By Rajan Philips –
President Obama is under siege. Not enough having to put out fires in far flung places he was suddenly faced with a domestic flair in Ferguson, Missouri. The brutal shooting of Michael Brown, an 18 year old unarmed African American kid, by a white policeman, brought Ferguson, a quiet rundown St. Louis suburb, to the brink of civil unrest. The rest of the country was put on edge. That was until the even gorier spectacle of the beheading of an American journalist, James Foley, by an Islamic State executioner in Syria, hit the news waves. The beleaguered President first took time out from his vacation and overseas preoccupation to calm African Americans who were not only distraught by the shooting but were also incensed by the police handling of protests following the shooting. Soon he was forced to publicly mourn another American killed outside America for different hostile reasons, and promise retribution to the perpetrators.
The man who roared into presidential power proclaiming the audacity of hope is now winding down his tenure struggling to avoid the stigma of failure. The African Americans are unhappy that President Obama, the nation’s first African American President, has not spoken enough to educate the rest of America about the systemic harassment of economically underprivileged black youth by socially Neanderthal sections of white police. While many white Americans are satisfied that the President is showing the right balance to keep racial tensions under control, most Americans are not happy about the President’s foreign policy. No American wants to go to war anywhere, but all American politicians want America to be strong everywhere. President Obama is held singularly responsible for supposedly weakening America around the world and emboldening its enemies everywhere. No one would be able to name any President before Obama who was able to conclusively resolve any global issue by the use of force. Yet, the notion that Obama is weak prevails, and it is sustained at two levels: the transparent pontification by foreign policy pundits to some of whom American power is the divine purpose behind creation, and the subconscious aversion among a not insubstantial number of Americans to having a black man in the White House.
President Obama and America are also caught in the global spotlight. Ever since America became the sole superpower, it has become the target of global schadenfreude: malicious gloating over someone else’s misfortune – the perfect German word for a common human tendency. During the Cold War years, America had many vocal supporters worldwide because they felt more threatened by the Soviet Union and communism. With the bogey of communism gone, even America’s old friends and ideological soul mates are taking potshots at the US, more so than even erstwhile communists. The Michael Brown shooting has given them the excuse to point their finger at America. America is on trial, according to America’s global critics, and the world is watching. Who will be on trial for the beheading in Syria and how the world will watch it is a different story.
Although the rest of us are spectators to the goings on inside America and its interactions with the outside world, they do have implications for the goings on in different countries and their individual interactions with the outside world. Sri Lanka too is implicated both internally and externally. The police shooting of Michael Brown in America and its aftermath have similarities to police-minority interactions elsewhere and offer both positive and negative lessons to those who are willing to learn them, with or without the help of special commissions. The beheading in Syria and the possibility that the perpetrators could be young British Muslim citizens creates another level of implications for other countries including Sri Lanka.
On the one hand, the Sri Lankan government could ill-advise itself to appropriate the anti-Muslim rhetoric at home and ally itself with Israel abroad as a way to soften America’s insistence on war crimes investigation in Sri Lanka. The Central Bank could finance its highly paid PR agents in the US to produce brochures highlighting what an uprightly US-friendly country Sri Lanka is. It might even be fancied in Colombo, with encouragement from busybodies such as Subramanian Swamy, that such a cynical approach would go well with the assumed inclinations of the new Modi government in Delhi. The bigger chances are that such experiments will backfire. The alternative approach would be to be honest about Sri Lanka’s internal problems and intelligently address them by emulating the better examples from the US or anywhere else.
Racism in America and Barbarity in Syria
The Brown killing in the US and the beheading in Syria are unconnected events, but they are both manifestations of human intolerance of ‘others’ and the lack of respect for human life for a variety of reasons. They were not random killings. In Ferguson, there was no respect for the life of an African American youth; in Syria, there is no respect for the life of anyone. In Ferguson, disrespect stemmed from racism, in Syria and Iraq it is inspired by nihilism, and in Gaza it is the result of intransigence – of mostly one man. In the US, the killing came across as the late manifestation of an old problem that many hoped would finally go away with the election of African American President. In Syria and elsewhere the Middle East, age old methods are mixed with modern technology to deal with problems of recent origin. Among the rest of us in every other society, including Sri Lanka, intolerance of others and disrespect for their lives continue to be manifested in different ways and to different degrees.
Alexis de Tocqueville in his “Democracy in America”, the masterly survey of a still nascent and pre-civil war America by the itinerant Frenchman, devoted a long chapter to considering the status and the future of the three races inhabiting the territory of the United States: the European Whites, the African Blacks, and the indigenous population. The Europeans had founded a constitutional democracy for themselves while excluding the other two races, subjecting one to the “ultimate limits of slavery” and forcing the other to the “extreme edge of freedom.” America had found political emancipation, wrote Marx (“On the Jewish Question”) not long after Tocqueville, but not human emancipation. The civil war and the formal ending of slavery only partially emancipated the African Americans. Slavery was followed by segregation under the infamous “separate but equal” doctrine that was judicially confirmed in 1896 in the celebrated Plessy v. Ferguson case. It took another 60 years to overturn “Plessy” by the 1954 unanimous Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education. Oliver Brown was one of the parents who challenged the segregation policy of the Board of Education of his county. Thurgood Marshal argued the case for the parents and went on to become the first African American Supreme Court Judge.
Much positive water had flowed in America after the Oliver Brown case. The shooting of a different and younger Brown in a place called Ferguson shows the old wounds are still festering. As presidential candidate in 2008, Barak Obama said that while ‘race’ has always been an “organizing principle of American society”, its manifestation has varied from one generation to another. It is now history that he was able to become President thanks to the civil right struggles of earlier generations of African Americans and the gradual transformation of the minds and mores of white America. The Michael Brown shooting and the earlier killing of another African American youth, Trayvon Martin, in Florida, show prejudices still persist in spite of generational changes and progress.
On the positive side, the American system has developed instruments to fight official prejudice at local levels. A Federal investigation into the shooting in Ferguson has been ordered by the Attorney General who is also an African American. The glaring prejudice in Ferguson is that in a predominantly African American jurisdiction, only three of the 53 police officers are African Americans. While such an imbalance is not unique to America, what is unique about America is that most Americans and virtually all political leaders are opposed to the persistence of racial imbalance in local police precincts. That could be a positive lesson for political leaders in other societies including Sri Lanka.
Apart from prejudice, the local police in Ferguson and St. Louis have also shown a preference for a militarized response to the protests that followed the Brown shooting. The sight of white policemen with military hardware confronting black protestors in clouds of tear-gas and smoke bombs has drawn the ire and criticism of political and civil society leaders across the country, as well as police agencies outside the state of Missouri. Claire McCaskill, the national Senator for Missouri, has called upon the police Ferguson to “demilitarize” their approach to people. This is also a call that America should heed in dealing with people outside America.
The troubles in Gaza, Iraq and in Syria, already complicated by mountains of historical prejudices, are further complicated by the increasing involvement of Muslim citizens from Western countries. While no one is suggesting non-violent prayers in the face of beheading miscreants, it is pertinent to ask the question whether Prime Minister Netanyahu’s militaristic approach should be the only approach in the Middle East. The lesson for Sri Lanka is not to be carried away by the example of Israel in dealing with its own internal problems. While united by religion, Muslim populations differ in history, culture and politics from country to country. The Islamic landscapes are fundamentally different in the Middle East, in Africa, and in South and Southeast Asia. The Sri Lankan and Indian political leaders would do well to treat their Muslim populations in the inclusive historical and cultural settings of the two countries, without being swayed by the misplaced notion of clashing civilizations.