The ghost of Davis


Raymond Davis was dangerous one American spy single-handedly responsible for not just a) supplying nuclear fissile missile available to Al Qaeda to spark a world war, or b) carrying out predator drone strikes in Pakistan’s tribal areas, or c) recruiting fighters for the Punjabi Taliban to destabilize the region, but actually, according to Pakistani newspapers, d) all of the above. And then he drove himself to a busy Lahore street and shot two fleeing kids in the back. Why exactly?

Why does a society blame one man for just about everything that is wrong or may likely go wrong? And why do they discover that only after he was taken in custody? The same reason why Thebes blamed Oedipus for an entire epidemic, but only after his unintended sins were established. It’s called the logic of the mob.

At the instant the scapegoat is selected, through a non-conscious process of mimetic suggestion, he obviously appears as the all-powerful cause of all trouble in a community that is itself nothing but trouble, says French philosopher Rene Girard. They see their victim as supremely active, eminently capable of destroying them. The scapegoat always appears to be a more powerful agent, a more powerful case than he really is.

In that way, Raymond Davis was a witch. The society would settle for nothing less than lynching. As a ritualised practice, the capital punishment carries the same effect a body is seen as an impurity, an agent that could hurt the balance of the society, and therefore must be removed for harmony and peace to prevail. Raymond Davis was an impurity in the Land of the Pure.

Nationalism is exclusive. It needs boundaries. Countries go to wars over sanctity of borders. And when boundaries start to seep, as in the case of Pakistan, it creates anxiety. That is why several political commentators who would tick option d) did not call him Oedipus or a witch. They called him Robocop. They did so in all seriousness, but stripped the character of all its positive connotations. The 1987 science fiction film touched such themes as media, corruption, privatisation, gentrification and resurrection. The Robocop reference therefore implies both globalisation and increasing American influence, of which Raymond Davis is an effect. He challenged Pakistan’s sovereignty by calling into question the integrity of its established national structures.

No immunity, only sovereignty! was the reaction. A rejection of global responsibilities. There was a sudden new emphasis on respecting the law of the land, even by groups who are themselves not legally allowed to operate.

Speaking of theater and film, Al-Qaeda and the Taliban have already outperformed Hollywood on September 11, 2001. Groups affiliated with them are now exploring new grounds in taxonomy. Like good scientists, they want clear definitions. And the people they fear the most are not those who are clearly different, but those most similar to them, because such impurities are more likely to seep in. Which is why more Shias, Barelvis and Ahmadis are attacked than people who are clearly not Muslims.

But as they demarcate the circle of Islam leavings scores of people out of it, they too are being subjected to a similar taxonomical exclusion. The Pakistani government’s ultimate weapon against insurgency is more than Plato’s purity or Aristotle’s categorisation. It is an MIT graduate’s dream database of all citizens of Pakistan. Order is its response to disorder.

Europe fought leprosy with separation. But the plague blurred the boundaries between order and disorder. Every individual had to be registered and observed. Syndics were assigned streets which they kept under surveillance. Islamabad police started a remarkably similar pilot security project earlier this month in one of its precincts. On checkpoints in the rest of the country, a valid computerised identity card is the only proof of identity.

Taliban and groups affiliated with them don’t seem to have problems with censuses and planned nationhood. But like any CIA spies in Pakistan, their precise advantage lies in their exclusion. Like all marginal groups, they can look at the system from outside, identify its weak spots, and exploit them. Even Osama bin Laden refers to the notions of national sovereignty and justice. Contrary to what Bush says and claims that we hate freedom let him tell us then, ‘Why did we not attack Sweden?’, he said in a 2004 statement, distancing himself from any opposition to liberalism. We fought with you because we are free, he said instead, and we don’t put up with transgressions. We want to reclaim our nation.

The Raymond Davis battle was then a small part of a larger USA vs liberalism game that the former won only with the help of what is seen as the single most significant threat to liberalism: the Sharia law. Raymond Davis has left but Pakistan is still exorcising what looks like his ghost a fear, and simultaneously a hope, that he will return.

The author is a media critic and the News Editor, The Friday Times