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WHAT should have been a period of quiet introspection is unfortunately being marred by a preparation for war. A war that few understand and even fewer support. There is no minimizing the horror, the inhumanity of the recent terrorist attacks on the U.S., attacks resulting in the death of thousands, all non-combatants. Few nations have experienced such a cataclysmic act, unexpected, unforeseen. One is thus not surprised by the demand for retribution.

But is a war, one that will result in the death and destruction of thousands of innocent lives of people already victims, who have nothing to do with the acts of terrorism, an answer? Even more disturbing is the rhetoric of a ‘clash of civilizations’, whether drawn on ethno-religions lines or by demarcating ‘democracies’ from others. The demand that nations stand up and be counted in ‘the first war of the new millennium’ is both jingoistic and unthinking.

The impending danger has, fortunately, activated voices of peace and sanity. For a start, even in countries which offered unconditional support to the U.S., the refrain against unilateral action is growing. Commentators have pointed out that previous American or NATO strikes against individuals/countries suspected of terrorism were not just illegal, ethically unjustifiable and politically inefficacious, they resulted in the death of ‘innocent civilians’. In both Libya and Sudan, it turned out that the ‘intelligence’ informing the U.S. action was wrong!

In refusing to learn from its past mistakes, the U.S. will only be acting as a ‘state terrorist’, further adding to the ranks of those who perceive it and its policies as evil. Equally, if it has to construct a larger consensus for the war against terrorism, it has both to eschew its policy of selective morality as also come to terms with its dubious global role in the past. After all, its complicity in training various terrorist groups, including the one currently under scrutiny, is public knowledge.

Already the whipping up of passions has claimed its victims. Minority ethnic groups, those with Arab/Muslim names and looks, from the Middle East and South Asia, have become targets of racial attacks. In not nipping this dangerous tendency in the bud, in succumbing to a siege mentality, American society is in danger of losing what it most values – a free, open, tolerant and democratic culture. Does this not represent a victory for the forces of terrorism?

What about due process and international law? Is it justified, on the basis of insufficient current evidence, to ‘decide’ that Bin Laden and the Taliban regime, much as they are reprehensible, are responsible and then set into motion a process to ‘take them out’ – dead or alive? Will that be done by invoking international covenants against terrorism and crimes against humanity, enforcing sanctions, sending in troops or carpet-bombing suspected hideouts? And will or can it stop at that? Will not the conflict escalate to other regions and countries?

The danger is particularly acute for those of us in the neighbourhood. The alacrity with which the Indian government offered to get involved in the ‘global war against terrorism’ has caused grave disquiet, more so if the intention was to place Pakistan on the spot. We have our problems with our western neighbour, particularly in its sponsoring of cross-border terrorism. But a destabilization of regimes and societies, Afghanistan and Pakistan, which military action will inevitably result in, is unlikely to leave us unscathed. If anything, it will add to the ranks of the disaffected, willing to use ‘whatever’ means to meet their objectives.

If to explain away terrorism as the ‘ultimate weapon of the weak’, ‘the sigh of oppressed people worldwide’ is romantic and mistaken, so is not recognizing that it feeds on and is nurtured by both real and perceived/constructed feelings of grievance. All so often one man’s terrorist is the other persons freedom fighter. That is why purely military or law and order responses invariably fail to meet their objectives.

The instrumental use of violence against non-combatants through terrorist acts or carpet bombing is reprehensible. One may reflect the prerogative of states, the other of armed opposition groups. The fact that one is a weaker party may help us understand its action; it does not provide a moral justification. By making all locations, all persons ‘legitimate’ targets of potential violence, even for a ‘worthwhile cause’, terrorism undercuts the very roots of an open society. It helps consolidate regressive tendencies.

Those who created this havoc must be bought to justice and swiftly. But the process must be open, transparent, within the framework of rules that we have agreed upon and without converting the ‘uninvolved’ into cannon fodder. This is difficult but not impossible. ‘No Terrorism, No War’ – that should be our slogan.

Harsh Sethi