In the late 1980s, the leader of a militant organization was apprehended by the security forces. Since he was a leader any information he could divulge would be invaluable in ferreting out other militants.
A young intelligence officer was tasked to interrogate the man. The suspect was seated opposite him on the other side of a narrow table. Before a single question could be asked the man cleared his throat and spat at the officer.
This was a time, mind you, when there were proxy arrests, abduction on a whim, assault, torture and summary execution where the accusation of a ‘billa’ was considered proof positive of guilt. This particular officer, for the record, almost got dismissed because he insisted that those who were arrested have to be accorded a fair trial and refused to carry out an order ‘from above’ to execute his prisoners.
The prisoner was ready to die, obviously. Many of his comrades would have perished after arrest and he would have known about this. He may have thought he had nothing to lose. The officer had other intentions.
So, when the man spat at him and said ‘kill me!’ the officer had not flinched. He smiled. He said softly, ‘Malli, spit again!’ And that was how he was ‘broken down’. Within an hour he was in tears.
It was all about using the opponent’s strength against him. It was identifying a weak point to leverage an advantage.
The man was strong. He knew the odds were stacked against him. He had nothing to lose, and when one has nothing to lose one is close to invincible. When he spat, had the officer slapped, there would have been a moral victory for him. Had the officer done anything that the suspect expected him to do, it would have been a victory of sorts.
The officer probably knew this. He recognized the strength of character that prompted the action of spitting. He also knew that the man assumed that death was inevitable and that he could only expect brutality. That was the chink. The officer did the unexpected. He didn’t respond in any of the many ways the prisoner might have expected him to respond.
He could have been angry. Indeed, it might have angered him. He could have remained calm and perhaps he was. But he went a step further. He responded with kindness. A smile and the address were his weapons. He said ‘malli’ or younger brother which automatically made him ‘aiya’ or older brother. The kin terms have connotations. They penetrated the fearless shield of the prisoner. They found their mark.
Now it need not be a situation of a prisoner and an interrogator. The principle that needs to be obtained here refers to any situation of engagement with the enemy. You could take away the lesson of ‘compassion’ following the timeless advice of the Buddha: Nahi verena verani – sammanti’dha kudacanam; averena ca sammanti – esa dhammo sanantano [hatred never through hatred ceases, through love alone does it cease].
That would be empowerment enough of course. But in rebellious situations the encounters are not always dense with hatred. The lesson here is to find an opening into the enemy’s mind for that’s where the answer lies. Roam around inside that skull and you’ll find the weakness.
Just remember one thing though. It’s never a one way street. The enemy is not brain-dead and neither are you invincible.