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Spring 2003
Volume 39, No. 3
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Midnight Express to Georgia

On a street in Istanbul and a highway in the former Soviet republic of Georgia, Professor Ron Cluett learns a lesson for perilous times about security and freedom...

This essay by Ron Cluett, assistant professor of classics and history at Pomona College, won a bronze medal in the 2002 international essay competition sponsored by the The Economist and Shell Corporation.

The aging Lada lurched up the Georgian military highway toward the Chechen border. My guide and translator offered learned commentary on Georgian history, while I took in the spectacular South Caucasus scenery en-route to the war zone. But I was finding it difficult to concentrate both my attention and my vision. Three days earlier, I had been drugged and robbed and abandoned in an Istanbul gutter by a gang of Chechen thugs. Although uncertain where I stood on the tortured and tragic politics of the Russian-Chechen conflict, I had voted, however involuntarily, with my wallet. Some part of the $1,000 in new hundred-dollar bills I had been carrying with me was probably wending its way to the Chechen resistance right now, for all I knew on the same route I was taking.

The Turkish doctors had assured me that my recovery was complete, the drugs I was slipped potent but without lasting effect. I had no reason to doubt their expert opinion; perhaps I was just groggy from lack of sleep, or even still suffering from mild shock. I doubted for a moment the wisdom of continuing to Georgia after such a close call in Istanbul. But only for a moment; if anything, my brush with personal danger had only sharpened my determination. The road north from Tbilisi to the Chechen border unfolds layer upon layer of Georgian history, from early Christian churches to the Russian conquest of the Caucasus to the travails of the break-up of the Soviet Union. I now felt a personal involvement in one small episode of that history—testimony to the triumph of ego over adversity. And I had decided while recuperating in Istanbul to reassert as quickly as possible my faith in the basic decency of the human race. How better to do that than to trust a total stranger I had met in a Tbilisi museum to escort me to the border of a war zone?

We stopped at a small farm by the side of the road for some freshly grilled pork. In a part of the world where borders are both porous and violently defended, this menu offered sufficient proof that we were still in Christian Georgia and not Muslim Chechnya. No one else was around. The warm March sunlight had yet to melt all the snow, which we used to substitute for running water. Through my translator, I asked the farmer about the war. I knew that we would not be able to proceed much further north. However foolhardy I was willing to be, my translator had a husband and children waiting for her back in Tbilisi. This farmer would be my eyes and ears from the front. I would have no way of verifying whatever he told me; his story would become my story. The farmer said it depended on the winds—some days the shelling sounded like it was right next to you, and others you couldn’t hear anything. No sound except our voices disturbed that March afternoon. But now I could hear the absence of sound, and it was loud. We ate mostly in silence; we were all listening to that same absent noise. And I was now fully awake and alert.

Night was falling as we drove back into Tbilisi, past the Hotel Iveria, once the pride of Intourist and now a tenement for Abkhaz refugees. The security forces were out in numbers, with only their uniforms to distinguish their loitering from that of the civilian crowds in the streets. Those streets felt restive and uneasy in the spring of 2000. Perhaps it was the accumulated tension of years of poverty and unrest after the break-up of the Soviet Union; perhaps it was the upcoming elections, and the constant whispering about corruption and malfeasance in high places. I hadn’t seen enough to make an informed assessment; a short visit was not going to reveal all of Georgia’s secrets to me. And frankly, I was glad to take refuge in my five-star hotel, a fortified enclave in the middle of a beautiful and troubled land. I was willing to run certain risks in pursuit of my political and historical interests; but I was also grateful to be able to retreat from those risks to the familiar comforts of bourgeois life. I ordered room service and slept soundly for the first time since my troubles in Istanbul.

I have thought of this experience often in the year since September 11. Although casual disregard for human life still offends me, it lost its power to shock me that day in March 2000. I have few illusions about the ruthlessness of the ‘enemy’, whoever he is and however he is defined. I felt as if I knew Daniel Pearl personally; we are almost the same age, and I could easily have been in his place. I have tremendous admiration for those who risk their lives every day in situations much worse than the ones I faced, because it is their calling or simply—and no less admirably—because it is their job. Ultimately, however, what has made my Turkish and Caucasian adventures of continuing interest and relevance to me is a paradox at the heart of the experience, which only September 11 and its aftermath finally revealed: never have I felt less secure, and never have I felt more free.

My insecurity hardly requires elaboration. Only days before I had been left for dead in an Istanbul alley, and here I was in an unstable country, on the periphery of a war zone, in the company of total strangers. But my sense of freedom was no less real for being less obvious. I was alive. I was doing something I loved—discovering a new place whose history and politics fascinated me. I was in the company of others. Strangers, to be sure, but people whose warmth and intelligence were quickly eroding whatever lingering suspicions I harbored. Most fundamentally, I was making a personal statement about my values—that most people are trustworthy; that communication is both imperative and possible; that the past matters in the present, and can heal as well as divide; and that giving in to those who seek our destruction is an unacceptable moral surrender. I did not articulate these values to my companions. My convictions had no audience outside my interior dialogue. But multiplied by millions, with a million variations, these are the convictions that sustain civilisation in the face of chaos. Freedom can sometimes be frightening, but it also intoxicates.

Our collective security is no different. It was always an illusion. What happened on September 11 simply forced us to confront the existence and power of forces which have been dedicated to our destruction for a long time. The Clinton years—the first 10 years after the Cold War—were a ‘Bill Époque’ for many in the West, and in America in particular. We can take many steps to increase the various metrics of physical security, from biometric passports to positive bag matching to increasing our stockpiles of critical vaccines. And we should take those steps. To do anything less would be a passive surrender, and only invite further loss of life in addition to the intolerable numbers already lost. But no technology, no procedure, no law is ever going to recover that sense of psychological security which was false to begin with. The ‘Bill Époque’ is over. Our challenge now is to rediscover our freedom in the midst of our insecurity.

The most important freedoms to me right now are those that seemed most under attack on September 11. Freedom of movement—not only to be able to board a plane in safety, but to live in an open world in which borders regulate but do not prevent the movements of people. Freedom of religion—not only my right to choose what to believe and what not to believe, but my freedom either to hold those beliefs in private or to debate them in public forums without fear of reprisal or persecution. And perhaps most importantly, freedom from political violence—a general consensus that political solutions are not only preferable but possible, and that negotiation and compromise represent not abandonment of one’s convictions, but evidence of our shared belief in civilized resolution of our differences. The fact that we repeatedly fail to adhere to these ideals—the fact that millions worldwide have never enjoyed them—does nothing to lessen their value or their appeal.

We can insist on these freedoms in numerous individual ways. Board a plane; buy a religious text from a faith not your own; listen to your opponent in a debate, rather than waiting for your turn to state your opinion; vote for those who seek workable solutions without sacrificing their core convictions; or simply vote and read, and talk to your neighbors. At the same time, we must also insist as a society on the freedoms that define us. It is imperative that we collectively assert who we are, and make clear what distinguishes us from those who seek our destruction. But it is equally vital that we follow through on and live up to those declared values, by observing the rule of law, due process for all, and the presumption of innocence. And we must never allow our anxiety to extinguish our hospitality. Unless we extend these freedoms and courtesies to everyone, we extend them to no one. The toughest cases demand our greatest scrupulousness. We have already seen our sense of security snatched from us against our will; let us not voluntarily abandon our freedoms in response.

I returned from Tbilisi to New York as I had arrived, via Istanbul. The return trip was uneventful. I had survived one of the stranger episodes of my life, and learned some important lessons about the world, and the place I had chosen for myself in it. But my return journey did contain one irony, which would not be apparent to me until that September morning 18 months in the future. As I boarded the Delta jet for the flight to New York, I quietly exhaled. I was about to cross the Atlantic in the safety and relative comfort of a major American airline. I felt as if I was as good as home already. What could go wrong now? Clearly, I still had a lot to learn, as did we all.

—Ron Cluett
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