The obvious is sometimes the most difficult thing to discern, and few things are more amusing than the efforts of our journals of record to keep “open” minds about the self-evident, and thus to create mysteries when the real task of reportage is to dispel them. An all-time achiever in this category is Fernanda Santos of the New York Times, who managed to write from Bombay on Nov. 27 that the Chabad Jewish center in that city was “an unlikely target of the terrorist gunmen who unleashed a series of bloody coordinated attacks at locations in and around Mumbai’s commercial center.” Continuing to keep her brow heavily furrowed with the wrinkles of doubt and uncertainty, Santos went on to say that “[i]t is not known if the Jewish center was strategically chosen, or if it was an accidental hostage scene.”
This same puzzled expression is currently being widely worn on the faces of all those who wonder if Pakistan is implicated in the “bloody coordinated” assault on the heart of Bombay. To get an additional if oblique perspective on this riddle that is an enigma wrapped inside a mystery, take a look at Joshua Hammer’s excellent essay in the current Atlantic. The question in its title—”[Is Syria] Getting Away With Murder?”—is at least asked only at the beginning of the article and not at the end of it.
Here are the known facts: If you are a Lebanese politician or journalist or public figure, and you criticize the role played by the government of Syria in your country’s internal affairs, your car will explode when you turn the ignition key, or you will be ambushed and shot or blown up by a bomb or land mine as you drive through the streets of Beirut or along the roads that lead to the mountains. The explosives and weapons used, and the skilled tactics employed, will often be reminiscent of the sort of resources available only to the secret police and army of a state machine. But I think in fairness I must stress that this is all that is known for sure. You criticize the Assad dictatorship, and either your vehicle detonates or your head is blown off. Over time, this has happened to a large and varied number of people, ranging from Sunni statesman Rafik Hariri to Druze leader Kamal Jumblatt to Communist spokesman George Hawi. One would not wish to be a “conspiracy theorist” and allege that there was any necessary connection between the criticisms in the first place and the deplorably terminal experiences in the second.
Hammer’s article is good for a laugh in that it shows just how much trouble the international community will go to precisely in order not to implicate the Assad family in this string of unfortunate events. After all, does Damascus not hold the keys to peace in the region? Might not young Bashar Assad, who managed to become president after the peaceful death by natural causes of his father, become annoyed and petulant and even uncooperative if he were found to have been commissioning assassinations? Could the fabled “process” suffer if a finger of indictment were pointed at him? At the offices of the long-established and by now almost historic United Nations inquiry into the Hariri murder, feet are evidently being dragged because of considerations like these, and Hammer describes the resulting atmosphere very well.
In rather the same way, the international community is deciding to be, shall we say, nonjudgmental in the matter of Pakistani involvement in the Bombay unpleasantness. Everything from the cell phones to the training appears to be traceable to the aboveground surrogates of an ostensibly banned group known as Lashkar-i-Taiba, which practices what it preaches and preaches holy war against Hindus, as well as Jews, Christians, atheists, and other elements of the “impure.” Lashkar is well-known to be a bastard child—and by no means a disowned one, either—of the Pakistani security services. But how inconvenient if this self-evident and obvious fact should have to be faced.
How inconvenient, for one thing, for the government of Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, a new and untried politician who may not exactly be in charge of his own country or of its armed forces but who nonetheless knows how to jingle those same keys of peace. How inconvenient, too, for all those who assume that the Afghan war is the “good” war when they see Pakistani army units being withdrawn from the Afghan frontier and deployed against democratic India (which has always been Pakistan’s “real” enemy).
The Syrian and Pakistani situations are a great deal more similar than most people have any interest in pointing out. In both cases, there is a state within the state that exerts the real parallel power and possesses the reserve strength. In both cases, official “secularism” is a mask (as it also was with the Iraqi Baathists) for the state sponsorship of theocratic and cross-border gangster groups like Lashkar and Hezbollah. In both cases, an unknown quantity of nuclear assets are at the disposal of the official and banana republic state and also very probably of elements within the unofficial and criminal and terrorist one. (It is of huge and unremarked significance that Syria did not take the recent Israeli bombing of its hidden reactor to the United Nations or make any other public complaint.) Given these grim and worsening states of affairs, perhaps it is only small wonder that we take consolation in our illusions and in comforting doubts—such as the childlike wonder about whether Jews are deliberately targeted or just unlucky with time and place. This would all be vaguely funny if it wasn’t headed straight toward our own streets.