S., and, after a while, I started thinking: how unique, how privileged a country has to be to have lived its entire history without ever having suffered an attack on its own soil that took 3,000 lives! Is it possible for an Asian to even imagine a country that has been so safe from foreign invasion? And how many countries has the U.S. attacked during the very period when it has been so immune to attack by others?

Who died? The World Trade Centre was surely the symbol of imperial trade and finance. Yet, I kept wondering, as the image of that singular act of destruction was repeated on television screens ad nauseum, what "America" it was that was "Under Attack"? As one who had often visited those Towers during my sojourns in New York, I knew that most of the menial work there - in the basements, in the cafeterias - was done by undocumented workers and illegal immigrants, mainly from Latin America. As a South Asian, I knew that large numbers of the young professionals who worked in those offices were from my part of the world, which inevitably included large number of Muslims, from Pakistan and Bangladesh, and from India as well. In addition, there were also considerable number of Muslim Arabs, Malaysians, Indonesians, Africans working in the various trade offices and financial enterprises in those Towers. Death had been merciless, caring for neither race nor religion as thousands perished. Yet, one was caught between two streams of one's own consciousness. The public, official discourse I was hearing was one of `Clash of Civilisations' between barbaric Islamic fundamentalism and the American-Occidental democratic societies, unmindful of the demographic variety among the dead. Privately, as a South Asian with social links with some West Asian and South-East Asian groupings in New York, I was viscerally, mournfully aware of how many of us had died. I soon came to know of a residential community of Pakistanis on the outskirts of Princeton, in New Jersey and not far from New York City, where most parents had worked in offices of the Twin Towers and had died in that attack; dozens of those Pakistani children became orphans that morning. Still later, I also came to hear of those undocumented workers from South and Central America who had worked and died on the lower floors of those Towers but whose families could not come forward to claim their dead because, in that case, they would be identifying themselves as illegal aliens subject to deportation. Complexities of class and race which had brought together all these diverse peoples in the World Trade Centre, from some of the richest white men in the top floors to the undocumented menial workers in the basements and the kitchens and the laundrettes, was a mirror image of corporate globalisation under U.S. hegemony, on the soil of the U.S. itself.

September 11, 2001. About a quarter of those who died were Muslims, not American, not white. For the undocumented workers in the underbelly of the Towers, there was no body count. The corporate media was noticeably uninterested in the Pakistani orphans in that suburb of Princeton, New Jersey, because those media were devoted to televising it all as "Attack on America" in a grand confrontation between barbaric Islam and the civilised West. The next morning, on the 12th, Condoleezza Rice, then the National Security Adviser to President Bush and now the U.S. Secretary of State, assembled her staff and put a question to them: "How do we take advantage of this opportunity?" Not far from her office, in the Cabinet Room itself, Rumsfeld argued that morning in favour of an immediate attack on Iraq, and the then Secretary of State, Colin Powell, had a difficult time arguing that the invasion of Iraq required more careful and prolonged preparation while Afghanistan, the softer target, easier to conquer, should be attacked first. Two days later, on September 14, the U.S. Senate passed a resolution which said, inter alia: "The President is authorised to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organisations, or persons he determines planned, authorised, committed, or aided the terrorist acts that occurred on September 11, 2001..." The U.S. Constitution gives only to the U.S. Congress the power to declare war; in one stroke, that power was transferred to the President alone - he alone was to "determine" who was to be attacked. On September 20, President Bush addressed a joint session of the two houses of the U.S. Congress, and said: "Every nation in every region has a decision to make... either you are with us or with the terrorists." Moreover, this "war on international terrorism" (a new phrase introduced into the vocabulary of the global media, hence of the world itself) was going to be permanent ("a task that never ends", he said), global (to be waged in 50 or 60 countries, he said) and largely covert and invisible. Less than one month after the attacks of September 11, 2001, Tony Blair, the British Prime Minister who plays second fiddle to President Bush in global affairs, permitted himself a characteristic flight of high rhetoric. "This is a moment to seize," he said. "The kaleidoscope has been shaken, the pieces are in flux, soon they will settle again. Before they do, let us reorder this world around us..."

"Reorder the world!" These are the marching orders. The U.S. released a list of 20 persons, all dead now, who are said to have hijacked those plans and mounted those attacks. Fifteen of them were nationals of Saudi Arabia. Not one was a national of either Afghanistan or Iraq. No evidence has ever been presented to show that the Afghanistan government "planned, authorised, committed, or aided" that attack; that government offered to extradite Osama bin Laden in the care of the Pakistan government, so that he could stand trial in accordance with Islamic and international law. The U.S. did not accept the offer and invaded Afghanistan instead, to occupy it; Bin Laden is still at large. Saddam Hussein, a ferocious but secular autocrat, despised Bin Laden, and Bin Laden, despising Saddam Hussein as a heretic, tried to have him assassinated. Not a shred of evidence exists to prove any links between Bin Laden's Al Qaeda and the Saddam Hussein regime. But Iraq too was invaded and occupied. Syria has a deeply secular regime, with a social base primarily among the Alawites, a branch of Shiism considered heretic by the strand of Sunni Islam to which Bin Laden subscribes. And yet, as I write these lines, Syria is the next in the line of fire. "Reorder the world," Tony Blair says, echoing George W. Bush.

There is far too much "terror" in this world. The retail, small-scale terror of individuals and secret little groups; and massive, methodical, large-scale state terror conducted routinely by the most powerful states of the world, who often happen to be the oldest, most self-congratulatory liberal democracies in the world. One kind of terror does not excuse the other kind, and anyone who cares for ethics or for human life can condone neither the one kind of terror nor the other. But one does need a sense of proportion. The most spectacularly successful act of group terror produced roughly 3,000 deaths in New York; the routine terror conducted by the leading democratic states have produced anywhere between one and two million corpses in Iraq alone. President Bush promises to take this war to 50 or 60 countries. I repeat: no one's terror need be condoned, but we do need some sense of proportion. And some perspective: Iraq was in no way complicit with the events of September 11, 2001 - indeed, Saddam Hussein was an enemy of Bin Laden - but the country was invaded and occupied in the name of "war against terror". That cynicism has produced more than a 100,000 corpses, so far.

I HAVE used words - old-fashioned words - that artists, at least, should understand: "proportion", "perspective", and so on. So lacking in the world of those who conduct terror and those who make war, in these dark times. So fundamental to the world of painting, sculpture, narrative. What kind of art would be appropriate for a world so lacking in the very basic values - practical, compositional values - which have historically made art what it has been in some of its most moving and profound moments? Perhaps, in the first instance, a negation of the kind of art which is now dominant, under the sign of the postmodern, as a close cousin of the entertainment and advertising industries, with its depthless, celebratory surfaces. Perhaps a return to some kind of Realism, to that moment in the history of Realist narration, in particular, when something like the old-fashioned Epic, with its inherent possibilities of the tragic, was still conceivable in Europe - and is still conceivable in the best of the arts of what gets called "The Third World". Perhaps that moment in Modernism when Modernism had not yet forgotten its own roots in Realism itself, and had attempted to resolve some problems, with respect to representation of the social, for which the High Realism of 19th century Europe had come to be seen as inadequate and uni-dimensional: Franz Kafka, Bertolt Brecht, Charlie Chaplin before the end of the Second World War. The best of Cubism - Picasso's "Guernica", for instance - came out of that, as well as the original impulse for what later became surrealism, starting, in an intensely political move, with Aime Cesaire's Return to My Native Land. The futurism of Vladimir Mayakovsky's poetry, the film theory of Sergei Eisenstein. The lean, dark tones of Goya's paintings of war and deprivation; the grim, opulent super-realism of the novel in the hands of a Miguel Asturias or a Gabriel Garcia Marquez. In English, in our own time, the poetry of Adrienne Rich. In the realm of the novelistic narrative at least, Realism still lives, from the Carribean to the Arab world, in the work of those who seek to portray, in words, the terrible dialectic of possession and dispossession.

I do not explicate here the shape of a "tradition". Rather, just a few notations. A few items, among many others, to look back on. Art, like life, cannot go forward without a past that sustains it. And, what are these notations about? Past agonies - and darings - of those others who tried to represent the unrepresentable. For the sake of an art that is true to the being of those who suffer.

War and Terror in our time produce much suffering. We need, among other things, an art which speaks to that which causes that suffering. Going to the root of things. Not the surface, but the root. That is the secret life of all the art that is worth the name.

This essay was written for a new South Korean journal which is being published by a group of young artists and art critics. The topic was given to the author by the editors.

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