Society Numb to brutality

 

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Category: Trinidad Society 02 Dec 12

 

On a scalding day in Rome earlier this year, I was looking through the white haze at the ruins of this amphitheatre, which once seated 50,000 people, from the uppermost of the four floors of the spectacular Coliseum, built during the reign of the Flavian emperors (69-96).

Something a passing Italian guide said brought on a response so visceral it felt like a kick in the stomach which had nothing to do with the punishing heat and everything to do with Trinidad. She was saying in her Italian English that Emperor Titus held an opening party lasting 100 days, killing 5,000 animals. The uneducated, uncultured crowds desperate for diversion, roared with delight until they got bored of it.

Faced with a citizenry inured to animal blood, succeeding emperors decreed humans—the spectators—should kill humans; animals kill animals, and finally animals and humans. Gladiators, Christians, slaves, prisoners of war, those condemned to death were forced to fight to gain their freedom. And it had to be bloodier and bloodier. The mob wanted more and more, including the “humoristic” parade with “midgets, clowns and cripples.”

A Carnival brutality. It’s part of our love of gory spectacle. That’s when the images of Trinidad flooded my brain like a silent horror movie I was forced to watch. We are numb to brutality. We see dead people on the roads and drive by, dead men on the pavement and continue to drink, headlines of the murdered and turn the page, swerve past dead dogs, as easily as we avoid potholes.

We hurtle, like the early Romans, from spectacle to spectacle. In the past two weeks we’ve watched Dr Wayne Kublalsingh, university lecturer, Sandhurst military graduate, with a PhD from Oxford University, in that ring. And how we’ve enjoyed it. All we need now for our spectator sport is to put Kublalsingh in the middle of the stadium and sell tickets to watch him die, spurring him on.

The sight of a dying man makes thousands of us in that virtual arena jeer with glee, led by government ministers egging him to kill himself quickly, demonising him and his family as part of a cult, telling him to soak himself in corn soup and much worse. Issues? What issues? Independent technical reports? The hydrological study? The cost-benefit analysis for this segment? The social impact study? Transparency? Accountability? We are here for the theatre. Bring on the popcorn. When I first went to see him, he hadn’t eaten or drunk anything for eight days. I was struck by a cameraman on his break casually licking down his chicken and chips lunch while gawking at Dr Kublalsingh. The horror came from the ordinariness of this act.

It’s symptomatic of our collective rising inhumanity. If we can stuff ourselves in front of a dying man, then there are no lines where brutality begins or stops. The worst thing about it: the cameraman meant no harm, it’s just the way we are.

When I spoke to Kublalsingh on day 14 of his fast, supine on a stretcher, barely sheltered from the burning heat of the afternoon, I reminded him that people were actually hostile to him and didn’t see the point. I told him, perhaps brutally, that Gandhi had millions behind him. He, Kublalsingh, had just a handful of supporters. He replied: “It took just a handful to save the smelter.”

I asked him for compromise. He repeated tiredly: “I don’t want them to stop the $7.2 billion, 27-mile-long highway from San Fernando to Point Fortin. Just the nine miles from Debe to Mon Desir (costing a disproportionate $5 billion) that will destroy swampland, misplace communities; and only until an independent report is done.” Perhaps the independent review could begin without stopping the project?

“No,” he said, “that would be too risky.” Dr Kublalsingh is now on light drips; that has exposed him to ridicule. I told him that even Gandhi, in his longest fast ever against communal violence, hydrated with salt water daily and that he was not to feel he was losing face by drinking. Online polls show most people don’t know why he’s fasting, damning him for publicly committing suicide, holding a country at hostage.

Is his the “madman’s rant”? Who is he? His brother Hayden Kublalsingh told me. “Who Wayne is, who we are has little to do with position and everything to do with a boy who grew up with six siblings in a board house with no running water or electricity in Claxton Bay; playing in the rain, in muddy go-carts, eating simply, laughing loudly.

“At a very early stage in his life Wayne’s reading, reflection, writing and native intelligence give a different lens with which to view the world. He asked himself, ‘Who am I? What is my purpose in life? How will I impact on the world?’ “He is interested in equitable models for social development. He sees the connection between himself and society, and believes that caring for other humans, especially the vulnerable, is a fundamental element of life itself.

“He is a critical thinker, original, independent with a fierce sense of justice. To do this he is prepared to give everything away and leave himself with nothing.” Now he’s into his third week of fasting, none can predict how this will unravel. We can marvel at how Dr Kublalsingh’s resolve grows proportionately to his diminishing frame, his protruding ribs shed of muscle and fat, his increasing risk of multiple organ failure.

Dr Wayne Kublalsingh’s fast, in which he has shed over 40 pounds in two weeks says much more about each one of us than it does about him. This shrinking man is providing a bright, polished mirror with which to see ourselves. Every day we are seeing clearly amidst us civil-society groups and people like Winston Dookeran, Fuad Khan, Prakash Ramadhar, Caroline Seepersad-Bachan, who have crossed politics for humanity.

In this turning point of our history, it’s important for each of us to stand up and be counted on the side of a humane society that will not partake of this bloody spectator sport. Those in power know that spectators are fickle. If the tide turns towards this skeletal, disintegrating man, they will look for another lynching arena. It’s time those in power provide the compassion and compromise that could take us out of the bloody ring and put us on our way towards a civilised society. Even the Romans have moved on.

 

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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur