Eternal vigilance, the best response


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Category: Reflections Date: 01 Jan 06


It’s said in a million ways, I suppose, so there’s no harm in repeating it this first day of 2006. We can’t make resolutions to change the old ways (stubborn species that we are) unless we understand our old ways.


After a week of rifling through Western history, in Washington’s Smithsonian Mall, I am glutted with the past. Inside the doors of these beautifully laid-out museums, each an ode to architecture, is a compressed documentation of the horror, intelligence and beauty that man is capable of—classical and modern art, the invention of flying, or the horror of war, and the holocaust, where a sadistic, deeply sick regime was able to systematically kill six million Jews leading them like cattle to gas chambers.


These are collective events but they symbolise universal human attributes in you, in me. Our confused, lop-sided selves, lovely and horrible, envious and generous at the same time.


Most of Washington’s museums encircle a park with wintery skeletal trees where squirrels dart, children skate, and joggers deaf to the world with their iPods, scatter old autumn leaves. The scene reminds me of sunset at the Queen’s Park Savannah, the heady scents of blossoms underfoot, rapidly changing colours of the sky above, a brush of rain, dew we call it, on our cheeks.


Here, in the winter, the cold air snaps around your face until you feel a fever about you, but the exuberance at encountering the blend of man-made and natural beauty is the same.


We are all not so different after all. Yet, here we are tourists, eagerly looking at the way other people live, and see themselves.


Oh, yes, we do marvel, necks straining at the Congress Library with its stained glass, marble floors, intricate 23-carat gold work ceilings and millions of books. We stand, insignificantly dotted around the mammoth memorials of Lincoln, Jefferson, Washington, trace our fingers on the thousands of engraved names of the dead in Vietnam crammed on a black wall. We watch as an old man prays, tears rolling down his cheeks against one name that could have been a father, brother, friend.


We visit Arlington, where the military dead are buried neatly, a breathtaking memorial white atrium, and the Kennedy family plot lit with an eternal flame commanding a panoramic view, the rustling tree-filled cemetery. If you were just a tourist, life would appear so contained. The dead remembered, the lessons learned, beauty and intelligence documented.


But real life seeps through, as it always does, even through this dazzling sheen, the seat of a superpower, of a commander-in-chief, whose commands break and create governments, leave thousands dead, raise and drop the price of oil.


Oh yes, there are cracks revealing messiness of which we are all made. You see them in the old homeless people sleeping in the cold, on the plush pavements of Georgetown. A leaked report tells you of the government’s “domestic surveillance,” the tapped phones, hacked e-mails of thousands of civilians, without the permission or knowledge of the American people.


Doormen, cab drivers tell you of the people who recruit young underprivileged boys from ghettoes to the army, playing on their bravado, playing down the danger. You see the divide. The non-whites, the immigrants holding almost all the low-paid jobs of maids, shop assistants, cleaners.


It’s time for us all to update our memorials. For America to examine Katrina, their motives, their dead in Afghanistan and Iraq.


For us, in T&T, it’s time we erected memorials to the dead in 1990, to the kidnapped, murdered, traumatised citizens from every area, every socio-economic background, from Laventille to Westmoorings.


Which one of us hasn’t been traumatised?


The best response to any kind of terror, state or civilian, or personal, is to live as normally as we can, to remember that the price of our liberty, our beauty, our intelligence, our knowledge, our health, is eternal vigilance, to guard against the horror within ourselves (our greed, our vanity, our prejudices) and to live without fear.


Remember, and move on. But remember.

Happy New Year!


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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur