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Test of liberal democracy

Terrorism raises new moral questions. But real victory lies in sticking to our values even in adversity, writes Barkha Dutt.

india Updated: Jun 12, 2009 20:48 IST

Kasab is one of the great under-told stories of our time. There may not be any other case in recent history that says as much about us a country — and in a good way. To watch a ten-year old hobble in on her crutches, (crippled in one leg by Kasab’s indiscriminate bullets) and quietly, but firmly, identify the terrorist, is to know in a searingly poignant way that the rule of law has prevailed despite the most ferocious provocation. And in spite of attempts by assorted goons to prevent Kasab from getting a lawyer, it has all ultimately been made possible by the courageous stoicism of the families who suffered in the 26/11 attacks.

That the trial is proceeding with some order after an entire country has seen the pictures of him embracing his Ak-47 (each magazine held 30 rounds; he fired 180 rounds) is a miracle in itself. India has reason to be proud.

Yet the trial got me thinking. In the age of terrorism, can due process of law always be guaranteed? Does it remain not just a desirable, but also a mandatory principle for all liberal democracies? It’s a question the entire world is grappling with. A small item on the international pages of the papers this week caught my eye. Six British police officers had been suspended after they were accused of subjecting suspects in a drugs-bust to “waterboarding”.

A controversial CIA technique of interrogation that simulates drowning, waterboarding was banned by President Obama in one of his first decisions after taking charge. Obama stuck to his decision even after media reports that his own national intelligence director has circulated a private memo among colleagues, explaining that the brutal technique had often elicited “high value information”. The issue of torture as an antidote to terrorism swiftly snowballed into a political storm. The former Vice-President, Dick Cheny, said that the Bush administration made no apologies for interrogation strategies that had helped prevent a terrorist strike. But Obama remained adamant. “In some cases it may be harder, but part of what makes us, I think, still a beacon to the world is that we are willing to hold true to our ideals even when it’s hard, not just when it’s easy,” he argued. Even strategically he said, torture only provided groups like al-Qaeda more grounds to enlist fresh recruits.

It all sounds indisputably sensible; even brave and idealistic. And yet, I wondered how we would respond as a country in the same set of circumstances. In India, long before terrorism, there were ‘encounter specialists’. Alarmed by the large number of ‘fake encounters’ and mysterious disappearances, the Supreme Court is now drafting special guidelines for encounter deaths. Liberal opinion has long condemned the culture of encounters as, at best, vigilante justice, and, at worst, exploitative misuse of State power, often against innocent people.

Security forces have retaliated bitterly by saying that the enthusiasm of activism is blind to several complex realities. There can be no doubt that lobbying by human rights groups has made our police force more accountable and transparent. But now, in this new age of ever-imminent danger, add terrorism to the mix, and you may be confronted with an entirely new set of ethical dilemmas.

Say, for example, the British police officers suspended for waterboarding had been investigating a possible terror strike in London, instead of an underground drugs racket. Let’s imagine that torture was able to yield intelligence on the 7/7 bombings before they happened. Would the officers still have been condemned and removed from service? Or closer home, what if Ajmal Kasab had been arrested as he stepped off the Kuber? What if there was some way to make him talk before Mumbai was invaded? Which side of the divide would our liberal ideas fall onto in that situation? Of course we would like to believe that we would still stand behind the forces of law, no matter what. But, in volatile, life and death situations — where emotions take over reason — would we?

A cult American series, 24 that chronicles the adventures of a counter-terrorist agent Jack Bauer, explores exactly these moral questions. Born in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, 24 has often been prescient in its fictional portrayals of America’s first Black President and first Woman President (long before Obama and Hillary ran for the primaries). But at a time when real terror strikes have made fantastical fictional plots plausible, Bauer often finds himself in situations, where hand-wringing over torture techniques is a luxury he can’t afford.

Imagine, if you will, that terrorists are about to bring a passenger plane down, and Bauer is interrogating the only man who can stop it. Or that nukes are about to blow up New York city and injecting some near-lethal chemical into the suspect’s veins could elicit a confession. So brazen and graphic was the use of torture by Bauer (always romantically portrayed to be on the side of the good guys) that the American administration worried it was creating copycat attempts by soldiers in Iraq. The creators of the series were then guided by real -life intelligence officers who told them “pain never produced intelligence. Physical pain mostly strengthened the resolve to clam up.” So, as America has moved from Bush to Obama, Bauer has evolved from being a trigger-happy stud to a wounded soul, whose conscience is celebrated, but methods shunned.

So, every time Ajmal Kasab smiles dysfunctionally in court, it is a grim reminder of the dangerous times we live in. It would be all too easy to be emotionally impetuous and forget the values that have shaped and defined us. But perhaps, what will always stop us is the knowledge that were we to surrender our ideals, we let the terrorists win. That alone, should keep reason alive.

Barkha Dutt is Group Editor, English News, NDTV

First Published: Jun 12, 2009 20:45 IST