It wasn’t until the penultimate sentence of the final chapter that I was certain what Amitava Kumar’s latest book was trying to say. “Instead,” the author concludes, “the larger point is that the war on terror is obscuring from our sight the war in Iraq and its human cost.” Prior to this declaration, Kumar had expended 186 pages’ worth of explication, to varying degrees of success, without explicitly supporting any particular thesis.
A Foreigner Carrying in the Crook of His Arm a Tiny Bomb, whose title is a play on an earlier work with a nearly identical title (Kumar turned “book” into “bomb”), looks very much like a supplementary reader in a cultural studies class and, in fact, reads similarly to what one would expect from such a niche role. That Kumar enticed me to keep reading long after I’d given up hope on discovering the book’s raison d’être entitles the author to a small measure of genuflection, if even a bit reluctantly.
Kumar’s reflections on the American response to the September 11 attacks center around two individuals: Hemant Lakhani, “a seventy-year-old tried for attempting to sell a fake missile to an FBI informant;” and Shahawar Matin Siraj, who the author believes was “baited by the New York Police Department into a conspiracy to bomb a subway.” Interspersed throughout are various vignettes devoted to artists and intellectuals whose visceral repulsion with an increasingly militant national anti-terrorism campaign was duly expressed in some truly inventive works of art. Among these is Hasan Elahi’s rigorous self-surveillance routine, in which he painstakingly logs every action he undertakes, ostensibly as evidence in the event of a government investigation — but on a larger scale, as a protest against that very same state-directed intervention.
Kumar’s failings, strangely enough, can be attributed to his fascination with this and other tangential narratives. It is not that they are irrelevant to a sober discussion of anti-terror initiatives; however, at times the author becomes so enamored of his subjects that he neglects to take a larger view. He lingers for some time on the questionable role of the government informant in the Lakhani case, recounting his many failings as a businessman as if to prove his lack of credibility via low credit score. And yet Kumar recoils when such circumstantial evidence is used to convict Lakhani, a man who was caught on tape proclaiming that “it will [expletive] their mother if one or two [planes are struck by bombs]…If it happens ten or fifteen places simultaneously at the same time…The people will be scared to death that how this could have happened.”
The problem with focusing so heavily on character is that the same technique Kumar uses to condemn the government’s methods in pursuing suspected conspirators is doubly as effective against the perceived victims of the state’s investigations. Clearly, as evidenced by American atrocities at Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo Bay, serious crimes were committed in the name of justice. But Kumar’s valiant attempts to humanize the enemy notwithstanding, his defenses wither in the face of insurmountable evidence. Seemingly realizing this, Kumar mostly shies away from directly contradicting judicial verdicts; instead, he observes from his perch on the periphery, remarking on incongruity on the margins as the heavy hand of the state came crashing down with a vengeance.
Describing the 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai, Kumar notes that “what saves me from the annihilating hatred, if only for a moment, is the voice of the terrorist at the other end [of the phone conversation, which was recorded]…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…Rightly or wrongly, I’m caught by the drama of the displaced provincial, the impoverished youth finding himself in the house of wealth.” This all makes for a tidy little novel, but reality is rarely so neatly synopsized. By dancing along the edges of the legal process, Kumar contributes little to the discussion of where the American response went wrong. This is an unfortunate consequence caused by a writer’s compassion; the result, then, is a scattered cacophony that leaves one unsatisfied with the hurried conclusion.