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Our violent fetish

One of the most glaring contradictions of the modern world is the coexistence of so much death, destruction and wanton violence alongside humanity’s stupendous advances in virtually all spheres of life.

Just this past Monday Hajrah Mumtaz wrote on these pages about the fact that humanity now generates as much knowledge every two days as it did in its entire history before 2003.

But how do we reconcile such spectacular facts with the reality that so much of our collective knowledge is at the service of monstrous war establishments? This contradiction is no more evident than in the case of what is currently the most cutting-edge and controversial technology of war — the unmanned drone.

Once one gets past much of the superficial shadow boxing that goes on in this country over drones it becomes obvious that the technology provides us a window into the future of human ‘civilisation’. And a terrifying and dehumanised future it is.

For all intents and purposes, war is becoming a game that is played with joysticks thousands of miles away from where the actual bombs are being dropped. It matters not a jot whether or not drone strikes are permitted under international law; if past history is any guide, the law will soon be changed to accommodate humanity’s latest technological advance.

Recall that successive Pakistani governments have railed against drones, but have also quietly noted that their opposition is not so much to the technology itself but to the fact that the state’s ‘sovereignty’ is being violated by a foreign power.

In an ideal world, the Pakistani state would be using drones itself to kill ‘terrorists’ of its own volition (while continuing to prop up selected ‘strategic assets’ both in its border zones and elsewhere in the country). So much for sovereignty of the people.

Having said this, many patriotic people in this country harbour a similarly ambiguous stand vis-à-vis drones, and, for that matter, all other destructive technologies.

It is, for example, never lost on me that many well-educated and urbane Pakistanis remain convinced that our nuclear capacity is our biggest source of collective pride.

Why a country in which a majority of people remain deprived of basic necessities such as clean drinking water, sanitation, education and health should be proud of possessing the bomb is, of course, a moot question.

The nationalistic frenzy associated with possessing means of violence is reflected in the realm of popular culture.

Take, for instance, the hullabaloo that has been generated by the recently released motion picture Waar. One does not even have to watch the film to realise that it falls comfortably into the category of propaganda material, regardless of whether or not its makers intended this to be the case.

It would be quite enough if our violent fetish was limited to ‘cheering on the boys’ from a distance. Sadly, violence is also celebrated in everyday Pakistan, across urban-rural divides. Guns are touted, and vengefulness considered a mark of honour.

The mix of ‘feudal’ values, the ruthlessness of the urban environment and a formal system of justice that is everything but just produces an explosive and hard-to-break cycle of violence.

This is not to suggest that most people in this country have a propensity to violent behaviour. Women in particular are usually the victims and hardly ever the perpetrators.

In any case, even when we frown upon everyday instances of violence, and sometimes resist them actively, we do not question the statist discourses of violence that are slowly but surely taking us towards a dystopic world of endless conflicts waged with newer and meaner war technologies.

To return once again to the issue of drones: it is quite telling that Pakistanis with a liberal bent of mind tend to look at the use of ‘surgical strikes’ against ‘terrorists’ as necessary (regardless of whether they are being conducted by Washington or anyone else).

I have already suggested above that too much of the ‘debate’ on drones barely scratches the surface and I do not intend to wade into it here.

I only wish to make the point that in a world in which political conflicts — particularly those pitting powerful states against weaker non-state forces — are hardly about to go away, where and when will the limits be imposed on the defenders of ‘civilisation’ who control the use of drones and other such technology?

Will liberals still be comfortable with drones when GHQ gets its hands on them? At what point will we stop giving in to short-term considerations driven by alarmism and recognise the long-term implications of our technological ‘achievements’?

The ‘father’ of the A-bomb, Robert Oppenheimer lived much of his life regretting his ‘invention’ after its real impacts became clear. He epitomised the paradox of the modern condition, his person responsible both for transcending existing knowledge frontiers and creating the most utterly destructive instrument of war that human beings had ever seen.

Only time will tell whether or not humanity can move beyond this paradox. Pakistanis ought to concern themselves with decidedly less epic tasks, such as debunking the myth that possessing means of violence is something of which to be proud.

That such ideas remain powerful even after 66 years during which the contrary has been proven to us time and again can be explained only by the vice-like grip that the men in khaki continue to maintain over both our material lives and our minds.

We can take for granted that our violent fetish will continue to be fed by a militaristic state. Neither should it surprise us if anti-state forces of various kinds also continue to employ violent methods. Only when a critical mass of ordinary people generates the political will to interrupt this cycle will things change.

We come no closer to creating this critical mass by decrying ‘terrorism’ on the one hand and then fantasising about our own jets, missiles and bombs on the other.

The writer teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.

Aasim Sajjad Akhtar, "Our violent fetish," Dawn. 2013-10-25.
Keywords: Social sciences , Social issues , Social crisis , Social needs , Government-Pakistan , Humanity , Terrorists , Terrorism , Vioelence , Hajrah Mumtaz , Pakistan