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Rajpal's Column

8th March 1998

The community is collectively dead

By Rajpal Abeynayake

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Among others, there are two identified cardinal sins in writing for a newspaper. One is to use a cliché. The other is ‘to get carried away’. Depending on how you see it , both cardinal sins will be probably committed in this article.

“Massacre of the innocents’’ is the cliché. A schoolgirl lies in the intensive care unit of the National Hospital, with a slice of her brain removed in a lobotomy that was medically deemed necessary. A young office worker in Colombo will need to have both her legs amputated.

If starting this article with the cliché and mention of these two incidents is deemed ‘getting carried away’, so be it. But if anything can be more shocking in this week than the bomb that exploded in Colombo, it is the community’s reaction to the event.

Can this go on? The collective response will be that it cannot. It is difficult to fathom a community being spectators to losing parents, children and kids as young as Montessori innocents to a bomb blast.

That’s as if the community was collectively dead. It’s funny that there are organisations of priests, pukka sahibs and good - men who band together to damn new constitutions, perceived slurs such as a President’s speech in English or an attack on the cold walls of the country’s holiest shrine. But, what happens to this strident passionate crowd when children are killed, or maimed for no fault of their own? What kind of community’s it must be that takes political issues more seriously than the lives of innocents?

Now what? If the IRA is ruthless, it can also be said in favour of the ruthless Republican Army that they issue warnings on impending bomb attacks targetting economic locations. Civilians are then evacuated. The LTTE doesn’t covet that moral high ground. If the lorry that exploded was meant for a VIP motorcade, and was discovered ( see elsewhere in this paper ) due to some accident, perhaps the perpetrators could argue that the bomb was not meant for civilians, that it wasn’t meant to kill Montessori kids. (“Sorry, it was meant for so and so, but oops.’’ ) If that was the eventuality, it could be argued the driver could have taken cyanide when the cops were after him. But his choice was to detonate the bomb , and be done with it.

It’s incontrovertible therefore that security has entered a new dimension, and that the community cannot justifiably expect the forces to tackle by themselves, a situation of this magnitude. The worse thing, by far, that the community can do is to be provoked to retaliate in a backlash.

Does that equate to saying that the community, including Tamils and Muslims, in the city, should not consider new perspectives of vigilance, at least if it is not a community so emasculated that it watches passively while children are being blown up?

If the community is so apathetic or shocked that initiatives do not come from within it, then, is it not incumbent on the state to plant the seeds of community vigilance? If ‘Neighborhood Watch’ was the answer for theft and burglary, isn’t neighbourhood watch the answer for the killing of innocents? The point that is hard to swallow, is that regular bomb attacks, in which children are killed, and in which children lose their parents, qualify to be called extraordinary risks. Extraordinary situations require extraordinary solutions, and if the community — at the palpable risk of getting slightly more polarised — is to be vigilant at the point of origin of the risk, then, at least the community can claim to be one which didn’t emasculate itself to the point of being inert when its innocent members were being killed .

The long and the short of it is that bombs originate in neighbourhoods, that the underbelly of suburbia breeds the suicide bomber. A community that doesn’t care to organise vigilance to combat this threat must be quite dead.


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