Saturday, September 03, 2005

Notes on the news

Exactly one year ago, far away in Russia, in a town named Beslan, agitating for the right to self-determination for their province, against repression and injustice, a handful of men took hostage a school-full of children, strapping bombs all over the place and around the kids. Somewhere amidst the stridency of the demands, the self-righteousness of the government, the edginess of the negotiators, patience ran out. Commandos invaded the fortified school, the men opened fire, the faces of children splattered in blood, a cruel dance of death lay waste victims, martyrs, monsters. The death of a few hundred children caught the world’s attention, yielded incredible images for the news bulletins. A little child faint in a commando’s arms, teachers rushing into the rain of bullets to pull away any of the frantic children, parents beating to death one of the hostage-takers who had rushed out of the building now erupting in flames. If you saw it, you would gasp, wince, choke.

Yesterday morning, BBC radio news had a piece on Beslan. After telling us of the new school building with all modern facilities like an up-to-date computer centre, the reporter speaks to one of the children who survived, one who survived the fear, the pain and the memories:

‘What do you feel when you think about that day?’

‘If my pain were to be measured in volts, it would be,’ she chokes, ‘nine-hundred-million-volts.’

Two months ago, the pogroms and bloodbaths that accompanied the re-drawing of maps of the Balkans, were far from forgotten. But a television station refused to let old perpetrators feign their peace. It audaciously broadcast at prime time a tape it had found – a recording of the cold-blooded killing of a few men: men in army-fatigues unload these men, their arms cuffed behind their backs, march them to a convenient spot, and shoot them one by one. The cameraman is walking amongst the killers – he is not hiding. What is remarkable is that none of the victims struggle; months of war have rubbed the futility of panic or pleading into them.

As the tape was broadcast, an old woman was settling down to her evening’s lonely gaze into the television. She couldn’t follow what was going on. The camera panned to a face, a bullet would pierce into the head, just above the ear, then a dull thud. Then to another face. Suddenly she sits up. The photograph on top of the TV is that of the face in the TV. At the precise moment she realizes that it is her son, missing for so many years, on the TV, the face winces, another thud.

Man turning on man. The victims of passion, and let us not forget, of ideas. Freedom, religion, communism, and so many more. Who was responsible for more human deaths than anyone else in history? The answer, I read today, is Mao Zedong. Chairman Mao of China. A monster? An idealist. The passion of ideas may cloud men’s minds so dangerously, that they lose all perspective. Is that idea worth this cost? Some never stop to consider. Hitler thought himself an idealist, Pol Pot attempted to create a rural Utopia.

That is why your idea is as good as mine. If what I say refutes what you say solely because it is what I say, and not because of its soundness, then there’s a problem.

Religion, philosophy, art, indeed civilization, are just modes of communication. I think this, you think that, they say this, she wrote that: now what are we to do? To stick to your own idea as gospel truth is to deny civilization itself. Humanity’s attempt at understanding Truth comes closest to success through a communion of minds. Together we work at this jigsaw puzzle of the human predicament, try to stay alive, find some fun. What more do we want? And who wants to send 900,000,000 volts through a child’s heart?

Postscript (source: Time magazine):

Emperor Hirohito was the titular head of Japan during World War II. Interrupting the conference that decided to wage war on the US, this reluctant warmonger recited a poem that his grandfather Meiji had once written in similar circumstances:
Though I consider the surrounding seas as my brothers
Why is it that the waves should rise so high?

It was an oblique call for restraint.

Three years later, after atomic bombs and fire-bombings, Emperor Hirohito announced Japan’s surrender with these words:
‘We have resolved to pave the way for a grand peace for all the generations to come by enduring the unendurable and suffering what is unsufferable.’