[Marxism] The global war on small people

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Fri Aug 6 08:48:44 MDT 2010

NY Times August 5, 2010
The Global War on Small People

By Amitava Kumar
Illustrated. 217 pages. Duke University Press. $21.95.

In Graham Greene’s 1940 novel, “The Power and the Glory,” the unnamed 
protagonist, a “whisky priest,” utters the book’s most resonant line. 
“Hate,” the priest says, “was just a failure of imagination.”

Amitava Kumar, a professor of English at Vassar College, picks up that 
sentence and runs quite far with it in “A Foreigner Carrying in the 
Crook of His Arm a Tiny Bomb,” his perceptive and soulful — if at times 
academic — meditation on the global war on terror and its cultural and 
human repercussions.

Mr. Kumar’s book isn’t especially long, but it is a many-tentacled 
beast. In part it’s a deft survey of post-9/11 art, from its fiction and 
nonfiction (Mr. Kumar appears to have read everything) to its foreign 
films and obscure works of performance art.

At its heart, however, “A Foreigner Carrying in the Crook of His Arm a 
Tiny Bomb” — the excellent title is a riff on the title of Edmond 
Jabès’s 1993 book, “A Foreigner Carrying in the Crook of His Arm a Tiny 
Book” — is about the ordinary men and women, brown-skinned in general 
and Muslim in particular, who have had their lives upended by America’s 
enraged security apparatus. Mr. Kumar calls them the “small people,” and 
to them he extends his own impressive and trembling moral imagination.

Mr. Kumar — he is a Hindu and married to a Pakistani Muslim — opens his 
book with a stunning image, a complicated moment he fights to see 
clearly through his own repulsion. He is watching a British television 
documentary about the spectacular 2008 terrorist attacks on various 
locations in Mumbai. Indian authorities managed to tape a telephone call 
between a young terrorist and his handler (“the voice of pure evil”) 
back in Pakistan, and the documentary allows Mr. Kumar to listen in.

“What saves me from the annihilating hatred, if only for a moment, is 
the voice of the terrorist on the other end,” Mr. Kumar writes. “When 
being urged to quickly set fire to the curtains and carpets in the 
opulent Taj Hotel, he is more interested in describing to his superior 
the rooms that he says are large and lavish. It’s amazing, he says, the 
windows are huge here.” The young man has never seen flat-screen plasma 
television sets, so he tells his handler about the huge computers on the 

“Rightly or wrongly, I’m caught by the drama of the displaced 
provincial, the impoverished youth finding himself in the house of 
wealth,” Mr. Kumar continues. “He is using terrible violence to set fire 
to this palace of dreams but he is in a daze: a murderous thug who is a 
figure in the invisible machinations of people and plans that are larger 
than anything he can imagine.”

Mr. Kumar writes about many such men in this book, most of whom aren’t 
terrorists at all but bunglers and fools who were in the wrong place at 
the wrong time, or were, quite arguably, the hapless victims of 
entrapment. Mr. Kumar doesn’t deny that there are bad men in the 
fundamentalist Islamic world, men worthy of the American military’s 
attention. The problem is that we seem to be filling prisons with very 
minor characters.

He describes one man, imprisoned at Guantánamo, who was a cook’s 
assistant for Taliban forces in Afghanistan. Mr. Kumar quotes one 
observer’s bitterly funny observation: “O.K. We have the assistant cook. 
Where is Mr. Big? Where is the cook?”

One case Mr. Kumar pays close attention to is that of Hemant Lakhani, an 
elderly and somewhat delusional Indian-born British clothing merchant 
arrested after ostensibly delivering a shoulder-to-air missile to an 
F.B.I. informant in an Elizabeth, N.J., hotel room. The problem, Mr. 
Kumar writes, is that it wasn’t Mr. Lakhani’s idea to sell missiles.

He could never have produced one himself. The F.B.I. found him an arms 
dealer, gave him the money to purchase the thing and took it to the 
hotel. The real argument against Mr. Lakhani, Mr. Kumar adds, seemed to 
be that “he had the immoral nature of someone who might be a terrorist.” 
Mr. Kumar likens this sad man to Willy Loman and writes about Mr. 
Lakhani’s hatred of America: “Doesn’t that hate also spring from a 
species of failure, a failure in which the United States is seen as 
having a hand?”

There are many small, tart observations in “A Foreigner Carrying in the 
Crook of His Arm a Tiny Bomb.” Mr. Kumar is particularly good on the 
literature that has emerged from America’s recent adventures in the 
Middle East. He describes the Islamic terrorists in the work of 
novelists like Martin Amis and John Updike as “unreal and wholly 

The unpalatable truths in Anthony Swofford’s “Jarhead,” a memoir of the 
Persian Gulf war, make that book more important and eye-opening, he 
writes, “than anything written by the likes of Noam Chomsky and the rest 
of the admirable antiwar brigade.”

Mr. Kumar’s book is eccentric, and thus human, on multiple levels. While 
visiting Mr. Lakhani at a prison in Springfield, Mo., he winds up one 
evening at a strip club called Teasers. When a dancer asks what brought 
him to town, he tells her. She replies, “That’s not cool.” She changes 
the subject by asking him a question he finds oddly inspirational: “So, 
how was your Fourth of July?”

At times this book is a stiff and awkward, as if poorly translated. Mr. 
Kumar, writing from the left, is relentless in his critique of America’s 
post-9/11 behavior, and his book will anger those who believe that the 
war on terror’s collateral damage has been minimal or largely 
unavoidable. Mr. Kumar stacks his deck but only in the way an anti-death 
penalty debater would necessarily linger on the innocent people who have 
been executed.

Mr. Kumar returns again and again to his small people and his bunglers. 
He suggests that America, unaware of the image it is projecting in the 
Muslim world, has been the biggest bungler of all. He quotes the Turkish 
novelist Orhan Pamuk, who asked us to understand “why millions of people 
in poor countries that have been pushed to one side, and deprived of the 
right to decide their own histories, feel such anger at America.”

“A Foreigner Carrying in the Crook of His Arm a Tiny Bomb” carries in 
the crook of its own arm Mr. Kumar’s plaintive appeal. If we’re to 
bridge the perilous divide that separates us from those poor and unnamed 
people who resent us, we first need to see them, to look into their 
eyes. We need, Mr. Kumar writes, “to acknowledge that they exist.” This 
angry and artful book is a first step.

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