Thursday, May 08, 2014

Darkness at Noon

A few days ago, two men were supposed to have been executed by lethal injection within hours of each other. One of them had been Tasered for refusing to leave his cell.  It took almost an hour to find a vein which apparently collapsed during the procedure causing the victim agonising pain as he was insufficiently sedated, hence  the lethal cocktail leaked into surrounding tissue. The other, two hours from his own introduction to the grim reaper, had his appointment delayed by six months.
The Death Penalty - let's just capitalise it for a moment to emphasise the irony - is, according to Amnesty International "the premeditated and cold-blooded killing of a human being by the State".
Despite considerable deliberation - what man has not thought about such things  - I am in no position to hold an opinion other than one of moral ambivalence. Indeed, I am not sure anyone else has either, compelling as both arguments surely are. The fact remains that peoples all over the world have ceremonial judicial systems, complete with strange garb and unfamiliar language which can under extreme circumstances, result in the dispensational ability of such systems to legally take life, often by quite exotic means.
So be it. If that is their stance, wish and procedure. There are deeper ethical questions to answer however. The use of chemicals is considered humane. Why then are drugs used in such a way as to expose the victim and an invited audience to a media sideshow, complete with "witnesses" and curtains as in a theatre? The victim is paraded before his audience on a cruciform trolley. He may or may not say something. There may be tears of remorse - who knows? A man may say almost anything when confronted with the inescapable removal of his soul from his body. 
The composition of the lethal cocktail has been discussed at some length, first sedative then respiratory seizure then cardiac failure. Animals are "put to sleep" in veterinary clinics daily. It would be more humane to ask a vet to do it, rather than leaving it to people who have in whatever corner of their minds, notions of retribution, social payback or political expediency. In this unfortunate case, for a state that executes people on a regular basis, all that can be said is that they're just not very good at it.
I remember as a teenager being enthralled by Arthur Koestler's  "Darkness at Noon"  whose lead character, a small time Party official in a fictionalised reconstruction of Stalin's Terror was arrested, confessed and inevitably executed, for the greater good, of course. His death was memorably described as "a shrug of eternity". If we no longer carry moral scruple, ritualised executions are no more or less than collective shrugs, clothed in ritual whose sole purpose, it seems,  is to confer legitimacy. I think it's time we all grew up.

Wednesday, May 07, 2014

Worlds Apart

Most of my life, man and boy, has been spent shuffling around between libraries and classrooms, optimistically hunting down scraps and titbits to add to the rambling neural labyrinths somewhere inside my head. I'm not being vain or superior, the fact is, we all do it, to a greater or lesser extent. Not the shuffling part, let me be clear, but the finding out part. It's relatively uncomplicated to amass facts, Dickensianly unconnected, and preen oneself at cocktail parties because one can pronounce the capital city of Burkina Faso correctly. It's a little bit more difficult to actually think for oneself, which is, after all, the holy grail of the educator. If my students simply outgrow me, I've done my job and led them forth with enough mental apparatus to make a difference in the world.
My alma mater 1964-1969

I was taught English literature by a master of his craft. English public schools throw up such people from time to time and one is indeed fortunate if such a one crosses one's path. He taught us, we gormless, pustular clods, to recognise type and similarity in a story. One term we were doing Lear. He asked us whether the story reminded us of anything. We sat in stupefied silence. He blew gently through his pipe and asked whether any of us had been read to as children. Hands went up, shiftily. He then asked, with sarcasm both weighty and painful whether any of us had, perhaps, come across a story about two bitchy sisters and their kind sibling who was bullied and humiliated just for being good, the story of Cinderella. Ah. When studying 'The Clerk's Tale', Chaucer's story was easily transposed into 'A Winter's Tale' where tormented wives suffered unreasonable treatment at their husbands' hands.
I was, of course, privileged beyond peradventure. Which is, I suppose, why I find myself outraged to the point of foaming homicide when a collection of rag-tag, brutal peasants in a town in northern Nigeria take it upon themselves not just to deny young girls the chance to think for themselves but have the unconscionable savagery to attempt to blame their perverted, vomitous behaviour on a tattered piece of fiction masquerading as religious literature and the halfwitted ramblings of its ignorant interpreters. These girls have become spoils of war and may even now be locked down in some disgustingly filthy hovel where their captors feel themselves entitled to use them for whatever obscene and grotesque purpose their shrivelled intellects can devise.
I do not normally find myself wishing ill upon any of my fellow-travellers on this planet. But, the head of this pernicious organisation, twitching manically and mumbling into the camera, is of a very different stripe as he threatens to sell the captive girls at the market. The video clip should be watched, disturbing as it undoubtedly is, so that the whole world sees what happens to people who have been overtaken by a dangerous religious mania. It should most especially be watched by those who seem to imagine themselves guiltless since they are only paying for the continued existence of this appalling, diabolical sect.

I am short on charity for the leader of Boko Haram, despite clear evidence of his mental unravelling. He stands for every twisted inversion of everything I have spent my life promoting and were he to be captured, and were I in charge of his sentencing, I would ensure that he lived long and had ample opportunity to listen to the howling voices in his head. Without interruption from his fellows. For an awfully long time.

Tuesday, May 06, 2014

Hammers and Plowshares

Kids in the Park
Sometimes, life just tumbles over on itself, accelerating like a poorly made snowball down a bumpy hill. A few months ago, I was enjoying retirement and trying not to feel guilty for "forgetting" to mow the lawn or wondering when I might find the time to hoover the bottom of the swimming pool. Then, here I came, tossed like a pebble into the clash of cultural Titans which is daily life on this little spit of land jutting precariously into the West Bank like an unwelcome drunk at the wedding. 
Girls on Jaffa Street

Friction wears down the surfaces, however, much as John Kerry must have felt over the months of negotiating between two implacable opponents, one of whom would just prefer to be left alone, and the other wants them dead. Since I last spent an extended period of time here, the wall - the offensive rock to both sides - has been extended so that it becomes more difficult for Palestinian youth, fuelled by Friday rhetoric, to hurl Molotov cocktails over it - and the icon of dissent on which Western liberals so profusely scrawl their ill-conceived messages likening the 'occupation' to Nazism - an irony there - or, worse, apartheid. John Kerry's aside, however much the Administration now back-pedals, gained traction among the twittering classes. The effect has been to isolate. East Jerusalem, mostly grubby and poor, was always foreign and is more so now. The West Bank broods even more darkly, cementing its cultural identities with increasingly grim-faced determination with plasterwork of brittle, mutinous resentment.
Abbas, the survivor (whatever is he still doing in charge?),  has signed agreements with the hounds in Gaza, who, as soon as they gain a toehold, will elect their own in the West Bank, when "currently diluted for political reasons", some of their original Articles of Covenant may well find a ready and willingly gullible audience. 
I am tired. Tired of dissecting out the lies. Tired of defending in the face of the tidal waves of misanthropic fiction in the media. Tired of defending America when she seems less and less competent to conduct a diplomatically civilised game of what is becoming more and more like chance rather than skill. How the Israelis must feel about the behaviour of their long-time ally is beyond understanding. Long ago, they must have realised that bleating to the foreigners won't get the job done.
Yesterday was Yom Hazikaron, or Memorial Day for victims of war and terror. A week ago it was Yom HaShoah, or Holocaust Memorial Day, and today is Independence Day. The juxtaposition of these three events is not without significance. The last commandment of Torah, post 1945, has been, unofficially, "never again" and, perhaps more trenchant, "never stand by". As the tiny, fledgling nation was birthed, architects of its destruction threw themselves at it from all sides, determined that it should never come to maturity. The scale of the invasion in 1948 was astonishing, their response little short of miraculous. They fought with the tenacity of survival, threw their enemies back and had the Jordanians not broken faith, the indigenous Palestinians from over the border would have had their homeland almost seventy years ago. The Israelis have long memories and there was much to celebrate last night, at least on their side of the fence. The Arabs remember this as 'Nakba' or 'catastrophe'.  The question is no longer 'who's to blame?' but 'can Nakba and Independence co-exist in the same space?' They are like conjoined Siamese twins, trumping each other with aces of victimhood.  In the moment, however, the Jaffa Street celebrations overrode any darker considerations.
Google's offering this year - a bit subdued, I think

It was good to mingle as the crowds gathered, for a party that went on all night. Teenagers with shaving foam mercifully restricted their targeting to each other. Gigantic inflatable plastic hammers emblazoned with blue and white were carried by young children who amused themselves by hitting each other with them, the irony of which reminded me of Isaiah 2:4. I flitted like a wraith, unnoticed amidst the optimism and celebration, simultaneously at home and a stranger.