Consequences of fear
T P Sreenivasan
Last Updated : 31 Oct 2011 11:07:39 PM IST
Terrorism won its ultimate victory when fear gripped the world forever. We see the consequences of it everywhere. Nobody can envisage a world without elaborate security checks at airports, hotels and other public places. The effort, the inconvenience and the expenses incurred on security checks at airports flow out of fear. One of the symbols of a changed world after 9/11 is the security check, which makes people stand in line in different stages of undress to prove their innocence. Someone said that the worst punishment for Osama was not death, but a decree that he should go through security checks again and again at a US airport for the rest of his life. He would know only then the horrible heritage he had bequeathed.
The US changed more than the rest of the world after 9/11. It felt most vulnerable even with a nuclear arsenal, which could destroy the world many times over. It was stunned into the reality of the power of the future. The re-election of President Bush was itself a direct consequence of the fear America felt. The people of the US were convinced that no one else could ensure homeland security, which had become the new buzz word. No wonder he went after Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden in his war against terror. But the US strategy of dealing with enemies too changed out of the same fear. It does not assassinate its enemies or invade countries any more. It has found it necessary to use an uprising, if it exists, or invent one if it does not. ‘Do not meddle with the US; if you do, we will bring democracy to you’, seems to be the warning. In an earlier era, justice was swifter and action was more direct. Today, it is social networking that is used to ignite the fire of democracy that engulfs the once powerful dictators. Stealth rather than military strength plays the crucial role in bringing them to justice.
Those who may have watched the final moments of Saddam, Osama and Gaddafi may have noticed some common features. All of them lasted much longer than expected; the news of their death having been flashed across the globe long before they were found and executed. When their killings came, it looked as though it was a mere formality. We had come to expect the killings as they were seen by many as the enemy of the people. The Americans and NATO, as the case may be, were mere executioners. Questions even remained as to who pulled the trigger. The possibility of their own people having dealt the final blow was left open.
The new dispensation of regime change is catching on, but the question to be asked is whether it would have made any difference to the United States if the three had lived on. Did the movements that the West create to brand them as enemies go out of control? Was the final decision to eliminate them taken by the West or by the people who were ruled by them? Perhaps, the United States transferred their fear to the people of the world, particularly to the people of Iraq and Libya in the case of Saddam and Gaddafi. With short memories, the general public began to see them as dangerous and rejoiced in their elimination. The crowds in Benghazi did not look as though they were ruled for 42 years by the man who lay dead in a public mortuary.
The three men, who became villains in the eyes of the world, were not suddenly discovered as the causes or consequences of 9/11. The US had seen them as enemies even before. Saddam and Osama started off as benefactors of the US and beneficiaries of Western largesse. Gaddafi had challenged the US and the Western world in many ways on different occasions. But they were dealt with differently in the past. Senior Bush defanged him with the mother of all UN resolutions, which crippled Saddam’s government, but left him intact with minor doses of humanitarian injections. Osama and Al-Qaeda had inflicted wounds on the US in many parts of the globe, but he and his lethal outfit were not pursued with the same vigour as was done after 9/11. Gaddafi was allowed to survive even after Lockerbie. The sudden decision to eliminate him did not arise from a new threat, but from a new opportunity and the underlying reason to pull the trigger must have been the new fear that has gripped the West after 9/11.
The grim scenes of the death of the three men seemed to convey a message. They were found, after a long search and major sacrifices in men and material, as helpless humans with no power to defend themselves. Certainly, the message is that the US and the West will pursue their enemies to the last hideout, whether it is a drain, a secret cave or a fortified bungalow. The images of the three men at the mercy of American soldiers or their protégées will be a lesson to others who may inflict losses to the US or the Western world. It will not be long before local revolutions spring up in those countries, leading to humanitarian interventions and elimination of leaders who are out of step.
Fear is perhaps the most lethal of emotions and it can easily be transferred to countries and peoples by linking up even isolated incidents to certain individuals. The thought of a nuclear-armed Saddam had the whole world trembling and no one knew where Osama would strike the next. Who does not fear a ‘mad dog’ with a record of unpredictable behaviour? The protests were, therefore, drowned out by the jubilation over the advent of revolutions. Even the UN secretary general sounded jubilant over the killing of a man, whom his predecessors had escorted into the General Assembly several times in the past. No one saw any contradiction in a humanitarian intervention leading to the inhuman treatment of a man. Humanity seemed to heave a collective sigh that they did not have to fear one more source of danger to mankind.
The point to ponder is only whether the fear that engendered these killings was genuine or faked in order to eliminate enemies. The answer lies in the personalities of the leaders of the Western world today. Obama, Sarkozy, Cameron and Merkel are not Machiavellian enough to eliminate enemies brutally under a false pretext. They are gripped by genuine fear of harm to their people. But, in the ultimate analysis, fearful democratic leaders may do as much damage as fearsome dictators.
T P Sreenivasan is a former ambassador of India and governor for India of the IAEA. E-mail: email@example.com