Sunday, January 02, 2005

The dancer upstairs

This upcoming week is the last week of class for my NCS course on ethics and war. Tod Lindberg, editor of the Hoover Institution's Policy Review, will be coming to speak on relations between Europe and the United States.

The other days, we will be watching a film on urban terrorism and guerrilla warfare, The dancer upstairs. It is from the British writer Nicholas Shakespeare's novel, directed by John Malkovitch. It tells the story of a lowly Peruvian lawyer turned police detective during the ferocious war of the Maoist Shining Path guerrillas and the Tupac Amaru urban guerrillas against the corrupt and authoritarian governments in Peru through the 198os. This detective, through sheer hard work and determination, succeeds in tracking down the leader of the Shining Path, Abimael Guzman (Ezekiel in the book and film). The film was, I think, underrated by critics and audiences - Malkovitch did an excellent job with a small budget, and the detective, played by Javier Bardem, is stunning in his lowkey realism. The film is better than the book; it has all the best aspects of a Graham Greene thriller - the moral passion play, a small man trapped in a bad situation, a doomed love.

I was in Peru, a Mormon missionary in the Andean highlands, in the late 1970s as Guzman, I now realize, was first emerging from the shadows and Shining Path was beginning its first armed atrocities in the mountains. I was in Huanuco at the time, which is on the eastern slope of the Andes, where the rivers lead down into the centers of the drug trade. Guzman was a prototypical Maoist revolutionary - in his dreams closest to the Khmer Rouge, really - a Peruvian provincial who managed to get some education in the heated philosophical circles in Paris, came away with an ideology of blood and redemption wrapped in a kind of marxist language. In his case, it was weirder than that - as a philosophy professor up in a remote university, no more than a high school at best, given the preparation of his pupils, he somehow latched onto Kant's Critique of Pure Reason as his revolutionary document. Can one imagine a less political work of philosophy? But it became the little red book for his followers - I remember photos that at the time I couldn't take seriously, of senderistas bearing aloft the Critique of Pure Reason in the street of some highland town, like the Bible in the procession into Mass. Many tens of thousands of dead later, it no longer seemed funny.

The dancer upstairs runs the Sendero Luminoso guerrillas together with the urban terrorist Tupac Amarus, who operated out of the utterly wretched Lima slums where I started my missionary work - Comas, for example, without water, power, much of anything. (And yet I was just back in Peru a year or so ago, and went to visit Comas - it has emerged as a solid working class, with sections of genuinely middle class, suburb of Lima.) In fact, they were not all one organization and operated in many ways very differently, reflecting differences in rural and urban terror. The key to all this in the novel and film is that the lawyer-turned-detective comes from an Indian town, speaks Quechua, and recognizes his home village in a sendero video.

The terrorist guerrillas, urban and rural, were finally smashed by a combination of a ruthless counterinsurgency campaign by the Peruvian security forces, including both police and military. It killed vast numbers of people. So did the guerrillas - the terrorist forces had a strong idea of purification, Khmer Rouge style, and alienated many Indians in the mountains with its policies cutting off the arms of mayors and other village leaders. It would be accurate to say that the authoritarian, sinister Fujimori government came in with a strong mandate to do whatever it took to defeat the rebels, and it did. But in this case, solid detective work tracked down the sendero leader, Guzman, and given the fanaticism around his person, it dealt a critical blow to sendero.

The aftermath has been difficult. The Fujimori government defeated the guerrilla terrorists; at the same time it demonstrated levels of authoritarianism and corruption that reached new lows even in Peru. (The most important writer on all of this - Sendero, Fujimori, the whole package - is the Peruvian journalist Gustavo Gorriti - as courageous as he is a good writer and reporter - parts of whose writing appeared in the New Republic and elsewhere - he is now back in Peru, after many years in exile.) It's not quite over, however. Guzman won a new trial following holdings by the Interamerican Court of Human Rights that his military trial in secret was procedurally improper - a new civilian trial sort of got started, in a bumbling way, amid indications that this was a fantastically bad idea, when one saw the reports of it being simply a meeting ground for old comrades who still harbor the same dreams of Khmer Rouge style power.

And then, of course, there is that cause celebre of the looney American and European left, Laurie Berenson, whose harboring of guerrillas bent on much death and destruction would have earned her a minimum life sentence in the United States, yet only got 15 or 20 in Peru, but who is regarded as a hero in less discerning quarters in the First World. Or at least, so the line goes, the process was unfair even if she was working with the guerrillas - she shouldn't have been tried by a military court. But she was retried by a civilian court, sentenced again, and finally, thank goodness, the Interamerican Court of Human Rights, no doubt seeing that it would have unleashed political chaos in Peru to have ruled otherwise (Berenson's American supporters often seem unaware that she is universally hated in Peru - the only folks who like her there are the remaining terrorists, dreaming of another chance at power), just a few weeks ago ruled that the civilian trial was procedurally adequate and did not overturn it. The chances of a sendero resurgence are far from negligible.

I care about this film for my class on war and ethics because it illustrates, first of all, the pressures of civil war, and the special pressures of urban terrorism. And then, the question of what the differences are between policework and soldiers' work. It does so in a setting in which the clinching move is made by solid detectivework, not by soldiers. And yet, even in Peru, the police were overwhelmed - there was no way to overcome sendero in the countryside without a complete mobilization of the Peruvian military, notwithstanding the extent of its abuses. It required a combination of police and military force to prevail.

But the differences between this experience, within a single society, within a single country, and the US global war on terrorism, are more instructive than the similarities. Of course, intelligence is the key - which is what the police really provided in the Peru of the film. But police work and even intelligence work is completely inadequate in a situation such the US war on terror - none of that matters, that is, if the terrorists have safe haven. If they have safe haven in third countries, then all the good intelligence and policework avails nothing. What makes the war on terror actual war is not the willingness to use weapons and soldiers of war against terrorists - occasionally even the Clinton administration was willing to do that. No, what makes it war is not the willingness to fight terrorists, but instead, the willingness to attack and bring down regimes and states that harbor terrorists. That is what the Clinton administration could never have fathomed, and the same would have been true with a Kerry administration.

Of course, the whole Clinton administration view that it was all policework, a matter of collecting evidence and arresting people and charging them in court - that is all nonsense in the war on terror. Of course one will need to do a lot of policework, arrest people, try them, and so on -especially in the big cities of Europe. Likewise one will have to gather vast amounts of intelligence. But it is only half a policy. Unfortunately, in the view of Kerry and his people, policework was the whole policy, the whole terror thing was nothing more than crime; fortunately, this was, pretty evidently, not the view of the American people in the election.