Self-deception and waiting for an unidentified enemy

by Shanie


"What does this sudden uneasiness mean, and this confusion?

How grave the faces have become!

Why are the streets and squares rapidly emptying, and why is everyone going home so lost in thought?


Because it is night and the barbarians have not come.

And some men have arrived from the frontiers and they say that barbarians don’t exist any longer.


And, now, what will become of us without barbarians?

They were a kind of solution."


Constantine Cavafy, the Greek poet, wrote Waiting for the Barbarians in 1904. Seventy five years later, it inspired the South African novelist J M Coetzee, to write a novel by the same title, for which he won the 2003 Nobel Prize for Literature. The word ’, in its Greek root, is said to suggest an unidentified enemy, anyone who does not speak your language or share your ideals. A literary analyst has commented that Cavafy’s ‘poem is an internal dialogue, reflecting the sense of unreality we all feel as we watch our own national political rituals. Reading the poem, we become like the child in "The Emperor’s New Clothes," seeing clearly what the rituals of power and the ideology of fear seek to hide from us. But the poem’s conclusion should make us ask the question that remains unspoken throughout the poem: Who are the real barbarians here? Who fails to understand what really motivates their actions?

Every empire needs enemies to justify its existence: when one enemy is defeated or simply disappears, it is necessary to create new figures of terror with which to threaten the population. The anxiety that sweeps through the city at the end of the poem suggests this realization; there is no sense of relief that they will not be conquered by the barbarians, only the terror of finding themselves suddenly alone, with no enemy to embody – or solve – their problems. Like Samuel Beckett’s play Waiting for Godot, the poem reveals the ways in which we depend upon our self-deceptions to protect us from having to take responsibility for ourselves.’

The shrill cacophony that is being orchestrated now in Sri Lanka now is not just tilting at windmills but meant to create new enemies for the public to hate – the international community, United Nations, non-governmental organizations, anybody who is not us’. A cabinet minister wants to surround the UN compound and keep the UN staff as hostages. Chandima Withanarachchi, who editor of the critical Lanka News Web site and who has been living in UK for the last ten Years, now finds himself facing charges and allegedly reported to the Interpol. Prageeth Ekneligoda, another journalist from another web site, disappeared soon after the Presidential Election and has now been missing for over five months and a pro-government journalist suggests that he is actually in hiding! The Defence Secretary wants the former Army Commander and Presidential candidate Sarath Fonseka hanged if he gives evidence against the government. Cavafy’s poem seems to ring so true. The LTTE is defeated and new threats and new enemies have now to be created to find a fear-substitute.

United Nations Panel

We are now on a collision course with the United Nations over the Secretary General’s appointment of a three-member panel on possible violations of international law by the parties involved in the recently concluded civil war. There have been reports that there was a massive loss of civilian lives. The government has denied that its security forces targeted or killed civilians. If that is the position, surely there is nothing to hide and a probe should be welcomed to lay any allegations to rest. It has also been stated that such an investigation is an infringement on our sovereignty. All member-states have not only abide by the UN Charter but also the relevant international conventions to which they are signatories. That is why our Ambassador Palitha Kohona is heading a panel to investigate possible violations by Israel of these conventions. The Israeli Government is also unhappy with that investigation. But such investigations only promote better governance in each country and a better world. No doubt, there would be situations in a civil war where some violations would take place, unintended and sometimes even inevitable. But these would be the exception. Any investigative panel would differentiate between such exceptions and the deliberate killing of non-combatants as has happened in other countries. We should not, as Wimal Weerawansa has done, go hysterical in denouncing the appointment of a UN panel.

Sarath Fonseka has stated that he is prepared to testify before the UN panel if he is allowed to do so. He was the Army Commander at that time and his evidence will be vital. He had stated earlier that he takes full responsibility for the actions of security forces under his command and that he would stand by his men. He has proved to be a man of his word and we have no reason to believe that, despite his fall-out with the President and his brothers, he will bring disrepute to the Army that he commanded.

Indemnity for illegal actions

A study of history is useful for those who take a hysterical stand in matters where the rule of law is challenged or sought to be upheld. Most students of our political history will be familiar with the Bracegirdle Affair that shook the colonial government in the late nineteen thirties. Bracegirdle was a young British/Australian planter who had communist leanings and moved freely with the plantation workers, upsetting the British Raj. The Governor issued an Order to deport him but the newly founded LSSP took up his case and Supreme Court ruled that his deportation order was illegal. The then Governor then wanted the British Government to enact an Order-in-Council indemnifying him from any action for damages. The British Cabinet rejected this request based on the opinion of the Legal Adviser to the Colonial Office: "The present Constitution of Ceylon is, subject to certain safeguards, a form of self-government…To use that power (the safeguards or reserved powers) in defiance of the will of the Legislature in Ceylon, to deprive an individual of his civil rights seems to be unconstitutional and not a proper exercise of the power. Further, I know of no reason why an individual who has suffered a wrong should be deprived of any remedy which he may have in a court of law….To my mind, the spectacle of a Governor or the Chief of Police being made subject to the consequences of an illegal action is more likely to enhance the impartiality and integrity of British rule."

A similar situation arose in the United States over a Presidential Order placing ethnic Japanese in detention camps during the Second World War. This was challenged in the Supreme Court. The Supreme held, by a six-to-three majority, that the Presidential Order was constitutional. Justice Robert Jackson, one of the dissenting judges, had this to say in his judgment: "Judicial construction of the due process clause (of the US Constitution) that will sustain this order is a far more subtle blow to liberty than the promulgation of the order itself. A military order, however unconstitutional, is not apt to last longer than the military emergency…. But once a judicial opinion rationalizes such an order to show that it conforms to the Constitution, or rather rationalizes the Constitution to show that the Constitution sanctions such an order, the Court for all time has validated the principle of racial discrimination in criminal procedure…..I should hold that a civil court cannot be made to enforce an order which violates constitutional limitations even if it is a reasonable exercise of military authority. The Courts can exercise only the judicial power, can apply only law, and must abide by the Constitution, or they cease to be civil courts and become instruments of military policy." Jackson may have been in a minority of three then but his stand has received the vindication of history. The Japanese detainees (or their descendants) were, nearly forty years later, given compensation for the deprivation of their life and liberty.

It is perhaps appropriate to end with a quotation from the writings of Rosa Luxembourg, a leading Marxist intellectual assassinated by state forces in Germany in 1919: "Freedom only for the supporters of the government, only for members of one party – however numerous they may be – is no freedom at all. Freedom is always and exclusively freedom for the one who thinks differently. (It is) not because of any fanatical concept of ‘justice’ but because all that is instructive, wholesome and purifying in political freedom depends on this essential characteristic, and its effectiveness vanishes when ‘freedom’ becomes a special privilege."

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