Sunday, 3 February 2008

Parallels between fictional barbarians and today's Islamic terrorists

Parallels between fictional barbarians and today's Islamic terrorists

In Booker- and Nobel Prize-winning author J. M. Coetzee's Waiting for the Barbarians, the 'barbarians' are very different compared to the terrorists the United States and its allies are fighting today. The barbarians are a set group, compared to the more ambiguous terrorist enemy. Also, they seem to attack when directly provoked (actually, during the course of the story there isn't concrete, objective proof of a barbarian attack on the Empire). They are a fairly peaceful, simple, nomadic people who live in fear of the Empire and suffer because of its expansion. However, there are some parallels between the barbarians and Islamist extremists. Many modern Islamic terrorists are waging jihad against the US because of its occupation of lands they see as sacred, belonging to Muslims, as well as its diehard support of occupiers of Mideast land like Israel. America is tainting these lands for its own profit (oil), or so their line of thought goes.

The stronger parallel between the Empire's wrath for the barbarians and America's 'war on terror' is the chilling aspect of torture used gratuitously by the Empire in the book and — to a lesser, more secretive extent, directly or indirectly — by the United States today. My personal view is not that the US is an empire in the way the one in the book is; whether it is at all is a point of contention among experts. Of course the US looks out for its own economic interests in Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and elsewhere, as do all nations who rely on energy supplies from that region. It is the reality of men and nations that we take care of ourselves first and make sure our well being is well provided for.

The thing that has brought the world's sole superpower into such a great mess is security. Although oil has played an indirect role, those drawing such a strong line between Iraq and Exxon should reevaluate their logic. America supported the mujahideen in Afghanistan during the 1979 Soviet invasion and ensuing war to fend off its Cold War arch-rival. Today it faces the same people it supported in Afghanistan in a globalized 'war.' However, unlike the war in Waiting for the Barbarians, one side is ambiguous in the 'war on terror': the terrorists. This ambiguity allows the US more leeway in its 'war,' but also leads to more trouble: anyone could be a terrorist. These terrorists either operate relatively alone with influences from groups or in cells, often under the authority of others. What unites them for the most part is ideology, but there are devisions even within that radical anti-American foundation. The Bush administration has clumped its 'barbarians' together into one massive group of pure evil. It's 'us against them'.

Torture is made into entertainment in the book. The public is put at ease at the sight of a few innocent barbarians being abused and sometimes killed. The army turns fear into hate and allows the public an outlet for that hatred. In Waiting for the Barbarians the man plagued by this lack of human decency, the town judge, is displaced by all this mess as he attempts to take on the torture machine. He is arrested at the circumvention of the law — emergency powers are in the hands of the military because of the barbarians are apparently ready to pounce. The people in the remote frontier town in Waiting for the Barbarians are in constantly terrorized by the threat of a supposedly imminent barbarian invasion, yet another similarity between their society and America's (among others).

The us vs. them seen especially during wartime is seen in the book: "The soldiery tyrannizes the town. They have held a ... meeting to denounce "cowards and traitors" and to affirm collective alliance to the Empire" (Coetzee 130). There are elements of absurdity in the story of torture in Barbarians, but that same absurdity is seen in real life in the political rhetoric condoning torture. Innocent people — people who share fear if any ties with the enemy — are tortured needlessly for no real point. Whereas the fictional barbarian situation came to an end and just rule was reinstated, the terror subsided, there is no assurance that the same will happen in America's 'war on terror.'

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