Wednesday, February 20, 2013


There are many reasons not to accept Balachandran Prabhakaran's trophy.

He deserved it.
His father deserved it.
His people deserved it.

It happened three or four years ago.
It happened far away.
It was photo shopped.

It can't be helped.
It may be too graphic for some viewers.
It's obscene.

War is never fair.
The war is over.
It won't happen again.

I didn't do it.
I can't stop it.
I get nauseous.

I'm too sensitive.
I can't sleep.
I get nightmares.

I give to a cause already.
I believe in promoting positive energy.
I believe in the power of love.

Still, I'll help you look at Balachandran's trophy pictures.
          You've already seen the first two. Balachandran, a 12-year-old boy, sits alone on a bench in a sandbag bunker. He wears shorts but his chest is bare. Although his shoulders are draped in a blanket you see three rolls of baby fat because of  how he slouches. He's been given a snack to eat. He's chewing a chocolate bar.  
          Here is Balachandran two hours later lying in the dirt with five bullet holes in his chest. The blanket is gone. 

          Balachandran was executed in a No Fire Zone, along with countless others. Really, no one has counted. His father was Velupillai Prabhakaran, the leader of the Tamil resistance in Sri Lanka. In 2009, some 10, 20, 30, maybe 40,000 Tamils or more were executed in a single massacre that ended a long and bloody civil war.

         Well, it ended the Tamil resistance. The oppression of Tamils, which includes intimidation, imprisonment, rape, torture, murder, and disappearances, continues with impunity, partly for the reasons listed above.

          The Sri Lankan government denies all of it and the rest of the world--India, Britain, the United States, The United Nations--looks away. We let the government of Sri Lanka encourage and deny the execution of a child, and we look away.
Instead we turn willingly to another trophy winner, Oscar Pistorius. Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, Pistorius is the inescapable darling of every news venue. I hardly need to tell you that he is called Blade Runner because he is a double-amputee who won gold medals in the Paralympics on aerodynamically designed prosthetic legs, or that he is on trial for the murder of his his lovely girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp, a well-known model. It seems that on Valentine's Day, Pistorius shot Steenkamp to death through the locked bathroom door, where she may have been hiding from him.
          Pistorius is easy on the eyes, and so is Reeva. That helps, certainly. We can easily pronounce their names, and that helps, too. The murder happened in South Africa, but it has nothing to do with apartheid, ethnic cleansing, genocide or the corruption of a brutal government—nothing at all to do with the implication of our disinterest--and that helps a great deal.

          This is a manageable story because we have one handsome murderer and one lovely victim. We allow ourselves to admire Oscar Pistorius because he is handsome and smart and conquered adversity—when he won Gold, so did we all—and we allow ourselves to loathe him now because he abused our trust when he murdered his lover in cold blood. We are eager to try him. We're so intent on righting a wrong that we don't even seriously question his guilt. This, at least, we can manage--we can bury the dead, right a wrong, proclaim one man's guilt and put him away for life. We feel we've done justice. Case closed.
          But what about Sri Lanka? What about the countless numbers of dead, each of whom had their own stories we will never hear? Who are their murderers? Where are their graves? Where's justice? 

          If you're like me, the question you're afraid to ask is How do I change the world? We may, in fact, be helpless. I don't know how to fix it. I can't lie to you; I have just come back from what I publicly proclaimed was a mental health break—a vacation from Sri Lanka. And I'm planning another vacation immediately.

          But you and I must try, just sometimes, to look. When we agree to look without being able to help, we accept our complicity. It's a nauseating, heartbreaking obligation. That's how we start.

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