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Of Foreigners and Terrorists

By: Poornima Apte Email By: Poornima Apte
February 2011
Of Foreigners and Terrorists

Early on in his book, A Foreigner Carrying in the Crook of his Arm a Tiny Bomb, writer Amitava Kumar recounts watching a documentary about the November 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai. He is convinced that one of the handlers in Pakistan, directing the terrorists by phone, is the embodiment of pure hatred. Yet, to Kumar, what is most arresting about the documentary is the voice of the terrorist at the other end. “When being urged to quickly set fire to the curtains and carpets in the opulent Taj Hotel, he is more interested in describing to his superiors the rooms that he says are large and lavish,” he explains. “I’m caught by the drama of the displaced provincial, the impoverished youth finding himself in the house of wealth,” Kumar adds.

Amid the senseless violence and mayhem of the attacks, it might be easy to paint the terrorists with one brush. But he subtly encourages us to question exactly what it was that brought this young man to this extreme action.


Kumar remembers taking up writing early. “I had come to Delhi from Patna to study, and had begun to put down on paper what I noticed about the world,” says Kumar, now a professor of English at Vassar College. The writing process for him then was part of an “urgent struggle to shape words so that they record life.”

Since then, his work has won him accolades both here in the United States and in India. In Foreigner, he takes a searing look at the war on terror both here and in India.

If there is a fundamental dictum that Kumar works by, it is a line by one of his favorite authors, Graham Greene: “Hate is just a failure of the imagination.” In Foreigner, Kumar repeatedly points out how hate truly is a failure of the imagination. He narrates several stories of ordinary people—some no more than petty criminals at worst—caught in the blinding headlights of the war on terror.

“A distancing [vision] allows individuals and families to blur into whole communities and nations. They are all collapsible into each other,” he writes. In other words, Kumar makes the case that the global war on terror has lead us to collectively suffer from a “failure of the imagination.”

Cause for reflection—A case for imagination

Through examples set both in India and the United States, Kumar lets the reader take a look not just at the person being painted as a terrorist, but at just how extreme (and sometimes even ridiculous) some of the governments’ arguments and methods have proved to be.

Kumar quotes Phil Rees, the author of Dining With Terrorists , who said, “The failure to define ‘terrorist’ means that the ‘war on terror’ can be used as a cloak to legitimize American military power because it portrays the challenge as a loosely defined threat that will never disappear. By being unable to explain exactly who is a terrorist, the ‘war on terror’ can [transform] into a war against any ideology that challenges America and her allies.”

“It is true not only of the U.S. but also of India,” says Kumar. One of the Indian cases he describes is that of a Kashmiri Muslim lecturer in Delhi, S.A.R. Geelani, who was captured by police as one of the prime suspects in the Delhi Parliament attacks. Geelani was finally released from custody but not before he was put through some horrific experiences—all because he looked and sounded like a terrorist.

“The terrorist can be someone with a Muslim name like S.A.R. Geelani but also be the writer Arundhati Roy who is articulating dissent. The terrorist can be a person who is suspected of planting a bomb, but it can also be a tribal who is demanding right to his land,” Kumar adds.

Geelani, when he was finally released from custody, said: “The acquittal of an innocent man is not an occasion for celebration, but a cause for reflection.”

And reflect Kumar does. In Foreigner, he decries the many human rights violations committed in the name of the war on terror—including, most outrageously, the use and sanction of torture. He re-emphasizes that confessions elicited as a result of torture do not provide sound intelligence. Despite proof of its ineffectiveness, there have been few if any efforts to outlaw torture.

Kumar wonders whether torture was ever an instrument of truth-seeking. “I’d suggest that it is more a way of inscribing power on the bodies of victims,” Kumar says. “Do I torture my enemy with iron prods or electric jolts on his genitalia because I hope he will tell me some names? Maybe. It is more likely, however, that I do so in order to make an example. You mutilate one man so that his body whispers to his brother, or his friend, the secret of his horrible suffering. This secret becomes a warning.”

Leaving aside views about the propriety of torture, which, we can acknowledge as unconditionally wrong regardless of effectiveness, it’s still important to play the devil’s advocate. One wonders if this “making an example” Kumar talks about can indeed be considered as having some deterrent value for some terrorists. This question becomes especially important in the face of contention from hawks who advocate terrorism: “Is it not worth it if it will help save a mass number of lives?”

Kumar remains undeterred. “We have had several justifications advanced for torture or for torture that doesn’t exceed a certain limit. So far, no one in the administration has tried to justify it by claiming it is a deterrent,” he says. “We can only count our blessings.” At the crux of the terrorism conundrum is the question: Are societies strong enough to risk self-annihilation for the sake of core values? Kumar believes they are.

As for the case of Geelani, it is but one of many set in India and described by Kumar in Foreigner. Kumar says the war on terror is being carried out in much the same horrific ways in India as it is in the United States. “Both share troubling similarities. Those conducting the war on terror in both countries operate with unimaginative stereotypes, not only about Muslims, but also about who or what can be a terrorist. I’m glad that in India, Tehelka has released Aseemanand’s recent confession about the involvement of Hindu groups in all kinds of bombings in India. It would be wonderful if all parties understood that no single community, and no single type, held monopoly over evil,” Kumar points out.

“The FBI successfully thwarts its own terror plot”

Back in the United States, one of the examples Kumar outlines in detail is that of Shahawar Matin Siraj, a twenty-four-year-old Pakistani immigrant living in Queens, who was found guilty of participating in a conspiracy to bomb a New York City subway station. Kumar systematically shows how Siraj’s case was close to one of entrapment.

A similar case described in Foreigner is that of Hemant Lakhani, who was described as a weapons trafficker, when in actuality he was an incapable person who loved to talk big. The defendant for Lakhani also argued that his case was one of entrapment and that the informant for the FBI, Habib Rehman, had been paid pretty handsomely for his services. In fact Kumar makes the argument that striking similarities show up when comparing the stories of Lakhani and his informant, Rehman. “Each one was a failed man in many ways, with more than a touch of desperation, dreaming of success. Both were immigrants, afraid of their perceived worthlessness, worried at the ways in which each plan they had devised had proved ineffectual. Each one had tried to impress the other about how he was at home in the West.” But beyond mere talk, nothing could have come of Lakhani’s involvement, Kumar points out.

A lot of similar stories of entrapment have made the news lately, instances of how the government supposedly nipped a terrorism act in the bud. A recent example, which was “front and center on all mainstream news channels,” was the incident at the Christmas tree-lighting ceremony in Portland, Oregon, where Mohamed Osman Mohamud, a teenaged Somali-born naturalized U.S. citizen, was arrested for a plot to bomb the ceremony. Kumar says he loved Salon columnist Glenn Greenwald’s response to the incident, which was, basically, “The FBI successfully thwarts its own terror plot.”

“What I have tried to show in my book is that entrapment is a flawed process because it finds suspects who might be culpable but aren’t capable. In most cases, these people are failures at nearly everything they have tried. No real terrorist would come to them for help,” Kumar says.

Apart from the fact that such methods often catch people who aren’t really capable of executing sophisticated acts of terrorism, there is also the danger of isolating an entire community. Kumar reminds us about what the journalist Amanda Ripley wrote in Time: “If the rumors of entrapment become so corrosive that no one in the Muslim American community feels safe talking to the FBI, then the government has lost its best potential ally.”

Entrapment could clam up an entire community. Sure, Kumar concedes, it may also discourage some potential terrorists from acting out and engaging in their motives for the fear that they could very well be courting CIA or FBI informants. But, considering the climate of suspicion such entrapment creates in Muslim communities, Kumar questions, “Is it worth it? Are you not losing your biggest potential ally?’ He adds that while the planting of informants might help “monitor communities,” it does so by also planting suspicion. “Do you think Muslim communities in the United States trust the FBI after its repeated use of informants? The problem is that, at the end, people in these communities can trust neither the FBI nor each other,” Kumar says. “In other words, you have gained nothing and you’ve destroyed the social fabric (of a community).”

“You know what is great, however? In Irvine, California, the people at a mosque last November were disturbed by the violent rhetoric of one of the worshippers. After a while, they felt they had no option left but to call the FBI. They did—and it turned out this man was an FBI undercover agent,” he adds.

Geopolitical failings

Kumar says that despite its initial promise, the Obama administration is not much different from the previous one when it comes to practices related to the war on terror. “More civilians have died as a result of drone attacks under President Obama’s orders than they did under the previous administration,” Kumar observes. “The wars have grown in size. Guantanamo hasn’t been shut down.” In Foreigner, Kumar also points out that “the Obama administration has announced that it will not end renditions, and will continue to send terrorism suspects to third countries for detention and interrogation.”

In November, President Obama visited India and paid homage to the victims of the 26/11 Mumbai terrorist attacks. At the memorial ceremony held at the Taj Hotel, the president said: “Just as our people prayed together at candlelight vigils, our governments have worked closer than ever, sharing intelligence, preventing more attacks, and demanding that the perpetrators be brought to justice. Indeed, today, the United States and India are
working together more closely than ever to keep our people safe.  And I look forward to deepening our counterterrorism cooperation even further when I meet with Prime Minister Singh in New Delhi.”

Kumar is suspicious about what form this new cooperation might take. “I don’t know what exactly has been happening in recent months. If the U.S agencies had really shared information that they appeared to have had about David Headley and his involvement with the Lashkar-e-Taiba, as well as his missions in India, then I’d have called it cooperation,” Kumar says. “We found out instead that he had been an agent for the U.S., working for the DEA. I see more complicity than cooperation,” he adds.

A profitable and vast “terrorism industrial complex”

Given the current political landscape in the United States, it is unclear whether policies for the war on terror will change any time soon. Kumar cites a couple of the following nuggets from “Top Secret America,” Dana Priest and William Arkin’s investigative report in the Washington Post.

In other words, says Kumar, “We are dealing with a rapidly expanding, highly profitable ‘terrorism industrial complex.’ In an economy stuck in recession, do you think any politician is even interested in changing the status quo? It would require a different type of vision to help us see that we are only feeding the cancer that will devour us.”

A tag line summarizing the Top Secret America report informs, “The government has built a national security and intelligence system so big, so complex and so hard to manage, no one really knows if it's fulfilling its most important purpose: keeping its citizens safe.” The report also questions the effectiveness of such a vast, complex system. Specific concerns it raises include:

What can we, the people, do?

Failing a substantial reboot of policies toward detainees and related areas, he believes there are baby steps average citizens can take to ensure best outcomes. “Don’t get your news from Fox,” Kumar advises. “Try to find access to alternative sources of news. Become critical citizens. Don’t be party to a fear-mongering, nakedly Islamophobic, war-hungry political system.”

Speaking of Fox, Kumar takes pointed jabs at mainstream media (including the New York Times) in Foreigner, leading one to understand that they have not explored the kinds of complexities Kumar reveals in the book. Interestingly enough, Comedy Central’s The Daily Show and its host Jon Stewart (who was recently hailed as one of the primary forces behind the 9-11 bill making its way through Congress), gets Kumar’s (cautious) approval. Kumar, who had just watched Stewart’s response to the Arizona shootings, says he likes Stewart “because unlike the mainstream media [Stewart] isn’t interested in simply assigning blame. Most important, he is looking at a more complex picture which can’t be reduced to the easy-to-digest, cliché-filled drivel that substitutes for thought in our daily papers,” Kumar adds.

Kumar believes that people like Wikileaks’ Julian Assange are doing important work, describing Assange’s role as the novelist for the age of the surveillance state. “There is much to be said, I’m sure, about the need to exercise caution or question motivations when secrets are leaked. But I am entirely in favor of some light being let into the darkness,” Kumar says. “Allow us as citizens to witness what is being done in our name. Let us have a chance to measure the distance that divides public statements from private ones,” he adds.

A need for better perspective on the terrorism threat is also something Kumar talks about.
“The Rand Corporation found that our fear of terrorism is highly exaggerated. If you count the number of terrorist acts in this country since September 11, there have been less than 50 instances of American citizens or long-time residents attempting to commit terror. Now, compare this to what happened in the 1970s, when, as the report points out, we had around 70 terrorist incidents a year. From January 1969 to April 1970, for example, the U.S. witnessed 4,330 bombings, 43 deaths, and $22 million of property damage.”

“We badly need some perspective,” Kumar adds, “There is threat of terror, yes, but there is also an irrational fear, even prejudice, that turns it into a more menacing reality.”

Of societies and terrorists

Given its approach from the left end of the political spectrum, one worries that the readers who pick up Kumar’s Foreigner, might be ones already in tune with its message—a case of preaching from the choir. Kumar says he doesn’t have such concerns. “I wrote the book for myself,” he says. “I didn’t write the book so that a CIA contractor who was torturing someone in Afghanistan could learn from it, nor did I think it would educate a lawyer for the government who was prosecuting an accidental terrorist. I wrote the book primarily to learn, for my own sake, what changes had come into our society.”

“You have to understand that the war on terror is, for the most part, a secret thing. We get glimpses of it in newspaper headlines or in brief footage on our television when spectacular arrests are made. I wanted to go deeper; I wanted to meet a terrorist face-to-face. Kumar’s self-described “documentary impulse” is strong and alive in Foreigner.

“A stereotype scripts the story of people’s lives in a thousand defeating ways,” Kumar reminds us in the book, “and we owe it to all our social selves to produce new stories, with many exits, U-turns, detours and destinations.”

Kumar’s A Foreigner Carrying in the Crook of his Arm a Tiny Bomb does just that. It sheds light on the human costs of the global war on terror and reminds us that the unwitting victims caught in the dragnet are more than just a statistic—they are real people like you and me. Almost as sobering is the realization that by zeroing in on these peripheral targets, the war on terror has become even more misguided and expensive than we have known it to be.

The Kumar Collection

Amitava Kumar, a Hindu Indian native, is married to a Pakistani Muslim. The two met in New York City. “ My family was, for the most part, very generous and enlightened about it,” Kumar says, when asked about his family’s reaction to his marriage, “Other co-religionists of mine were less so. We happened to get married during the Kargil War, and I wrote an editorial called ‘Marriage for Peace.’ A right-wing Hindu group in this country put me on its ‘Hit List.’ That name was later changed to ‘Black List,’” Kumar adds. The experiences from the reactions to his marriage formed the basis for one of his earlier books, Husband of a Fanatic.

Other books of his include Bombay- London- New York, which is a chronicle of the immigrant experience. Circling the three capitals of the Indian diaspora, Bombay- London- New York captures the contours of the expatriate experience, touching on the themes of abandonment, nostalgia, and exile that have powered some of the most prominent Indian writers today.

Passport Photos , one of Kumar’s earliest books, also trains its lens on the immigrant narrative and focuses as well on transnational identities and globalization.

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