Vinay Lal

4 November 2007

In his televised speech last night in defense of his proclamation of Emergency in Pakistan, General Musharraf described himself as compelled to suspend constitutional rights to preserve Pakistan from destruction. Asking his allies to bear with him, Musharraf reminded them, and the Americans in particular, that their level of adherence to ‘human rights and democracy’ had been ‘learnt over the centuries’, and Pakistan could not hope for a similar achievement overnight. When America had been a nation for only a couple of decades longer than Pakistan has been a nation, its commander-in-chief had seen fit to suspend habeas corpus and other fundamental rights. Faced with the greatest threat that can come in the way of any nation, ‘Abraham Lincoln usurped rights to preserve the union’. Similarly, Musharraf added, ‘Pakistan comes first. Whatever I do is for Pakistan, and whatever anyone else thinks is secondary.’

When I first read this, I thought to myself that the General is unusually well-versed in Lincoln’s writings or, as is more likely, has at least spent some time with Bartlett’s Quotations or some such book — judging from the fact that, in his remarks in English, he quoted with obvious approbation Lincoln’s observation that ‘by general law life and limb must be protected; yet often a limb must be amputated to save a life.’ But I then recalled reading somewhere an interview with Musharraf where the name of Lincoln had cropped up, and few minutes on the internet brought me to an interview conducted by Ikram Sehgal, publisher and managing director of Pakistan’s Defence Journal, and posted on 22 January 2002 on Media Monitors Network. There Sehgal notes that during their conversation Musharraf pulled out an extract from Richard Nixon’s book, Leaders: “Lincoln’s consuming passion during the time of crisis (the American Civil War 1861-65) was to preserve the Union. Towards that end he trampled individual liberties. His justification was necessity. Explaining his sweeping violation of constitutional limits, Abraham Lincoln wrote in a letter in 1864: ‘My oath to preserve the Constitution imposed on me the duty of preserving by every indispensable means that government, that nation, of which the Constitution was the organic law. Was it possible to lose the nation and yet preserve the Constitution? By general law life and limb must be protected, yet often a limb must be amputated to save a life, but a life is never wisely given to save a limb. I felt that measures, otherwise unconstitutional, might become lawful by becoming indispensable to the preservation of the Constitution through the preservation of the nation. Right or wrong, I assumed this ground and now avow it.’”

Hallowed is the ground on which Lincoln tred, and many Americans might take umbrage at Musharraf’s invocation of the name of the so-called Great Emancipator to justify his assumption of dictatorial powers. The fact that Musharraf knows Lincoln through Nixon is not inconsequential, but nevertheless, even knowing Musharraf to be an unusually savvy man, it is much more than mere awareness of instrumental rationality that is on display here. Lincoln saw before him a nation beset by a terrible crisis and an immense moral dilemma. The indubitable fact remains that George W. Bush, who now occupies the office once held by Lincoln, sees the whole world beset by what he deems to be the fundamental crisis of modern civilization, namely (Islamic) terrorism. Speaking in apocalyptic language, Bush aims at a successful prosecution of the ‘war on terror’ to save not only the American nation but all of humanity from the scourge of terrorism. Adopting, so to speak, Malcolm X’s slogan of ‘by any means necessary’, Bush has trampled upon the civil liberties of Americans and (in American parlance) ‘aliens’, authorized torture, waged brutal wars upon defenseless people, and savaged international law – all in the name of saving the world from terror. Let us also not forget that, in common with Musharraf, Bush has similarly quoted Lincoln on more than one occasion.

Musharraf’s invocation of Lincoln thus gives rise to an entire set of complex issues. As America’s trusted ally in the East, closer to the various presumed centers of terrorism, Musharraf is described as shoring up the ‘war on terror’. By Bush’s own declared criteria, Musharraf has been acting to preserve the world from the scourge of al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and other forces of terrorism. Bush has not formally declared an Emergency in the United States, but the nation has been on a continuous war footing since the attacks of 11 September 2001. Musharraf has given the name to what Bush has been doing all along. In condemning the imposition of Emergency in Pakistan, Bush in effect would be condemning himself. Perhaps Musharraf will pointedly remind him of this uneasy coincidence. Meanwhile, we can reflect on the fact that, through Lincoln, Musharraf and Bush can be recognized by everyone else as the mirror images of each other.