So, this is the America that we grew to love 'in our living years' and which we had almost lost sight of during recent times. Not the America of arrogance nor the America of power but rather the America of ideals, hope and a heady rejection of bigotry and racism.
The emergence of liberal power
One of the most moving pictures engraved in my mind during the recent week was the image captured on millions of screens worldwide, of a small child of white colour with flaxen golden hair, propped up on the shoulders of her father, both of whom had tears streaming down their faces at the announcement of Barack Obama as the President elect of the United States of America. When would we have similar images captured here in Sri Lanka, I wondered? This is a question that I will return to later. But during the long and dire years of the Bush era with its ominously 'McCarthy-ish' claims that, to oppose whatever it does in the fight against terrorism, would be 'unpatriotic' and against America itself., we had often wondered as to where that nation's great liberals had gone. Well, the answer to that question was resoundingly given in this week's elections by the ordinary people, black, white, yellow and brown along with intellectuals and civic leaders.
The greatest challenge of our century
This is, of course, not to say that the Obama Presidency will be the magic wand that would cure all the ills visited upon the American people and vicariously, people across the world whose dictators have used the Bush doctrine to terrorise their own peoples. In writing to the Khaleej Times in a guest column on April 30, 2008 in celebration of its 30th anniversary, I reflected that the Bush administration's shrugging off of domestic and international outrage regarding inhumane treatment of detainees in centres such as Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib had been a lifeline for regimes around the world with equally little respect for rights. Thus, in a short period of time, it had seemed as if all the hard-won libertarian gains of the past centuries regarding freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, the right to life and to freedom from arbitrary detention, have been decimated and the forum of public debate overtaken by hatred, suspicion and distrust. Reversing these trends remains the most redoubtable challenge facing our century.
Dangerous privileging of restrictions over rights
And while it must be conceded that the extent of the threat to the security of the State facing countries with internal conflicts such as Sri Lanka should not be underestimated, the dangerously coercive privileging of restrictions over rights has been incalculably negative. Guantanamo Bay's harrowing experiences of victims who had been detained incommunicado, tortured and refused access to legal counsel are replicated in similar detention centres around the world. This includes Sri Lanka.
Abuse of detainees however had been just one facet of the Bush administration's relentless assault on rights. Practices of rendition, the legalisation of methods of interrogation amounting to torture such as water boarding and the disregarding of judicial reprimands regarding treatment of non-citizens detained ostensibly on immigration charges are other facets of this same phenomenon. The US Supreme Court, for example, intervened under the Freedom of Information Law to order the release of documents and internal memos in the custody of the Federal Bureau of Intelligence (FBI) which showed that clearly innocent people had been investigated under the US Patriot despite official denials. The warning that innocent people must not be penalised for the acts of terrorists has therefore its own specific resonance not only for the new administration in the White House but also for Sri Lanka and indeed, around the world.
The Maldivian triumph of democracy
In South Asia, just over a week back, we saw another reason to hope when the authoritarian government of President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom was peacefully replaced by an administration headed by his opponents who had long been fighting courageously for a different political culture. Here too, political life had long been characterized by extreme repression notwithstanding the golden sandy beaches of one of the world's most popular tourist destinations. Political rallies had been routinely attended by mass arrests and detentions, sometimes of mere bystanders who were watching the processions go by. Indeed, the frightening omnipresence of the office of the Presidency, as situated above the law itself, had reinforced the almost complete lack of legal accountability within the Maldivian legal system as well as the absence of an independent judiciary. It is to be hoped therefore that reform of the Presidential system and the formulation of an independent justice system will be the first tasks of the new administration.
Cynicism and doubt replaced by courage and determination
However much we may have detested the illiberal administrations of George Bush (Jr) and Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, there is no doubt that credit must go towards a peaceful transition from one political era to another. As much as hope reawakens in these countries, we cannot help but wonder as to when we ourselves would have cause to rejoice in this country, riven as it is by open xenophobia. Thus, for example, the thought of a minority President would no doubt be anathema to our celebrated 'nationalists.' For them, Barack Obama's stirring call in his victory speech for cynicism and doubt to be defeated by unwavering courage and determination, are undoubtedly forthright rejoinders that xenophobia cannot triumph for too long.