Some years ago, I attended the memorial mass of a dear friend who had died overseas. It was a touching service, with heartfelt tributes paid to him. But one cringeworthy moment occurred when the priest delivering the eulogy, somehow (I can’t remember how any more) connected the solemn moment with, of all people, Dick Cheney.
I listened, stunned at first. Perhaps I had heard wrong. But no, this was Dick Cheney, former Chairman and CEO of Halliburton company, and the reason he was being mentioned and lauded was that he “truly cared about the happiness of his employees.”
Whether this is true or not I can’t say. But what is amply clear that this same Dick Cheney, who went on to become 46th Vice-President of the United States from 2001 to 2009 under President George W. Bush, has blood on his hands several times over. The list of war crimes, of crimes against humanity, is exhaustive. In fact, for the unlawful invasion of Iraq in 2003 alone, leaving in its horrific wake the deaths of, even by conservative estimates, anything from 500,000 to over 1 million (possibly even higher) innocent men, women and children, Cheney, Bush and seven other key members of that administration were convicted in absentia of war crimes by the Kuala Lumpur War Crimes Commission in 2012.
Add to this the official seal of approval for the use of waterboarding and “other enhanced interrogation techniques” (torture in simpler language) and unwarranted surveillance of US citizens and suspected ‘enemies of the state’ in the US and abroad. The overseas torture chambers, managed by the CIA, were termed, chillingly, ‘black holes’. As the name suggests, many who were taken there have not been heard of again.
Despite his influence even today which pervades all echelons of power, including the mainstream media, the clamour for his prosecution is growing. Just last year, Thomas Buergenthal, ‘the world’s most distinguished living specialist in international human rights law’ predicted that Cheney would be tried as a war criminal at the International Criminal Court of Justice at the Hague.
The point I’m trying to make is that terrible crimes can be airbrushed from histories and public memory, while other facets of the perpetrator, real or imagined, are held up instead as a smooth sleight-of-hand. In India, politicians with criminal records, serial rapists, some even perpetrators of communal riots and mass murder, can be carried on the shoulders of an adoring public and lauded as darlings of the masses. Their criminal past can either be denied, or dismissed or even defended as ‘a small mistake; everyone makes them’, as a medical colleague said to me when one particular example came up for discussion.
And this is not just in the political arena. I’ve just finished reading Amitav Ghosh’s ‘The River of Smoke’, in which the spotlight a lot of the time is on one of the protagonists, Seth Bahramji Naurozji Modi, Parsi opium trader from Bombay. As the plot unravels, one even begins to like the character; certainly his staff adore him and are fiercely loyal to him. He is a pious man, believing firmly in Ahura Mazda and in countering the influence of Ahriman. Yet through the commodity in which he trades and makes his fortune, he is complicit in the destruction of untold millions of lives, in India (from its production), China (its consumption) and beyond.
He’s a fictional character, of course. But he embodies so many real-life people in India and England just like him who did get rich off the opium trade, and in the process ruined the lives of so many. Modern-day parallels would be businessmen and MLAs who thrive from mining, drugs, sex and gambling, oblivious to the rack and ruin caused as a result of it.
Another phenomenon becoming all-pervasive is the celebration of violence and killing. We have become inured to horrific images o our television screens or in the media, of devastation and human suffering, whether in Syria, Afghanistan or elsewhere. A “mother-of-all-bombs” gets dropped, but it’s business as usual for those outside the area of impact.
We grew up watching ‘war’ movies (‘Where Eagles Dare’, ‘The Dirty Dozen’, ‘Tora Tora Tora!’) glorifying blood, guts, and gore. It has been estimated that if all Hollywood movies on WWII alone were watched end-to-end in their duration, it would exceed the duration of the actual war and then some.
I bought into the adrenaline and the rush those films gave me, but I grew out of it, and today I watch such films (if at all) with a sense of detachment, nausea even. But they’re everywhere, and not just confined to war. Look at the success of the Kill Bill and Quentin Tarantino brand of films.
There’s a whole new genre of ‘war’ films as well, with (to me, at any rate) a subtle hint of propaganda about the self-righteousness of the recent (well, over the past few decades) military forays and adventurism of the West in the Middle East and Africa. There has been a whole slew of films over the past few decades, particularly after 9/11, from Black Hawk Down (2001), Behind Enemy Lines (2006, 2009), Zero Dark Thirty (2012), American Sniper (2014), Sniper: Legacy (2014) to 13 Hours (2016).
While many reviews have been predictably fawning in their approval, some did remark on the “slightly pornographic” depiction of war, often designed to “enhance the desire of Americans for a thumping war to avenge 9/11”. American Sniper was called out for turning “the complicated moral questions and mass bloodshed of the Iraq war into a black-and-white fairytale, without presenting the historical context.”
The latter film reminded me of a weekend I had spent with a friend in England, where his teenage nephew was contemplating a career in the Territorial Army, after developing a taste for guns and target practice at a shooting range. “I’d love to be a sniper!” he gushed, whereupon my friend reminded him that it would be real people he would be getting into his crosshairs and shooting at to kill, not a bulls-eye. I still remember the look in his eyes when this realisation sank in.
It can be easy to miss this amid the bombardment of images in the media celebrating violence. An ad on a TV channel for a movie marathon over Holi depicted a Bollywood actor wielding a pichkari spewing colour, which suddenly morphed into Schwarzenegger brandishing a firearm spraying bullets and a gruesome pastiche of fireball orange and blood.
“Bang! You’re dead!” We played it as kids, and adults play it today with Paintball. Defexpo has become a forum for schoolchildren to ‘learn’ about killing machines, but a plea from a Gurmehar to find peaceful alternatives to conflict gets shouted down and threatened, ironically, with violence. Violence only begets revenge and more violence.
(An edited version of this article was published on 30 April 2017 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)