The long arm of the single actor

Posted: Jan 09, 2002 12:00 AM
John Burns of the New York Times cracks the story of an anonymous aide, of the plight of Gen. Pervez Musharraf. The Pakistani leader is said to have telephoned the U.S. ambassador to Islamabad to ask a serious and entirely understandable question. That question is relayed as follows: "What if some outraged Kashmiri takes a Kalashnikov and shoots an Indian politician or puts a bomb in a parking lot? Is Pakistan going to be held accountable every time anybody picks up a weapon? Is Washington saying that all freedom struggles, everywhere, can be suppressed under the guise of the war on terrorism?"

The second point made here strikes at the heart of a definitional problem that, beginning years ago, beset the United Nations. In 1973, the United States introduced a resolution condemning terrorist activity. It never carried through the appropriate committee because it was burdened with so many equivocations as to make it useless. Most prominently critical of it, back then, were African leaders who insisted that any apparently terrorist acts committed against the governments of Rhodesia and South Africa were not really terrorist acts, but initiatives in national liberation.

That construction of the right of protesters gives them a kind of juridical authority. In conventional understanding, someone who fires at a foreign official can claim the protections of war only if he is deputized to do as he did by his government. He is, otherwise, a pirate, prowling about until he is caught and hanged. Musharraf is asking out loud for some kind of provision to be made for incontinent liberators who do not want to wait for diplomacy to settle their problems, taking their own initiatives -- as terrorists, we call them. On this matter, the correct response from President Bush is: The people you are talking about are terrorists, period.

The first question is more difficult. Is India supposed to assume that there was tacit backing by the government of Pakistan of the five militants who attacked the Indian Parliament on Dec. 13? Musharraf is denying any condonation of the act; India is saying, Prove your dissociation from it by rounding up the people who supported it and putting them in jail. Musharraf wavers. Question: Because he is secretly in sympathy with the Kashmiri militants? Or because he reasons that to go after them at the very same time that, on his western flank, he is pursuing the Taliban, would take him over the line, risking the very survival of his government, yielding then to an uprising or even a coup?

The day before this concern was relayed to our ambassador, a 15-year-old Florida boy got into a Cessna, in which he had been taking flying lessons, flew up in the air of Tampa and dove into a building, killing (only) himself. The suicidal act was without political implication but for the message he left behind, a suicide note that identified the boy as in sympathy with Osama bin Laden.

It would require a McCarthyite reading of the event to suppose that al-Qaida had enlisted the boy to plunge into that building, without so much as a .22 rifle to fire at somebody. But the episode highlights the nature of Musharraf's concern. The Israeli government tends automatically to suppose, with plenty of precedent, that terrorist attacks on Israelis are expressions of Arafat's determination to undermine Israel. Arafat has in most cases dissociated the PLO from the terrorist acts, and Prime Minister Sharon is usually saying, Prove your dissociation by going after centers of militant anti-Israeli activity.

Whatever one concludes personally about the likelihood of Arafat's responsibility, we do need to focus on procedural matters. Gov. Jeb Bush doesn't need to reassure President George Bush that the Tampa flier wasn't an agent of revolutionary sentiment in Florida. Arafat, on the other hand, has a bloody record, altering the presumptions to his disadvantage. Musharraf is somewhere in between; so what are we asking of him?

The United States wants him to do two things to fortify plausibility: (1) Stop the Muslim polemical organs that preach an irreconcilable irredentism on Kashmir; and (2) outlaw the money-gathering devices by which the militants are empowered. Those are pretty concrete means of satisfying critical suspicion that Musharraf isn't endorsing terrorist activity against India. But he now needs to weigh action on these lines against the risk of provoking the militarist right.

But he, and the world, are entitled to thoughtful attention given to the question he raised: Is the lone actor, in an age in which lone actors can do so much, all that's needed to precipitate great wars?