THE WAY IT WAS: Fix the rooster, not the hen! —Mian Ijaz Ul Hassan

If for Americans having a good apple a day keeps the doctor away, is it not equally true that sorting out bad apples will also keep the illness away. I say, let Americans eat their apples and Arabs their dates, lest cockroaches win the race

A person who is not connected with the state is considered a cockroach, nauseating and irrelevant. Whenever a squeamish person sights this dark-brown insect, he lets his foot descend on it with just enough pressure to finish it off, like they would a nut without smashing the kernel. The operation has to be delicately executed; too much pressure could squeeze out sickening spittle from a fairly crisp carcass. If the operation is hesitantly executed, the cockroach can recover from an inert state and dash off.

Cockroaches have one similarity with common people and individuals who are not connected with the state: they are infallible. The Pharaohs, the great Caesars, the terrible Czars, the mighty Ottomans and the grand Mughals are all gone. The common man has not merely survived but has been instrumental in propelling human civilisation towards higher and more human goals.

Experts say cockroaches inhabited this planet much before the dinosaurs. The dinosaurs perished but the cockroaches survived. We are also told the cockroaches are the only creatures that can survive a nuclear holocaust.

Cockroaches apparently treat all cockroaches with equality; they don’t denigrate cockroaches from other part of the neighbourhood or treat them with hate or prejudice and they don’t threaten anyone with war. Man is not like that. He likes to inflict pain on his own kind. There are even some men and women who like to send photographs back to their parents of a successful hunt; grinning with thumbs up before human carcasses stacked in a pile and abusing unclad soldiers blindfolded with women’s underwear. I wonder who bore, bred and trained such wretches.

I remember seeing the photographs of the Mai Lai Massacre. In one shot, the photographer had captured the moment before the villagers were mowed down by machine gun fire. In one of my paintings on the subject, I tried to universalise the tragedy by isolating the group of women and children from their immediate surroundings. While helping the viewer to focus on the reported event, I tried to hold him accountable and aware of the common destiny that he shares with humans in other parts of the world.

In the photograph and my painting, an old woman, with striking resemblance to my grandmother, is standing in front. Her daughter holds her in a tight embrace from behind. A young woman on the left, probably the daughter-in-law, is extending a protective hand over her daughter’s head who slinks behind her in fear. Behind them, flanked on the right I presume is the second daughter. Balancing a bewildered baby on her hip, she submissively seems aware of what is about to happen. An older boy pulls at her shirt peering in the far distance. I look at this painting and ask myself again and again: why did the US soldiers have to do this?

Acts of violence can never be condoned but can happen in thoughtless moments of anger or madness. A young girl who transforms herself into a human bomb is understandable because she thinks it to be the only course open to avenge a father or brother who has been mercilessly targeted by a powerful enemy. The enemy is so awesome that she can neither go to court nor fight in battle. She has nothing to live for and even gods cannot stop her from determining the moment of her death.

In the literary context, students of Greek or Elizabethan drama would understand the implications of this tragic defiance — “And damn’d be him that first cries, ‘Hold, enough!’” shouts Macbeth when he finds everything has been lost. Death for a tragic hero at such moments of self-realisation acquires an inconsequential dimension.

It is impossible to understand the dispassionate perception of pain and cruelty, even by those who live in societies rent with crime and violent acts of passion. James Bond represents a society that could easily estrange itself from the consequences of its own actions. On one occasion Bond politely asks a person if he could swim and on learning that he could not, pushes him overboard. Bond hated his enemies not because of any philosophical reasons but because they were not well-bred. You don’t order red wine with fish.

We all have a bit of Bond in us, but most humans try to repress the urge to even squash a cockroach. It is apparent that after long practice, starting with decimating the Indian nations to the more recent capture of Palestine and the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, Washington has elevated the satanic vice into a virtue. What has recently come to light about the happenings in Abu Ghraib Prison are not a result of an isolated aberration but a product of cultivated arrogance and complete indifference to other humans. Draw first or die. The only good Indian is a dead Indian; today it is equally true of Arabs and Muslims.

The prisoners in Baghdad are being abused, tortured and killed in a manner that according to Rumsfield’s own admission is, ‘sadistic, inhuman and cruel’. They are being treated like flies, killed for sport. Most industrialised societies that have a history of colonisation, who plundered other countries and cruelly subjugated other people, are habitually inclined to do the same. They treat small and weak countries as bananas that can be peeled and gobbled at will; they associate the weak people with cockroaches that can be squashed without thought.

Members of the Queen’s Lancashire Regiment like to piss on them; others relax with their favourite brew and prefer to have them abused and tortured for an evening’s entertainment. It is shocking to recall that the most offensive video footage that could be produced against the terrible, terrorist Taliban was that of a woman, entirely concealed from view under a thick black burqa, being publicly punished with a stick.

And now a word on apples. It is a strange coincidence that some apples packed and sent to Iraq have turned up to be rotten. Some British eggs have also been found to be bad. It should be easy for Britain, which has a longer colonial history, to diagnose when and why the English hens started laying bad eggs. Frankly the hen can be only partially blamed. It is after significant wear and tear that a hen lays an egg. It is the rooster that needs to be fixed.

There is no doubt that the citizens of the US are good — although they insist on having better antecedents than the rest of world. Americans are never tired of throwing around names of their great founding fathers, but they should remember that the world would not know America by the good apples kept home but by the rotten ones sent abroad. If for Americans having a good apple a day keeps the doctor away, is it not equally true that sorting out bad apples will also keep the illness away.

I say, let Americans eat their apples and Arabs their dates, lest cockroaches win the race.

Prof Ijaz-ul-Hassan is a painter, author and a political activist