Sparing the Rod

From Newtown to Delhi

In this final month of the year, we (a notoriously vague pronoun, perhaps best reduced to the royal ‘we’) were distracted from our everyday lives by two visitations of unimaginable horror. In Newtown, Connecticut, twenty children were gunned down in their elementary school, along with a half-dozen teachers. And in Delhi, a young woman was raped on a bus, attacked with an iron rod, and then tossed out to die. These are, of course, disconnected incidents, one deadlier than the other, on opposite sides of the world and indicative of different social pathologies. Nevertheless, I want to discuss them in the same frame, not only because they merged in my stomach into a single pool of unexpressed vomit, but also because they suggest some connections between how modern societies generate and respond to extreme violence. In each case, there is a discernible tendency to reduce the problem to a set of symptoms that can be treated with legislation. In each case, there is an explosion of speech around a pit of silence that shields a wider societal culpability.

In a country where school shootings are fairly common, the slaughter in Connecticut was especially horrifying because children were so young, and because the killer was more or less an adult. The American school massacre typically features teenagers being shot by one of themselves: we have learned how to think, talk, and even write black comedies about that scenario. We have not learned to think about child-murder as an act of shooting downwards. We have not learned to imagine what happens to a six-year-old body when it is shot eleven times with a version of the same rifle that is used by the US military. We have learned to accept that school shootings leave some students dead and others wounded, but not to face a situation where there are no wounded, because each child has been carefully executed at close range. I found myself wondering how there could be space for eleven rifle bullets in such small bodies. I could not imagine an answer, so I fell back to thinking of my own daughter, and wanting to pick her up early from daycare and wrap my arms around her small, solemn self. That reaction, I think, was fairly common among friends of mine who have young children, and for parents around the country. We personalized the calamity, withdrawing into ourselves and our families.

In that maneuver, as in all maneuvers, certain refusals and silences are imbedded: the refusal, for instance, to put ourselves fully in the shoes of the police and other first-response personnel who entered the school when the shooting was over. We talk around what they saw: we sympathize with their predicament, we acknowledge that they will be scarred, we are relieved that they have taken that responsibility off our shoulders. We do not invite them to actually describe what they saw. Not even the New York Post will seek out the initial police photographs for its front page. Such images will perhaps be left to the horror movies in ten years’ time, but even then, no director would dare to actually ‘show what happened,’ or linger on the visions for more than a split second.

To do those things would shut us down as a society. It would shut us down not only because it would show us the costs of the Second Amendment, the NRA, inadequate mental health care, and other such specific phenomena, but also because it would show us what we are capable of as a society, and indeed, what we routinely do as a society. It is not, after all, enough of an explanation that Adam Lanza, the killer in Newtown, was mentally ill, or even that he had access to guns. He also had a particular vision of what a man in his situation does, and that vision included shooting first-graders. An individual acts according to the templates with which he is provided, such as the template of the massacre by an angry man (or, for that matter, templates of men having fun in particular ways). Adam Lanza followed the template.

What I am getting at is that killing children is not all that extraordinary in our society. It can, in fact, become almost casual. I am reminded of the supersaturation of popular culture – especially the culture of young males – with the toys, games and pornography of violence, which make shooting at people harmless, aesthetically pleasing and erotic. I am reminded that our most normative form of political organization is based on the idea of legitimate homicide, so that the willingness and ability to kill permeates our idea of what it is to live a worthwhile life. I am reminded of Seymour Hersh’s reporting on the My Lai massacre, the phenomenon of ‘collateral damage,’ and the entire premise of nuclear deterrence and strategic bombing. We accept that children will be shot, burned or blown up. We expect only that it will not be our children and that we will not have to look, and are flustered when Hersh – or Adam Lanza – violates that tacit agreement.

Now, on to Delhi: the city where roads, rebels, refugees, invaders, migrant workers and graduate students converge, the city that is always the destination and a little too far, Dilli chalo and Dilli durast, where my wife - unnerved by the experience of being stared at by yet another open-mouthed stranger - snarled 'Kya dekh rahe ho ji? Ghar mein ma-behn nahin hai?' ('What the hell are you staring at? Don't you have a mother or sister at home?' I was reminded of Captain Haddock's encounter with a Nepali porter.) Delhi is simultaneously graceful and ugly, it tends to set women and even men on edge, it has a reputation, it is the notorious 'rape capital.' That sobriquet may be unfair; there are cities where women fare worse. But in Delhi, crowds of angry citizens have been facing off against police armed with water-cannons. They are angry because there has been another rape in the Indian capital. A young paramedical student and her male friend, returning from watching Life of Pi, were waiting at a bus stop at around ten o’clock at night. They were given a ride by an off-duty bus. The bus crew and their joyriding friends – six men in all – immediately began to taunt the couple, then attacked them, beating the man unconscious and raping the woman for over forty minutes. Thrown out of the bus, the victims were discovered by passers-by and hospitalized. The media then descended upon the story, and a crescendo of public rage quickly developed, directed at the government, the police, and Delhi itself. There have been calls in Parliament to amend the law and institute the death penalty for rape; the demand appears to have overwhelming public support.

On the surface, the violence inflicted upon the couple in this particular case is appalling but not extraordinarily so – not at the level needed to bring out enraged citizenry, water-cannon and hangmen. Yes, the couple had been badly beaten; yes, the woman had been raped; but those things happen in Delhi, and in other cities. Other people shake their heads and carry on. The extraordinary horror of the bus rape lies below the surface. Tucked away in the coverage of the incident, on the first day, was a report of just what been done to the woman by her attackers. She had been raped with an iron rod (specifically, the crank that is used to raise and lower the jack), rupturing her uterus and destroying her intestines. Doctors expected that she would die, and it speaks volumes for the staff at Safdarjung Hospital that she is still alive.

From the second day onwards, as if by a quiet agreement, the details of the assault vanished from the news. The story continued to dominate the news but the text changed subtly. A coded language emerged: the woman had been ‘beaten’ with the iron rod, although it had become necessary for surgeons to remove nearly her entire intestinal tract, the attackers were ‘sadistic,’ they had ‘tortured’ the woman, the police chief had never before encountered such a brutal rape. Nobody is deluded about what happened on the bus, of course. Everybody knows exactly what took place, and is horrified. That is why there are crowds, police batons and panicky politicians on the streets. But the particulars were deemed so shameful, so unspeakable, that they had to be rendered in a combination of silences and codes.

How do we unpack the horror that is shrouded by this rendition? In an editorial in The Hindu, Ratna Kapur offered one approach. The attack on the unnamed woman (who is now being called Amanat in the press, in yet another display of coded speech) represents the fury of men confronted with ‘smartly dressed women’ in all walks of Indian life, Kapur wrote: as men perceive themselves losing exclusive control of their social and economic bastions, they (and the less educationally and economically competitive among them in particular) are lashing out violently.

That insight, while not quite new, is reasonable enough, and revealing beyond the author’s intentions. The incident has laid bare, especially, the class tensions of urban India. In an unmistakable yet unthinking attempt at restoring the disturbed balance of power between the ghetto and the gated community, middle-class journalists armed with television cameras, blinding lights and great hairy microphones descended upon the slum where the alleged rapists lived, barged into their homes, and interviewed the cowering families about what should happen to their sons, not letting up until one obviously intimidated father agreed that hanging was the only acceptable option. It is inconceivable that power, privilege and presumption would have been deployed so contemptuously towards ‘respectable’ Delhiites in Defence Colony or Vasant Vihar.

Kapur’s analysis is also somewhat incomplete. For one, the woman on the bus does not seem to have belonged to the ‘smartly dressed’ set of middle-class Indians: her family comes from the subsistence level of the economy, although they clearly had middle-class aspirations. For another, while it is certainly true that middle-class women in Delhi and other Indian cities are vulnerable to sexual assault, the likelihood of their being raped by the proverbial rogue autorickshaw driver is considerably lower than that possibility that rural, poor, Dalit or tribal women will be sexually assaulted by a policeman, an employer, a village politician, a neighborhood bully or a husband. This is a pattern of violence that middle-class Indians are aware of, but prefer not to look at. Their adoption of the bus-rape victim as one of their own was almost accidental: a slippage within liberal citizenship, as well as a sentimentality.

Consequently, Kapur’s essay only obliquely explains the explosive public reaction to the bus rape: the unedifying and ubiquitous calls for the death penalty and castration, the near-rioting which may have cost a policeman his life, the violence unleashed on the protesters – in the name of crowd control – by an angry police force and a beleaguered administration. The Indian middle class does not typically react to rapes with such extraordinary vehemence. It has been suggested that the protests of this December are about more than this particular incident: that they form an extension of the middle-class disenchantment with the nature of the Indian state, which became evident during the Lokpal movement a couple of years ago. (‘Nothing works,’ as one angry demonstrator shouted at a journalist.) In other words, while we are ostensibly talking about a rape, we could also be talking about the municipal water supply, the mismanagement of the Commonwealth Games or cronyism in land development.

I would suggest that that analysis too, while entirely accurate, is quite inadequate. Its inadequacy is indicated by the violence of the protests – the startling rhetoric of mutilation and hanging – as well as by the gaps in what is being said about the rape of ‘India’s Amanat.’ Much like the Newtown massacre, the naked savagery of the assault has forced a traumatic surfacing into the public consciousness of the violence woven into everyday reality of Indian nationhood: the violence of gender and class, the violence of the state, the violence within families, the violence of the mob in Gujarat in 2002 (where disemboweled Muslim women were effectively disowned by the nation).

Like child-murder in American culture, that violence lies below the skin of society; it is intractable, overwhelming and intimately familiar. In it, there is an unbearable interpenetration of the ordinary and the extraordinary: the extraordinary is within the ordinary, and vice versa. Rape with a 'foreign object,' perpetrated by a gang of drunk and laughing young men, may appear to overshoot all templates of masculinity, violence and community, but it is the template: a part of the cultural mainstream. For all its horror and outrage, the Delhi incident has already passed into advertisements for Amul butter. Some years ago, when a woman was raped with a flashlight (and murdered) off the Eastern Metropolitan Bypass in Calcutta, a defensive/dismissive Jyoti Basu remarked, 'These things happen.' ('Ei rokom to hoyei thake.')

'These things' thus have to be acknowledged as real, even commonplace; yet they cannot be spoken in the ordinary way. How do you talk about rape with a tire iron without talking about pathological gender norms? How do you talk about violence and gender without talking about the family, labor relations, the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, and the implication of all sections of society in all of the above? It would be like discussing the bayonet rapes of Nanjing without raising broader questions about the organization of life and thought in 1930s Japan. It is easier to not talk: i.e., to talk around the particulars of yet another rape, about ‘anti-social elements’ or poor government or the death penalty for rapists. The periodic, anguished howl of the mob takes the place of what cannot be spoken by liberal citizens confronted by the limits of liberalism.

December 26, 2012