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Mainstream, Vol XLVI No 43

Quotidian Consequences of Terror-strikes

Friday 17 October 2008, by Dev N Pathak


It lasts until the next blast: the empirical-causal manifestations of a terror-strike. Everybody fears it while feeding on the gory details repeatedly dished out by every means of media. Everybody however grows exceedingly intimate with it. An exemplary oxymoron of our times: an awesome fear, akin to the thick plot of a Hitchcock drama, that springs from terror-strikes. Even though we dismiss the hyperbole in it, there is a chance validity for the question as to how any fear becomes awesome. It takes to a little more detailed and anthropological inroad whereby we also get to understand the notion of normal. The reincar-nated version of normal, post blasts, upholds fear as an awesome anchorage for the concealed sense of revenge.

Post-blast Everyday

To begin with a few instances, more often than not recurrent in the post-blast socio-political life, would suffice the need to lay out the premise for examination. The strike itself is a butt of civic hatred and the citizenry takes quick retreat to the syllogism present in the pop-journalism on terrorism. Everybody, thus, spews venom against the whole phenomenon of terrorism. Some of us are careful about voicing our anguish, while some others jump to communal conclusions. Differences apart, we all have an upset mind hankering to name the enemy. We get to read in newspapers as to how the strike affected a Muslim too and that some of them from the community under communal suspicion have decried such an act while Ramzan is on. These appear only a sprinkle of salt on a very fresh wound. Hence, most of us readily undergo the rite of the passage observing rituals in our modern-secular society. What are the essential features of the rituals performed in the rite of the passage that brings about a transition from one state of normal to the other? Post terror-strike visuals show the victims being rushed to the emergency wards of government hospitals, the doctors’ energy refuting all the allegations of lethargic attitude toward common patients on routine days, security personnel of the town releasing statements after statements, and the leadership walking out of the hospitals only to condemn the terrorists once again. It is a little like school kids speaking for and against the idea of a strong anti-terror law as we receive the flashing news that some of them from the Opposition renewed their promise of a strong crack-down through a law of unprecedented impact. TADA was not wrong, POTA would have been an antidote, and contemplating MACOKA is timely, are handy assumptions, more to vanquish the opponents of such views than to really secure civic life. Names of people and places may change strike after strike but the ritual is same after every such mishap. As a latest addition, FM Radio channels gear up to extend all kinds of possible helps during the hurly burly immediately after the blast occurred. Taking phone calls of listeners and helping them find their near and dear who went traceless, appealing masses to be patient and resilient and raising a debate on the futility of such things like terror strikes in an erroneously dismissive manner. As though it was a ghost who came, killed some on the way and disappeared: as though a tale a granny tells a child to help her sleep. As a significant part in the whole of this, the terror groups take responsibility, in self-congratulatory manners, mounted on the text of victimisation and revenge. As the ritual event draws to end, we get to see the ordinary people getting back to their work and every stakeholder in the ‘normal’ hailing the resilience of people.

This is what we get to notice as quotidian manifestations and implications of a terror-strike. There are three inferences worth drawing. One is a homology between the everydayness of terror-strikes and thereof effect, and any other rite of the passage. The second is that the notion of normal changes after every strike as though we have responded to the protean character of life. The ever-changing notion of normal entails the instrumental value of fear and uncertainty. Fear and uncertainty acquire an illegitimate legitimacy in the spheres, public and private both, defeating the purposes of loosely ordered life. Lastly, the changing notion of normal blurs the line of divide between the victim and the victimiser, the terrorists and the terrorised.

Meanings of the Menace

THE visuals put-together, oozing adrenaline and involvement of the collective in a secular country-society, suggests a homology with any other rite of the passage. We have learnt from our social anthropologists that a rite is a social mode of transition from one stage to the other. Van Gennep documents this ingeniously in Rite of the Passage and Victor Turner analyses the whole process with critical insights. In the process of transition vis-à-vis rite of the passage, there is a maze of rituals too. In sum, it presents us the whole of cultural canvas dotted with the theme of progress in the social lives of individuals. The twist in the story is the fact that this process entails a painful separation from social group, a short stay in liminal space and then reincorporation into the social group. With effect of sociological imagination, we can treat social group as a manifest form of the notion of normal. After all one of the pioneer sociologists, Emile Durkheim, paid so much attention to the idea of normal/order/equilibrium in a society with an allusion to the society as an integrated whole. The individual/s in the process, in rite of the passage, experience/s and learn/s of the changing version of normal with respect to his/her changing state of mind vis-à-vis new roles and status.

Drawing a morbid analogy, arguably, we can say that every terror-strike occasions a rite of the passage in a secular society, encompassing transition from one stage of normal to another, involving myriad rituals and events. There is however difference in the characteristics of consequences as, unlike rite of the passage in the conventional sense, the post-blast hurly-burly does take us to complete assimilation of the victims. The scar of incident is made indelible by the markers of the specter in our everyday life. The quotidian structure has interplay with the exhibit resilience of the survivors and the victims. The social greed of humanity to become normal is also an existential prerequisite, something that Radcliffe-Brown considered functional prerequisite of the social structure. Hence, post-blast, we say we would move ahead and we go to work, we grapple with petty problems of everyday, and we also go to favorite food-joints as part of our visit to multiplexes for Friday release. The television channels and the national dailies flash some of the visuals of light skin and giggling women walking past the site of blast and hail the spirit of humanity. The mythmakers of modern times, mass-media, are no different from the unswerving votaries of empiricism in social science. While contemporary academia is beginning to realize that seeing is not, necessarily, believing, the mass-media is yet to figure out its epistemological shortcomings. Thus, as we go about boasting the restoration of normal, we do not see beyond what Peter Berger called visible façade. Underneath the cloak of normal is buried a quest of revenge; underlying the concealed fear there is a congealed intimacy with fear; attached with the everyday certainty is a precarious uncertainty. It is just like a refutation to the anthropologists suggesting us that piacular rituals, post-death, restore normalcy of everyday life of the survivors. After all our sense of normal, after the death of somebody dear to us in our family, is not the very same as it was earlier. We cry in denial and later we commemorate death to cry again. In oral tradition there are folksongs to invoke the dead. All these occur as part of the new normal. Every death occasions a birth of a new normal, which is constituted by a huge chunk of what we thought to be abnormal. Could reincorporation, as a consequence of the rite of the passage, amount to the same role and status of the subject? Merely, however for the convenience of the presentation of self, with dramaturgical finesse, we say: we are normal and we go ahead with our lives. In the case of post-blast quotidian life we find normal is tinged with something abnormal about it. In the psycho-social matrix of collective unconscious there are terms and categories proposing: we would move ahead and we go to work, we grapple with petty problems of everyday, and we also go to favorite food-joints as part of our visit to multiplexes for Friday release, because we have a secret thought at the back of our minds. Yes, the secret thought pertains to the idea of revenge.

Sense of Normal-reincarnate

A note of anxious wising up on normal-reincarnate we infer, in ‘In the name of Terror’, wherein Shiv Vishvanathan (August 8, 2008, The Indian Express) suggests, “Terror destroys the dialects of difference which make dialogue possible.” The state sponsored order in society tends to be authoritarian, and in a troubled situation, it receives staunch civic acquiescence too. Helplessness against terror is destined to this kind of unquestioning faith in the militarisation of everyday life. Yet another short-shrift analysis of the situation emerges in Arjun Appadurai’s ‘Fear of Small Numbers’ and we get a glimpse of manufactured sense of normal in the aftermath of aggression by predatory identities. War itself emerges as an order as “it is quotidian war, war as an everyday possibility, waged precisely to destabilise the idea that there is an ‘everyday’ for anyone outside the space and time of war”. Stretching this incisive logic, in a manner of sociological imagination, everybody in a community of ‘we’ is at war with everybody else in a community of ‘they’ in an everyday situation. Could we still believe in the popular perception of civic resilience post-blast? An imaginative argument, answering the question in negative, stems from one of the innovative flicks by the title of A Wednesday. No matter how finicky a review of the film Shiv Vishavanathan (‘Never on a Wednesday’, September 13, 2008, The Indian Express) writes, he shows a bit of regard to the idea of a common-man orchestrating a counter-terrorism against the terrorism targeting common-men. Forgiving the maker for using the tools of exaggeration and acceleration for potential catharsis, we get a sense of reactionary normal as a springboard of counter-terrorism. The latter could be state-sponsored in the guise of lawful crackdown on suspects in order to curb terrorism or in the form of a civil unrest along communal lines. A Wednesday however imagines it from the perspective of a skillful common-man.

Drawing conclusions, by according an illegitimate legitimacy to this of version order and normal the citizenry actually resort to the idea of avenging. The over-protective machinery of the state facilitates an intimacy with fear as though school kids are reading a fretting sequence in a Harry Potter novel. Elements of fear and uncertainty replenish the appetite for revenge every now and then. Whenever a suspect or a terrorist is hunted down we, even though merely a virtual warrior battling in news on television channels, receive an utmost sadistic satisfaction. We may or may not utter, but every virtual warrior has a feeling of perverted gratification on such occasions, be a terrorist or a terrorised. 

The author belongs to the Guest Faculty, Sociology Department, Hindu College, University of Delhi.

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