October 5, 2014
September 28, 2014
I AM a number, I will be a free man.
Hong Kong protesters have flipped the defining statement repeatedly issued by Number Six in the 1960s cult TV series, The Prisoner: ‘I am not a number, I am a free man’.
They readily identify themselves by the start date of their street protests: 926 (26 September); they show affinity with 8964 (6 April 1989), the day the Chinese authorities broke up the pro-democracy protest camp in Tiananmen Square, Beijing.
In the East, pro-democracy activists are accustomed to using numbers to sidestep censorship. In their eyes, numbers can be symbols of freedom.
Largely impersonal, because not attached to a named person; but by no means inhuman.
On the Western side of the world, however, protestors rarely regard numbers in such a positive light. They don’t see themselves in numbers; they don’t look comfortable even when – not often nowadays – they find themselves in great numbers. Being one of a number seems almost as hurtful as being reduced to a number.
No freedom, they seem to be saying, without first protecting my personality.
In Hong Kong there appears to be less concern about loss of personality.
When thousands of protestors cross their forearms at the same moment, with one voice semaphoring ‘wrong’ to chief executive C.Y. Leung and, behind him, Beijing, they don’t feel the need to be embarrassed about acting in unison.
Instead, in many different ways – passers-by spraying sit-down demonstrators with cool water; constant litter patrols and the sharing out of visors and masks for use against police tear gas and pepper spray – the level of cooperation among Hong Kong protesters and their supporters suggests that they are comfortable not only in their own skin; but also in each others’.
Meanwhile in the West the cult of personality threatens to rarefy still further the already intermittent call for freedom.
On Friday 26 September British MPs voted by 524 votes to 43 to back UK government plans to bomb Islamic State (IS) on account of its ‘staggering brutality’.
A week earlier the wife of the British taxi driver held hostage by Islamic State had appealed to his captors to find it in their hearts to release him. Alan Henning remains on IS’s death row, facing the possibility of execution following the televised beheading oftwo Americans and one British citizen.
A few days after her appeal, Islamic State sent Barbara Henning a recording of her husband pleading for his life. Since she had only recently entered a heartfelt plea for mercy on his behalf, the IS response seems peculiarly heartless.
But if there is a staggering absence where you’d expect their hearts to grow, what is it that has led to such heartlessness among IS militants?
The staggering brutality of the West, is their answer; inflicted on (Sunni) Muslims everywhere to such an extent that their own form of staggering brutality is the only course of action left open to them.
But the West has been brutal to non-Western peoples for far more than a hundred years, promoting or suppressing them in its own interests, and not counting the cost (to them) – all this without often prompting such brutality in return.
On this account, the particular character of Islamic State remains unaccounted for.
Neither does the region’s natural environment offer a credible explanation. The desert sun was equally relentless seven thousand years ago as it shone down on ‘the cradleof civilisation’ in the territory now occupied by Islamic State. Likewise, the brutal heat ofthe midday sun may account for crucifixion as an ancient method of execution, but it does not explain why IS has only now set about resurrecting it.
Neither imperial history nor the forces of nature can explain the ‘staggering brutality’ of IS.