29 May, 2022


Brown Vs America Vs The Islamic State – And The Rest Of Us, Spectators

By Rajan Philips

Rajan Philips

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.

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Latest comments

  • 1

    I dont know where Ranjan philiphs is living but to say America is on edge is a joke . This sort of thing happens every day here but it is the 24 hour news cycle blows it up .

    The fact is that Obama is a failure . it is almost like he achieved nothing . every step forward is followed by 2 steps back .



  • 1

    Rajan Phillips:

    You are good at preaching to others.

    why don’t you ask your own tamils not to be tribal and to forego the casteism ?

    See this:

    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.

    See Obama is a black – from a highly suffered group. See how he has forgotten and become completely a different one.

    Now, in order to get the revenge, they are preparing to go at Syria.

    Brown’s – unarmed teenager’s death – case. It will be another one like all other events.

  • 1

    Rajan Philips –

    RE: Brown Vs America Vs The Islamic State – And The Rest Of Us, Spectators

    This is what “Thomas Paine of Ahe of Reason” of sri Lanka, A,E, Adikaram has to say about this subject, given below.

    Isn’t the Nationalist a Mental Patient?


    Reproducing historic article by Dr E W Adikaram

    At a time when few practise what they preach, Lankan scholar, writer and social activist Dr E W (Edward Winifred) Adikaram (1905-1985) was an illustrious exception. As a public intellectual, he had the courage of his convictions to speak out on matters of public interest — even when such views challenged widely held dogmas or went against populist trends. As a sceptical inquirer as well as a spiritualist, he always ‘walked his talk’. He never hesitated to take the often lonely (and sometimes bumpy) high road.

    Adikaram’s worldview was shaped by both science and the humanities. He initially offered science and mathematics at Colombo University College but later switched to Pali and Sanskrit. Having won a government scholarship, he went to England where he obtained his MA and Ph D from the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. His 1933 PhD thesis titled “Early History of Buddhism in Ceylon” (published in 1946) is still considered an extraordinary body of historical research.

    Isn’t the Nationalist a Mental Patient?

    By Dr E W Adikaram

    Are you a Sinhalese? If you are a Sinhalese, how do you know that? I have asked this question from many who call themselves Sinhalese. I have so far never received a satisfactory reply from any of them.

    I have also asked those who say that they are Tamils, Telegus, etc., as to how they know that they are Tamils, Telegus and so on. From them too, I have never received a satisfactory reply.

    When this question is asked, some get annoyed. Some ask back why I should ask this question when the reply is so obvious, some consider that the question is asked merely for fun. Still others reply that they have never given thought to this question. Anyway a satisfactory, a logical and an acceptable reply does not come forth from any of them.

    “I am a Sinhalese because my parents are Sinhalese.” This is the argument of many. This surely is not a reply but only shifting the question a little further, as the next immediate question would then be “How do you know that your parents are Sinhalese?” This shifting can go on further and further, but the question will not thereby be solved.

    “A person is Sinhalese because he speaks the Sinhalese language.” This is another argument that is usually adduced. But there are people of other nationalities who speak only Sinhalese because they happen to be brought up from early childhood in homes where only Sinhalese is spoken. Simply because they speak the Sinhalese language they do not thereby become Sinhalese. And also there are Sinhalese people who speak a language other than Sinhalese because they were brought up in non-Sinhalese homes. They are not considered non-Sinhalese simply because they cannot speak Sinhalese. It is therefore clear that one is not a Sinhalese just because he speaks Sinhalese. Similarly a person does not become an Englishman simply because he speaks English.

    If so, how can one conclusively know that a person is Sinhalese, Tamil, English, German or Japanese? There is no reply that could be given to this question. A right reply can be given only to a right question. A right reply cannot be given to this question because the question is wrong. When in truth there is no such thing as a nationality, how is it possible to give a right reply when one is asked to which nationality a person belongs?

    If you have an infant child, please examine its entire body as carefully as possible. Is there any special part of its body or mark which differentiates it as a Sinhalese child? However much you may search you will never find such a distinguishing characteristic. There are people different in colour of skin such as black, brown, white, yellow etc. That is due to the fact that their ancestors lived for thousands of years in places differing from each other in climatic and geographical conditions. But that colour does not give an indication as to what nationality a person belongs. As that child who is common to the entire human race grows up he will be given a name and will be deemed to belong to a particular race or nationality. That child who at the time is incapable of logical thinking, who cannot discern fact from non-fact and who hasn’t the ability to compare and contrast, accepts unthinkingly and unknowingly the nationality that has been thrust upon him. Having accepted it he gradually comes to believe that he belongs to that particular nationality. Please think over the fact that you become a Sinhalese not because you had some thing naturally Sinhalese but because of the belief created and imposed on you by the environment and society including your parents.

    Species of birds differ by birth from one another. Between the eagle and the dove, between the quail and the peacock there is a natural difference. Is there such a difference between the Sinhalese and the Tamil, between the Englishman and the German?

    So are the other animals. They have species differing from one another. There are natural characteristics that differentiate the tiger from the bear and the horse from the bull. Is there such a difference between the Japanese and the Jew or between the Chinaman and the Eskimo?

    Unlike birds and animals, all human beings in the world belong to one species only, the human species. In truth there is only one human race: what goes as Sinhalese, Tamil, English and a thousand other nationalities are only designations born out of belief and having no intrinsic significance whatsoever.

    If one sees things that do not exist and believes that they do exist, such a person we call a mental patient. On one occasion when I went to the mental hospital at Angoda to visit a friend who was a patient there, a person calling himself His Majesty Diyasena the King of the Sinhalese spoke to me and got into conversation with me. Not only did he firmly believe that he was King Diyasena but in his behaviour he even showed an affected regal demeanour. If any one told him that he was not Diyasena, he would naturally consider that person a lunatic. If we consider as insane a person who calls himself a non-existent King Diyasena, how can we consider as sane those people who call themselves Sinhalese, Tamils, English when in truth there is no such thing as a Sinhalese nation, a Tamil nation or an English nation.

    There is only one human race. We are human beings and not Sinhalese, Tamil or English. Biologically this is so. But those who are fettered with the belief that there is racial difference are incapable of seeing this fact.

    As the idea of nation has come into being by assuming as existent something which does not exist, nationalism has to be necessary considered a form of insanity. Not only here but in the whole world the vast majority of people are tethered with that belief, with that delusion.

    The main cause for all the wars that took place in the world in the past was this psychological aliment, namely nationalism. Even in the modern world which, due to advancement in Science, has all the opportunities for comfortable living, man has to suffer because of this disease of nationalism and its inevitable political tentacles. In big countries those who suffer from this madness contrive to bring about murder on a big scale with nuclear weapons etc. In small countries like Sri Lanka they kill human beings on a smaller scale and they hurt people’s feelings with various ridiculous mad activities such as the defacing of name boards written in languages other than their own.

    Mankind today is living in a most critical stage. Many do not understand how dangerous the present situation is. We should understand that the forces that work in the world today are different from those that existed in the past. Even a slight mistake can make the entire human species disappear from the face of the earth. We can avoid that catastrophe and survive this critical period only if we act sanely with the feeling that this is our world and not by murdering each other saying that this is our nation and our country.

    Shouldn’t we therefore be free of this insanity of nationalism and thereby cease to be enemies of mankind? Nationalism is not the road to peace.

    Truth alone will bring us peace and freedom.

  • 0

    Get real people, it is not about black and white, it is not about rich and poor, it is about power and control. In the US (and the west in general)the forces of law and order are given a brief and asked to get on with it. The police on the beat do not have to ask permission to shoot if necessary. The have a protocol and they follow it or face the consequences.

    Here in Sri Lanka, in the land of ‘a favour for a favour’ we have to get permission to take action, even in the face of clear and obvious transgressions.

    “””Truth alone will bring us peace and freedom.””” NO, Mr Phillips; as Gota himself might say, “control of the forces of state will bring ‘us’ peace and freedom”.

  • 1

    Ask Tamil Hindus to shed their backward Casteism first. There are Ceylon Tamils who will not allow low caste tamils to enter through the front door of their houses nor serve them or sit with them. wake up. Also on the real Jihadi threat; here is an article that will enlighten you on the real dangers. Oh Yeah and I live in the USA too.


  • 0

    White-Black wealth-income differences in Ferguson. The great ‘American Dream’ passes you by. The US preaches equal opportunity to outsiders, but it does not exist in the US. See for yourself.


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