Express to Georgia
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
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.
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 historytestimony 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 windssome
days the shelling sounded like it was right next to you, and others you
couldnt 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 hadnt
seen enough to make an informed assessment; a short visit was not going
to reveal all of Georgias 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 simplyand
no less admirablybecause 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 loveddiscovering 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 valuesthat 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 yearsthe first 10 years after the Cold Warwere
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 movementnot 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
religionnot 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 violencea general
consensus that political solutions are not only preferable but possible,
and that negotiation and compromise represent not abandonment of ones
convictions, but evidence of our shared belief in civilized resolution
of our differences. The fact that we repeatedly fail to adhere to these
idealsthe fact that millions worldwide have never enjoyed themdoes
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.
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