Wed, 13 Aug 2003

The poison of antiterrorist acts

Sunanda K. Datta-Ray The Straits Times Asia News Network Singapore

So Amrozi bin Nurhasyim, who has been sentenced to death for complicity in the Bali bombing, was not bluffing when he warned of further attacks. Jakarta's JW Marriott Hotel blast indicates that the terrorists have lost none of their venom.

Nor may it have been an idle threat when a tape broadcast by Al-Arabiya television announced that the "real battle" had yet to begin. It was supposed to be the voice of Ayman al-Zawahri, one of Osama bin Laden's senior aides.

On the same day that the tape was beamed from Dubai, mourners at the grave of deposed Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein's two sons, Uday and Qusay, chanted, "Death to the Americans!" and "Our souls, our blood we will give for you, Saddam".

Were these events -- geographically so far apart -- related? Are we witnessing a global conspiracy to wage war on what must be called Western -- or white -- civilization? Washington certainly thinks so -- though, naturally, without mentioning color. It argues that Jamaah Islamiyah is one of several regional outfits through which al-Qaeda masterminds its worldwide campaign of death and destruction.

There may be some truth in this hypothesis. But it cannot be the whole truth. For one, it overlooks crucial local triggers from Chechnya to Aceh or pent-up resentment against Indonesia's military, which ruled the country with an iron fist for nearly three decades and is still said to be powerful, harsh and corrupt. For another, it ignores the acts of omission and commission that fan, if not foment, anti-American sentiment in large parts of Asia.

Such acts are minor and probably unintentional. But history has a curious way of sometimes being shaped by seemingly inconsequential events. As the 17th century French writer Blaise Pascal put it: "If Cleopatra's nose had been shorter, the whole face of the earth would have changed."

In one of a chain of mishaps -- which could easily suggest that the old American gag that "the only good (Red) Indian is a dead Indian" might apply to other non-whites -- United States troops fired on a taxi in Kabul, wounding three Afghan army officers.

Meanwhile, U.S. Judge John P. Fuller has ruled that armed air marshals manhandled a retired army lieutenant-colonel of Indian origin "solely because of his dark skin". American Sikhs have been attacked -- one of them killed -- because their religion obliges them to wear a turban.

Ayman's broadcast referred to something else that must rankle. America's Guantanamo Bay prison, whose confinement conditions and, indeed, very existence is a matter of deep concern to jurists as well as human rights organizations, includes Afghan, Australian, British, Pakistani and Saudi Arabian nationals. U.S. President George W. Bush vows that British and Australian criminals will not be executed. No such clemency for Asian captives.

Undeniably, America faces a daunting predicament. It must prevent a repetition of the grim events of Sept. 11, 2001. But whatever measures are taken could become counter-productive unless Washington bears in mind that actions that are meant to be defensive can appear offensive.

On the eve of the 1945 Nazi war crimes tribunal in Nuremberg, U.S. counsel Robert H. Jackson wrote: "We must never forget that the record on which we judge these defendants is the record on which history will judge us tomorrow. To pass these defendants a poisoned chalice is to put it to our lips as well."

Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad is not the only Asian to complain of racial and religious stereotyping. When Arab sheiks stopped patronizing their favorite haunts in London, Abdel-Bari Atwan, editor of the London-based Al-Quds Al-Arabi newspaper, explained that it was because of the assumption "that every Arab is a potential terrorist".

British security measures will seem even more unjustified if Prime Minister Tony Blair waters them down now to dissuade rich Arabs from liquidating their handsome investments in Britain.

The late former Irish prime minister Jack Lynch used to say during the Northern Ireland troubles of the 1960s that a man with a full pitcher must walk easy. America's pitcher is full to the brim. Only by walking easy can it ensure that other Asian malcontents do not heed Amrozi's chilling message about Bali that "for the white people, it serves them right".