13 July, 2024


In Exceptional Times 

By Sarath de Alwis

Sarath de Alwis

“There was truth and there was untruth, and if you clung to the truth even against the whole world, you were not mad.“ ~ George Orwell in ‘Nineteen eighty-four’   

Blaise Pascal, The French Mathematician and philosopher famously identified what was wrong with us humans.

“All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone,” he wrote in the 16th century. 

He did not know how accurate he would be in the 21st century when we are in lockdown mode with our smart phones and personal computers. 

I write this missive on a Wednesday morning. Then I ask myself ‘does it matter which day of the week it is?’ 

It can be any day. No matter what I call it. All days are blurred days. This is the  third blurred day of the week which in normal times would be a Wednesday.  

On the first blurred day of the week (that is Monday if you insist on sequential continuity) three senior attorneys at law and presidents counsel participated in the ‘Face the Nation’ program of Sirasa TV where the discussion centered on two issues- the date of the next parliamentary election and the use of the public purse in the absence of a functional parliament. The participants were M.A.Sumanthiran PC, U.R de Silva PC and Razik Zarook PC.

Two interesting ideas emerged. Exceptional circumstances required exceptional remedies. The second was the doctrine of necessity. Opposition stalwart Sumanthiran preferred to be textually precise and preferred to stick to the letter of the law. 

The conundrum was not a complex labyrinth.     

The President will not revoke his proclamation dissolving parliament. He will not reconvene the old parliament. Therefore, a new parliament must be elected. The pandemic must be contained before an election.  

Everybody agreed that these were exceptional times. 

I watched the discussion. Presidents Counsel Razik Zarook referred to the doctrine of necessity with unmistakable authority. He made a passing reference to Justice Thurgood Marshall but did not cite a specific ruling. The mention of Thurgood Marshall worked on my adrenaline.  

As Blaise Pascal accurately predicted, I could no longer wait quietly in my room. I googled to learn more about the doctrine of necessity. 

My reward was gratifying and immediate. Doctrine of necessity is usually invoked to settle matters pertaining to Bankruptcies. How appropriate I thought. 

Those who have watched Clint Eastwood films “Good Bad and Ugly” and his other master piece ‘For a few dollars more’  would remember the implacable whisper “Necessity is the law when and where it exist’ delivered by the hero villain holding the barrel of the gun against the chest of the shivering owner of the  tavern or the hapless sheriff of the town.  

The poly math Francis Bacon cites another example of the plea of necessity. It points to the miserable logic of seeking exceptional remedies in exceptional circumstances.

The poly math Francis Bacon in his science of jurisprudence refers to the case of Rex vs. Dudley and Stephens (1864). The brief facts of the case are wickedly simple.  

Dudley, Stephens and Brooks all able-bodied English Seamen along with a boy of 18 years of age were compelled to put into a small boat after a shipwreck on the high seas. There was no food or water for seven days. On the 8th day, Dudley and Stephens killed the boy and fed the flesh and blood to survive them.

On the 12th day, they were rescued by passing  ship. They were prosecuted for the murder of the boy. The accused pleaded that they acted out of necessity for preservation of their lives.

The privy Council held that the accused were guilty of murder, as there were plenty of chances of getting rescued, and no man would die for starvation for seven days.

There can be instances where necessity overrides the rule. You may demolish some one’s house if it can prevent a great fire engulfing the entire village. 

But that doesn’t absolve the culprit whose negligence or intransigence set the fire in the first place. 

The captain of the Titanic interpreted necessity as he deemed necessary. In lockdown mode, my  mind wonders far and wide about human behavior in adversity. 

How the bold endure  

We do not know how long we will have to remain in total lockdown mode. It may be that we will observe some relaxed form where vigilance is high and social distancing mandatory. 

As Arundhati Roy the Novelist and Essayist points out, the mandarins managing the pandemic are fond of speaking in terms of fighting a war. They don’t even use war as a metaphor, they use it literally. 

If it was a war, nobody would be short of bunker busters. But here we are short of testing kits, ventilators and face masks. 

But then again as it has recently occurred in some place called Bandaranayake Mawatha, where the  microbe has stealthily made its way in to an urban slum or shanty town, what is the bunker buster, we can use against an institutional repository of human  misery amidst urban modernity ?  

Early in the process, we were assured that the lockdown was for our common good. That we must be united to fight the common enemy which now had a name- – Covid-19. 

The parliament stands dissolved. Governance is by presidential decree. We do not know the date of the next elections. 

The question arises, where are we? We seem to be in some sort of a twilight zone midway between democratic compromise and hardheaded autocratic arbitration. 

Covid-19 is an invisible enemy. That makes the lockdown, necessary and compulsory. 

“We are at war” is the great call for social solidarity. But the essentials of the Hobbesian edict in his ‘Leviathan’ that explores the structure of society and the form of government is solidly carved in stone. A few governing the many. 

Let us face it. What is a lock down? It is a compulsory regimen we follow because we must. We surrender a good part of our free will and movement.     

A few people tell all others what to do. Since it is to contain the virus and survive the pestilence, its logic we absorb passively and meekly. To protest tomorrow we must survive today. It is the same way that Socrates absorbed his lot in the world.

“If all misfortunes were laid in one common heap whence everyone must take an equal portion, most people would be contented to take their own and depart.” 

But if the few people who are in control of containment use the leverage they possess  to tell us or hint at  whom to vote for in the pending election, are we different from the cabin boy who was devoured by the two senior ship mates whose plea of necessity  was rejected by the privy council ? 

The pandemic has suspended politics. Politicians have not suspended the pandemic. People are stuck in their homes. 

One luxury in our democracy is the next election. We can punish politicians for their mistakes by commission and omission. 

The lockdown is all about power and social order. 

In our predicament some arbitrariness is unavoidable.  But how much of arbitrariness? 

I am scared. I am bewildered. There is a sly soundless contest between democratic accommodation and cold-blooded autocratic “sitzfleisch”. 

It is a German word. It is about one’s capacity to sit out a crisis. It can be either positive or negative. Either way, like it or not, it calls for endurance.   

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Latest comments

  • 15

    Has he gone absolutely nutty?
    What is he trying to say?

    • 8

      “Has he gone absolutely nutty?”

      I don’t know mate, maybe…..but this is what I know about Pascal.

      “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone,” he wrote in the 16th century.
      Buddha said that in 600 BC. To find out, he had to leave all the luxuries and live alone in the jungles of INDIA.

    • 5

      Mr . De Alwis obviously has plenty of time on his hands – like many people of his age living in Australia.
      Haven’t heard from RW apologist Mr. Shyamon Jayasinghe in a long while . Wish them both well , although their untiring efforts to educate us lesser beings seem to be quite meaningless in the overall scheme of things .

      • 4

        “their untiring efforts to educate us lesser beings seem to be quite meaningless in the overall scheme of things .”
        November 2019 election proved that in no uncertain terms.
        But when will CT learn?


        • 2


          “November 2019 election proved that in no uncertain terms.”

          All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone

      • 2

        living in Australia?
        I thought Battaramulla is at least 10000 km from Australia!

    • 6

      Dude, He’s trying to say that Covid 19 is a giant hoax- to abolish democracy and vaccinate the whole world and turn everyone into zombies of the US empire which is waging war against China using the Corona hoax. Covid is an attack on China and Asian economies to make America great again – but it back-fired on USA!

      In Sri Lanka rather than protest against Gota’s brutal military curfew, the JVP, UNP, TNA want to reconvene the Cesspit parliament to get back their privileges and perks. Meanwhile idiot Sajith wants to have a national govt with Gota. Boy o boy all the corrupt politicians brain dead and Lanka is doomed!

  • 7

    A brilliant reflective, mini-essay! Bravo, Sarath!

    • 8

      >>>A brilliant reflective, mini-essay! Bravo, Sarath!<<<
      Surely not something you cannot emulate mate, if you take off the malodorous amudey covering your inherent sham principles?

    • 16

      Dr. D.J.
      He wrote many brilliant reflective mini essays. So did you, Thisaranee Gunaeekara and Vishvamittra. (Apologies to many others of the same ilk.).. But for what end results? CT provided a circus arena for those word gymnasts to show off their dexterity and commentator clowns to expose their stupidity. That was all. Despite their valiant efforts Rajapaksas are back in the saddle.


      • 4


        “He wrote many brilliant reflective mini essays. So did you,”

        What a scandal, aren’t you insulting Dr. D.J. by comparing him to Sarath de Alwis, Gunaeekara and Vishvamittra?

        “….. commentator clowns to expose their stupidity.”

        You should grateful to CT.

        “That was all. Despite their valiant efforts Rajapaksas are back in the saddle.”

        Don’t you think(?) the above alone prove your point(?)

  • 10

    The president wants to be an ‘Exception’ even during ‘Exceptional’ times like today. The president has the remedy in his hand to mitigate the’ exceptional times’ by resummoning the parliament rather than allow democracy to rot. If the parliament is reconvened there will be 225 ideas representing 20 million people though most of the ideas may be rubbish. However, there may be a few which may be worth it’s salt. The president can satisfy the nation and himself, that he has made a genuine effort as per the constitution to sort out the prevailing uncertain situation and pave the road or rather carpet the road to our destiny in a democratic manner. Of course, he doesn’t. have much respect for democracy as much as he has for the Pseudo war heroes. Nevertheless, before he embarks on a journey of no return he may extend his hands of friendship to the MPs and give them some’ unemployment relief work’ to remove the COVID19 virus together with other viruses which were rampant in the Parliament.

  • 9

    If Gota does not handle this in a Democratic manner and try to use his Iron Fist, he will learn a lesson of his life. The coming months May, June July August will spell his down fall, not knowing what struck him. A tumultuous situation will arise with large scale loss of Employment, Shutting down of many a Business and a General Crash of the Economy. There will be no Godfather to rescue him like how he got appointed as President notwithstanding his Dual Citizenship.

    • 4


      “There will be no Godfather to rescue him like how he got appointed as President notwithstanding his Dual Citizenship.”

      Don’t you think it was due to Ranil’s inability to deal with crooks, clan, … and the war criminals?

  • 9

    As long as Gota is doing good to the country and not harming the innocents and those who have different opinions to your own.
    Do not take actions against government employees who do their jobs sincerely.
    If and when elections take place he should call for new nominations to contest the election

  • 0

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  • 2

    I am not sure what Dr Sarath Alwis is on about?.

    He got all the freedom in Lankawe to go and visit Keselwatta Kids mates in Bandaranayaka Mawatha, after the Lock Up or Lock Down ends of course…

    I thought Dr Sarath is going to give a Plug for the TNA Gun Lawyer Abraham, who is reading every word in the Book to hep a recall of his UNP , JVP , SLMC , Bathudeen Party mates back to Kotte.

    And put the spanner in the works of Prez Nandesna’s clock like work to control the Corona and protect the Inhabitants from Starvation..

    TNA Gun Lawyer Abraham even appeared for the disgraced ex UNP Minister who destroyed the CID Magistrates Court and even the High Court ..
    And got him out, despite being charged for Obstructing the Police and using filthy Language against the Police Officers.

    That is how good and reformed the Elite Anglican and Vellala Alliance of the UNP has become under the current stressful times where , the poor inhabitants would have faced more death than the deaths in the the poor areas of New York, London, Madrid and Rome..

    Talking about this cool Privy Council, my Elders tell me they never found out who really killed PM Banda.
    Or the Brains and the Indoctrinaters and the Logistics providers who carried it out.

    • 4

      KASmaalam K.A. Sumanasekera

      “I am not sure what Dr Sarath Alwis is on about?.”

      It is pure cool.
      You need to grow up to grasp what he has written here.

      “……………. TNA Gun Lawyer Abraham, who is reading every word in the Book to hep a recall of his UNP , JVP , SLMC , Bathudeen Party mates back to Kotte.”

      Aren’t you happy Abraham hasn’t attempted to recall Duminda Silva, Mervyn Silva PhD, …. Sampath Vidanapathirana, ….. ?

  • 1

    Pascal is wrong! Homosapians are used to socialising for millions of years, and even before that, monkeys, wild dogs etc. Some examples. Most mamals have it. It is in our genes.
    It is very difficult not to do it.

  • 2

    Lanka absolutely needs a lot of borderline autocratic sitzfleisch, because Lanka is in danger of being subsumed by the Jihadi, ISIS zeitgeist of its barbaric Moslems who are champing at the bit for another bloodbath to celebrate the anniversary of their Shaheed (Moslem martyr) Zahran and the teams martyrdom. Meanwhile armchair pundits who were predicting a dictatorial apocalypse under Gotaby and now whining about unlikely predicaments because Gotaby has the balls to rule the country like a real martinet, control the pandemic and fulfill the wishes those who voted him in. At least Alwis seems to be devoid of the manic. pathological and treasonous mindset of some others who write here (like Tisranee), but despite his age and experience, he wallows in a hyper democratic utopia when his country it but a tribal land which can never get to real western style democracy. Also, Lanka will not be Lanka if it ever goes with full western democracy, the beauty of the country is in its quasi democratic society and the kaleidoscope of customs, culture, biases, fears, ethnic and religious excesses, etc. that makes is a wonderful place.

    What Lanka needs is a strong leader, which it now has and a well coordinated project to wipe out of the Moslem fanatics. It should be done with the most annihilating fervor leaving no stone unturned so that the hordes of wannabe martyrs for Islam, the bearded, menacing Dravidian Moslems looking for the 72 virgin Fidraus heaven with their head to toe covered women are eliminated for ever and lasting peace is achieved in Lanka.

    • 1

      Jay Chambers

      “……. menacing Dravidian Moslems looking for the 72 virgin Fidraus heaven ….”

      It is Hindia’s problem and not yours.
      Why don’t let Hindia to do the worrying make yourself scarce until you have grown up?

  • 0

    Constitution crisis or not, economic crisis or not, financial turmoil or not, whether we like it or not, Coronavirus is here to stay. How long would it take to find a cure ?? GOD only knows.
    If we believe it would go away in 3 months, 6 months or even a year, we may be wrong.
    But that could be done in the interim period is to contain it.
    There is no point reacting to situations. But what we need to do is to learn to respond. The question is – are we doing it?
    Also, we need to address the economic and financial issues as a nation, by all responsible stakeholders both in the public and private sectors.

  • 1

    Francis Bacon the 16th century Lord Chancellor who presided over the Privy Council, fell from grace and was tried by the very same Privy Council over which he presided so Majestically…….and imprisoned.

    All of humanitys problems stem from mans inability to sit quietly in a room alone …….wrote Blaize Pascal in the 16th century.
    Sir Francis Bacon was an exception..
    The magnum opus the Laws of England was written by him whilst languishing in jail!

  • 0

    Dear Plato,
    I found the Sarath de Alwis essay, and especially the 1863 story of the four men in a boat pretty harrowing because of going on to reading up the Wikipedia entry on it. You’ve confirmed that this was the only Francis Bacon known to us general readers, but you’ve not taken the further step of pointing out that it was impossible for him to have written anything about this in 1864. Yes, there is an obvious slip there, but the essay was still interesting.
    However, I also listened to the interesting arguments on the video. What struck me is that while we all agree that the Rajapaksas should not be trying to have elections at this juncture, the number of coronavirus cases was being referred to as alarming, while neglecting to talk about the effects of starvation owing to the curfew. Indirect deaths of this sort must run into thousands by now.
    My comment is as lacking in thrust and purpose as all that many of us are saying! What to do?

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