11 December, 2019

Blog

On ‘Reading’ A Picture

By Charles Ponnuthurai Sarvan

Prof. Charles Sarvan

“The saying that a picture is worth a thousand words refers to the notion that a complex idea can be conveyed with just a single picture.” This particular picture appeared in ‘Colombo Telegraph’ on 12 Feb. 2019; I shared my reaction privately with some of my contacts including, as a courtesy, Colombo Telegraph Editor who suggested that I rework the material with the possibility of it being uploaded. Unsatisfactory health has hindered an earlier response. In philosophy, an ‘essential’ is a quality that something must have for it to be what it is while an ‘accidental’ is one that it happens to have but could lack. In what follows, that the men in uniform are Sinhalese and the prisoners Tamil is accidental. In other words, what I attempt here is a modest, general investigation and reflection.

Looking at the picture (rather than cursorily glancing at it) what draws immediate attention is the young woman or girl because (a) she happens to be almost at the centre of the picture and (b) is the only female. The naked man on the right seems to stare at her with concern, apparently resigned to his nakedness, and indifferent to the fact that a soldier behind him is, presumably, tightening the rope that binds him. Did he know her? Was she a much-loved relation? The nine prisoners, all stripped to their underwear (the one on the extreme right is naked) hands tied behind their back, three of them knee-deep in muddy water, have their attention focused on something to their left. At whom or what are they staring? What comes their way? The boy on the female’s immediate right stares in the opposite direction. The prisoner standing, his nakedness edited by Colombo Telegraph to preserve a modicum of decency, seems to be more concerned about the female than with his own “shameless” condition. 

In the foreground of the picture are the nine males and one female; the middle ground of the picture has two soldiers and the naked man. A somewhat portly soldier bends over the young woman, preparing to lift her up. Her face is devoid of all feeling, expression or reaction: a mixture of extreme exhaustion and resignation? Indeed, her left foot is slightly raised as if to help in standing up. Why was she singled out? What was done to her? What she endured is not to be contemplated: torture, gang-rape and murder? De profundis clamavi (Psalm 130: “Out of the depths have I cried unto thee”) but her cry probably only fuelled further sadism and triumphant jeers.

The background of soldiers fully clothed and armed provides a contrast to the prisoners’ nakedness. The soldiers are relaxed: what’s being done, and is about to be done, is nothing exceptional. What’s calamity and death to the prisoners is a casual matter to them. The second soldier in the middle-ground seems to ask his comrade-in-arms: “Need any help in lifting her up?” My wife wondered about the person we don’t see: the photographer. What was his motive in taking this picture? Was it deep compassion and high moral condemnation or congratulation, as proud hunters record themselves with their trophy? “See what we’ve done! Aren’t we great?” Louder, the applause!

Moving now to more general considerations, if prisoners are going to be killed why are they, not infrequently, stripped naked? Why humiliate those whom you are anyway about to “eliminate”? Neither space nor my competence enable me to be comprehensive but I offer a few possible explanations. Enforced nakedness brings home to the prisoner his or her utter helplessness; his or her total vulnerability. It removes any thought of resistance or even of escape. On the other hand, it gives the captors a sense of their god-like power. Lord Acton (1834-1902) wrote that power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely: in this picture we have a visual illustration of that truth. Reflecting further, I was reminded of Franz Stangl, commandant of the Nazi extermination camps at Treblinka and Sobibor. Note: unlike concentration camps where inmates were forced to work until they could no more, Stangl was in charge of camps established for the express purpose of extermination. At war’s end, he fled to Brazil, was brought back to what was then West Germany; tried, sentenced and died in prison. When asked why humiliation and cruelty were heaped upon those who were soon going to be killed, Stangl’s answer was on the lines of so as to make it possible, psychologically and emotionally, for the soldiers to do what they did: Gitta Sereny, ‘Into that Darkness: An Examination of Conscience’, Vintage Books Edition, 1983, p.101. Here and elsewhere, I draw on my review of a very perceptive and powerful work, Worse Than War, by Daniel Goldhagen, Professor of Political Science for many years at the University of Harvard. The review is included in my Public Writings on Sri Lanka, Volume 2. War is terrible but more horrible is what Goldhagen terms “eliminationism” and its eliminationist policies and actions.

Stangl’s reply shows, among other things, how we degrade our fellow human beings and then use that degraded condition to justify degrading treatment: see, at random, the plight of “natives” under imperialism, of slaves, of the so-called “coolies” on estates and the so-called Untouchables in their hovels. Effect or result is used to justify cause, the treatment meted out. While pedagogues, journalists and even artists are no different from the illiterate and the lowest in society when it comes to eliminationism (Goldhagen), soldiers, the paramilitary and policemen play a major role. They inhabit a brutalizing and brutalized world, and constitute “pre-existing institutions of violence”. They are either “the lead killing institution or in a critical support role” (Goldhagen). I would draw the attention of readers to Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character by Jonathan Shay. Readers will recall that Homer’s Achilles was prone to anger, and when angry, pitiless and destructive: the word “berserk” comes to mind. Truly, it’s the “undoing” of a character. Sometimes our hate is so strong and intense that not even the death of the other can quieten and quench it. Achilles tied the slain body of Hector to his chariot and dragged it round and round the walls of Troy to the deep distress of Hector’s parents and wife; family, comrades and friends. In Sri Lanka, after the final battle with the Tamil Tigers, “desecrated” bodies were found: those, particularly those of females, with objects thrust into their private parts. 

Soldiers disregard the laws of war when their officers signal that it’s alright; and the officers do so because those still more senior support them, tacitly if not overtly. And the highest ranks permit, if not order or encourage, such behaviour because they know politicians will approve and reward. Those in uniform are the creation and creatures of society. They act with brutality because they know they have the support of the majority of their people, and that “their” state will protect them from investigation and justice. Under an electoral system (unlike in a dictatorship), final responsibility lies with society and the state. (I admit: not all electoral systems are democratic in the true sense of the word.) Returning to Stangl’s explanation, we cannot recognise the other as fully human like us and then proceed to subordinate her or him. No, the humanity of the other must first be destroyed for non-human treatment to follow. (A student of mine once questioned the word “inhumane” because it suggests that humans are humane.) 

Generally, language reflects reality: signifier and the signified. For example, the existence of that pachyderm has led in English to the word “elephant”: But language can also create reality; more precisely, create our perceptions, attitudes and conduct. So while it is a sin and a crime to kill “fellow human beings”, it is admirable and meritorious to slaughter “the enemy”. Dehumanisation not only permits but encourages dehumanising treatment. Perception is paramount. I have suggested to students that while we see through our eyes, we “see” with our minds. The man who would risk his own life by jumping into the water to save an infant or child whom he doesn’t remotely know is capable, under different circumstances, of hacking that same baby or child or throwing it into the fire: as riots and pogroms prove. I repeat: perception is paramount, and the latter depends not on the eyes so much as on the mind. Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights wondered: What kind of hatred could make a man stab a baby crying out for his mother’s milk, and for the mother to witness this murder while she is being gang-raped by security forces? (See, Tom Fletcher, Prospect Magazine, 23 July 2018.) We humans are indeed a strange, contradictory species. Karl Marx once commented, if this is Marxism, then I’m not a Marxist. Similarly, one can imagine the Buddha sadly saying, if this is what has been made of Buddhism, then I’m not a Buddhist – and so too with Christ and Christianity, with the Hindu gods and Hinduism, the Prophet Mohammed and Islam.

South African Bloke Modisane published his autobiography in 1963 titled Blame Me on History. There’s something fundamentally flawed in the human makeup: can we shift responsibility and say, “Blame us on (evolutionary) biology”? Robert Sapolsky is an internationally known Professor of Neurobiology, and here I turn to his Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst. We don’t hate violence per se but only what we consider to be the wrong kind of violence by the wrong sort of people. Though we are not aware of it, our conversations are filled with military metaphors (Sapolsky). We are “hardwired” (innately predisposed) to violence. I am an ignoramus when it comes to science but have long seen that thoughts are the products of the brain – and the brain is a physical organism. We are an aggressive species, given both to defensive and offensive aggression. “The amygdala is the archetypal limbic structure, sitting under the cortex in the temporal lobe. It is central to mediating aggression” (Sapolsky, page 31).

Returning to the picture, before subordination; before we degrade and eliminate, there must be division: the separation between “Us” and “Them”. While “we” are made up of unique individuals, “they” are a homogeneous, unchanging group. “Our brains form Us/Them dichotomies with stunning speed” (Sapolsky, page 388). This has been demonstrated by the well-known Implicit Association Test. (For IAT, see the Internet as a starting point.) But this excluding dichotomy is not fixed and permanent. If creatures from outer space were to attack Planet Earth, then all of us (including Sri Lanka’s present divisions and groups) would immediately become “Us”. Not so long ago, Jews were seen as non-European, as Asian. The Nazi general Walter von Reichenau in his notorious ‘Severity Order’ to the Sixth Army, declared the Jews to be sub-humans; an Asiatic danger to Aryans and so to be exterminated – women and children not exempted. Now occasionally I note that Israeli individuals or teams participate in some European competitions. “They” have succeeded in metamorphosing themselves into “Us”, and it’s the Palestinians who remain “They”.

Sapolsky admits that he tends to pessimism but, on the positive side states that genes aren’t about inevitabilities but about potentials and vulnerabilities. They don’t determine anything on their own. Perhaps, this where our (evolutionary and biological) nature can be influenced by nurture; by culture, in the general sense of the term, including moral upbringing? The frontiers of exploration are not only in faraway space but also with and within us.

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Latest comments

  • 1
    0

    People who deny or justify are as bad or even worse than the ones who committed. Enabling is what lead these men in uniforms to commit these crimes. If others have committed they too deserve punishment. PERIOD. But one dose not justify other, as our sick ENABLERS think. At the time LTTE was proscribed as illegal militant outfit where as Lankan army was not. If you say they did this to get even with LTTE , then the army too needs to be proscribed as criminals and punished. Hope this much of fact can get into your empty skulls. This happened only because the Rajapaksas wanted it to happen this way. The records of Rajapaksas before and after this incident supports the same.

    • 0
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      C
      “People who deny or justify are as bad or even worse than the ones who committed.”
      I fully agree.
      I trust that thereby you now accept the case for a full inquiry.

    • 5
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      Dear Prof. Sarvan,

      First of all, let me thank you for your nicely put article. And we the sensitive CT readers wish you all the best and pray for your health. To be honest, my greater interest to your articles grew rapidly since your uniqueness to describe them in a simple language as any simple simian could easily comprehend, this I believe is your great strength. That is your pen power, obviously a god given dowry to you Sir. Yes, if more of us would read the picture, deteriorating of the society would improve a lot. Unfortunately, main stream media in the country today is caught by the hands of jokers.

      My beloved friend on CT platform, Mr SINHALA MAN whose comments I always admire a lot, is the reason me to read your valuable article. So I also thank him for letting me know about your current article. As you may know, we cant read almost every article being posted to CT, but some of them, incl, yours, I dont want to miss from today on.
      .
      As never being in my life, I am moved today by the fine explanations, as I felt like need of taking a deep breath immediately after reading the UTTMOST truth in each paragraph , not knowing how to oppose literarily the truths about dehumanizing behavior of our human beings in that landscape-wise beautiful island. Needless to say, that the brutal civil war held nearly 30years in our home country is the most baneful experience to us all srilankens. Also the heinous crimes committed by both sides are also not unknown to ones that grew up with the war. Though war related issues of a country, is more less comparable, but to see not much is yet realized by the average is my puzzle. Going through the comments being posted to Sinhala YT videos, I always become speechless not knowing why people’s hearts still squeezed with much of hatreds.

      tbc

    • 3
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      continuing.
      .
      Sadly, most of our abusive war episodes yet today being instrumental by politicians, seeking nothing but their political advantages and that has now become thorny sub topics of their egocentric politics in our country today. We the srilankens living out of the country dreamt of doing lot more work for the nation, that Rajapakshes deliberately kept away from their agendas.

      Very unfortunately, to this day, the man we appointed by risking almost everything is now fallen in the laps of his arch enimies. This is very uncommon situation, since people never expected Prez SIrisena to betray his mandate as just behave as nothing wrong with that. To my eyes, Prez SIrisena is mental patient, whose conscience should be subjected to medical check-up. As a man soldier took the weapon, he abuses his days as the president today. He does not know what comes out of his mouth, whenever he opens it on the public stage. Day before yestreday, him to have made it before the same people, the manner how much beatings he had gone through during his childhood. And he sounds to be believing, irrespective of UNFORGIVABLE constitutional failures he has been making, he is an exemplary figure to the lankens. The kind of public statements could also come out of the mouth pieces of Zimbawian Mugabe, libian Gadafi or Irak Hussaine right ?

      In between, Rajapakshes keep on bragging how much their regime fulfilled it to the people in the north and east, but shamelessly enough, not having a modium of conscience to see that the politicians should not even mention about the performance, since these should be their duties so as the case with other professionals in a country. Heart surgeons world wide would not stay boasting about their great services how they saved the life of the patients because it is the job of them. I think our culture is to be changed if people to see it different they have been made to sofar.


      tbc

  • 1
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    SJ I never ever mentioned of a partial inquiry. The international bodies and few of the Tamil parties
    have already accepted the fact that , both parties are responsible. Why keep talking (repeating over and over to buy time) for more than 10 years instead of having one?????? You and me very well know the facts behind this picture.To be honest, who is desperately shielding the criminals right now??? Who is blocking the inquiry right now??? Who has been lying, deceiving and bull shiting up to now ???? Expecting justice for the victims in Lanka is a lost cause. There is none (transparent) in the past and never will be in future.

    • 2
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      Chiv
      Thanks.
      The Tamil parties never wanted any inquiry into anything in their whole history until the US started the war crimes inquiry business. They did not, do not and will never know what the war crimes inquiry agenda is about.
      The inquiry may occur to put pressure on a Sri Lankan government that will not toe the line of the US. Study who has been punished in every major global conflict. Punishment has been selective.
      The Tamil leaders claim to demand an inquiry into the conduct of the armed forces and that too by the UN or the ‘International Community’. None of them really wants anything except the votes of the Gullible Tamil population.
      Nobody other than the US and its allies are delaying the process, if there was to be a process. They are playing games and we are willingly being taken for a thundering ride.

  • 0
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    SJ you say ” you NOW accept the case for full inquiry. Where did the “NOW” come from???????. I will like to remind you in my profession “in an emergency we are trained to save a life before asking for identity and race. And I believe “every individual has the right to live and no one has the right to snatch that away” . Viewers who have read my comments know well about my opinion on religion/race and politics. Even few days ago, after NZ tragedy, I wrote “religion and politics together with social media is now converted into WMD, we do not need any nuclear arsenals to destroy our future generations. The destruction is already on and this will be slow but excruciatingly painful.”

    • 0
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      C
      Sorry about the misunderstanding.
      I have been so used to comments asking for a one-sided inquiry, and responded without consideration of the ‘history’ of your comments.

  • 0
    0

    The oppressors and the oppressed –
    ‘ .. I turned my attention to all the outrageous violence that takes place on this planet –
    The tears of the victims,no one to comfort them; the iron
    Grip of the oppressors,
    No one to rescue the victims from them.’
    – Holy Bible –

  • 0
    1

    ‘We are..innately predisposed to violence..
    We are an aggressive species ..’.( Prof.Sarvan)
    Yes. Ever since Cain murdered Abel his brother in cold blood,right down to today, ‘ violence fills the earth’.
    We human beings are tainted with a disease the Bible calls ‘ sin’.
    Although ‘ many are running to and fro and knowledge is increasing’, no one has found a remedy to cure the human heart of hatred and violence.
    The Bible account explains to me mankind’s depravity and the Solution.
    The Good News of Jesus Christ,the Redeemer of the World.

    • 2
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      Read the bible a bit more closely. There’s much violence and bloodletting in it. It’s believers went about the world brutally murdering the innocents.

  • 2
    1

    What had happened to our Champa, why the silence or is she messaging herself after seeing that half naked lady?

  • 0
    0

    SJ, I am perplexed by your comment. How in world US has anything to do with delaying??? First of all if we could have done by our self , there is no question of US getting involved. South Africa did achieve a fair reconciliation and did not need any US interference. .Also Lanka was able to pass the first resolution with no help from US. So US is just a lame excuse.Lanka was given enough rope for 60 years before being hauled into the Geneva corridors. But as usual Lankans decided to hang them selves (suicide) than getting out. Today SF told the press he HAS audio/video evidence to prove the crimes committed by army (murdering the surrendered).This is about justice for the victims and not about the wishes of Tamil politicians or parties.To my memory there is not a single race related crime, where justice was served.(regardless it involved JVP, Muslims or Tamils) . You were advising me of thinking out side of the box , but I do not see that in your last reply.

  • 0
    0

    Today the CID has told the court that they have evidence linking the higher command of Navy to some of the Colombo abductions. SF says he has audio/video evidence showing war crimes committed by the army (murdering the surrendered). Now who is telling the truth here ????? CID, SF, Army/Navy, the families of the victims,politicians, UN, Human rights, diaspora or none of the above . Hello Pseudos, any guesses ??????

  • 0
    0

    ‘ And He has made from one blood every nation of men to dwell on all the face of the Earth..’
    We are ALL equal.
    White or any other so called ‘ supremacy’ is a
    Lie.
    ‘ Falsehood and wrong shall not tarry beside Thee ..’

  • 1
    0

    Nicely written article.As someone experianced the terrible times of Southern insurrection in 89 / 90 era I can understand the atrocities potentially commited by uniformed criminals.
    This is disgusting stuff and Should never ever take place again.My concern is why cannot these perpetrators be traced as they can clearly be identified.At least some of them.What is the fate of these young men and woman.Some one needs to answer.Unless we raise our voice together against these crimes the guns will turn to our children one day.Ultimately we will have to say they also came for me and my children.

    • 1
      0

      Prasad,
      You and I may know how they did it in 89 insurgency. Also those who faced it in 83 july, may know how criminal those men would have been.If lived there as adults none of us would easily forget the life styles of srilankens. Just imagine the physical violences that the freshers at local univerisities face yet today down there (I live in Europe). Physical violence is seen as part and parcel of lanken lif for them. Today than no times in the past, muscle seem to be given more place then the brain. It is SRILANKA, we make efforts to be proud of – calling it is the beautiful pardise, but do you really categorize our people at large are the most tolerant and respectful if would compare with that of those in like minded fellow countries ? . For me as one another victim, living out of country since 89, I feel, lankens would never learn to respect and behave norms of a civilized culture.
      They have badges to be buddhists just because they were born to buddhist families. But not many would respect even ” FIVE PRECEPTs” though forced to wear a bunch of PIRITHNOOLE around their wrists today. They at large notyet learn to respect the opinions of others. Those who just stand against the common (mediorcre) thoughts are being branded as NGO worker that works for dollars etc. But they have not learnt yet today to see the unfilled half of the glass of water. That is the saddest reality. That can only be improved through whole lot of various kind of awarness programmes. Unfortunately, lanken media does not seem to do the job well yet today. They have been abused by devious politicians asking them to suppor ttheir agendas. That is the reason, why people (rank and file) are far from the facts about health related information.

  • 2
    0

    Thank you.
    What has not been documented is the way in which Tamils were killed by the gun trotting Tamil kids in Jaffna since 1970.
    Following the training received in Tamil Nadu Boot camps the kids returned home to start the following journey
    (1) one group of Tamil kids killed the other who grew up together/studied together/ate together and from the same villages too.
    (2) These children then killed teachers/principles/suspected spies (with no evidence whatsoever)/police officers/political opponents in gruesome manners not known to the world.
    (3) The terror that traumatised the Tamil population not known to the world.
    (4) UN yet to establish what did really take place in Tamil Nadu training camps and crime against humanity investigations.
    (5) What did the TULF now TNA part in all this yet to be established. TNA leadership to be evidence at the UN as to what said and did during this period/accounted for?
    (6) As GOSL were occupied with uprising down south the TULF took us all for a roller coster of death yet to be investigated
    (7)Under this undemocratic climate TULF then took the war to GOSL in 1977 elections the most undemocratic mandate any democratic society has ever encountered little does the world know we may think /resulting innocent Tamils being savaged by the thugs down south in 1977.
    (8) Then the war taken up with the Soldiers in 1983 and the riots ensued down south.
    (9) The killing fields continued until 2009 through out the country.
    (10) GOSL dealt with both threts but don south was swift and up north dragged on for 30 years.

    • 2
      0

      The point I am trying to make is here is the picture speaks volumes not only of the final event but the entire journey for 40years. For me what is important is the TNA accountability/being honest to ourselves is the beginning of the Peace and Reconciliation now just like JVP they are also given the opportunity to be in the democratic path and in the parliment to have National policies loosing identity politics. This speaks for the SL peoples forgiveness as all are our children were mislead in finding solutions to our problems period.

      Then to spent another 10 years since the end of war with no economical/progressive discussion but to confined to Constitutional change tells us all a different story…….this can not be allowed to continue……….the same identity politics by all other political parties by name to start with should stop with the above horror in the picture never to be repeated in our land. We are all victims is the essence under our watch we allowed all this to happen because we were helpless at gun point is whatUN need to know.

      Time for TNA to admit not only the war issues but their incapability to discuss anything other than language issues was proven in the NPC………did nothing to develop the region/nothing to take care of crimes/nothing to change the mindset of our traumatised people is a crime against humanity…….the failure of the TNA is also to connect families….JVP, Tamil Militants…….and the Soldiers family…..and the civilians family who lost someone to grieve together mindfully is the crime against humanity.

      That is what I read from the picture………a folly by us all…….collectively. JVP to help TNA to join hands with them such they can merge as one party with green politics and take all other Muslim parties together and shed names will bring a brighter future.

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