The constant reminder

Andrew Rosenthal, the editorial page editor of the New York Times, writing on the American Presidential Election campaign now in full swing recently flagged an interesting TV ad by Obama’s re-election campaign. The video, available online, mark the anniversary of bin Laden’s killing in Pakistan. It shows Democrat and former US President Bill Clinton showering praise on Obama’s decisive leadership that doggedly pursued and ultimately killed the founder of Al Qaeda.

As a brief aside, though Rosenthal does not go into it, worth recalling are the serious concerns noted by human rights groups like Human Rights Watch over the manner in which bin Laden was killed. HRW noted that there was not “enough information about the killing to draw conclusions about whether it was lawful or not”. A simple Google search is enough to reveal vitriolic comments on various online fora against HRW for simply noting the loss of an opportunity to bring Bin Laden to justice through a trial for crimes against humanity. There are remarkable parallels to the reception of similar statements by domestic and international human rights groups over the killing of Prabhakaran and his family on the banks of Nandikadal in Sri Lanka.

Rosenthal’s concern over the Obama campaign’s TV ad is shared by Arianna Huffington, Editor of the influential Huffington Post, who called it ‘despicable’. The video questions whether, given his public statements expressing concern over the vast expense of the hunt for bin Laden to American taxpayers, leading Republican candidate Mitt Romney would have demonstrated the same steely resolve as Obama to essentially kill bin Laden. The irony is that this would have been precisely the same kind of messaging in an ad Obama’s first election campaign would have vehemently decried. But voters need to be reminded.

I recall an infographic published in the New York Times just after bin Laden was killed in 2011. 13,864 readers were asked what their response was to the killing. A clear majority thought it was both significant and positive. Recall the spontaneous parties and celebration on the streets after it was announced that Prabhakaran was dead. Recall how every single mainstream newspaper changed their masthead to incorporate the Sri Lankan flag. Recall the genuine elation and relief in the South over the demise of a generation’s most feared figure, displayed repeatedly with mouth agape, open eyes and a bloody forehead on every single TV channel. Mine was the only house in my compound that didn’t hoist the Sri Lankan flag. It was literally everywhere – on cars, over-crowded three-wheelers blaring patriotic songs, the side mirrors of buses, trucks, the lamp posts at junctions, in front of hotels and businesses, even flailing on the gram stalls down Galle Face promenade.

Problem is, as Obama must also now realise, when it comes to maintaining power, one’s greatest enemy is the passage of time. The more time passes, the more people tend to forget the significance of a particular event. Life after Osama is more about occupying Wall Street over the dismal state of the US economy than threats to national security. Life after Prabhakaran is more about public agitation against the rising cost of living than gratitude towards government. As a consequence, distractions are vital to rally public support, and what better way than to constantly remind a forgetful public of how the triumph against evil trumps all failures of governance?

Read any public output of the Mahinda Rajapaksa, or any key member of government. A speech or statement from 2011 or even 2010 sounds as if it could have been made yesterday. From accusations against NGOs and civil society to scintillating conspiracy theories of regime change, a backward, banal and repetitive idiom has completely usurped forward-thinking domestic and foreign policy making, strategy and leadership. We are continuously re-living May 2009. The Rajapaksa regime thrives on fear mongering, because governance through more democratic means is simply not in its DNA. This government simply isn’t staffed for democracy. And there’s the rub. As time passes, it will require more and more effort, and indeed, the occasional orchestrated violence, to remind people of the past. But public gratitude comes with an expiry date, as Churchill rudely discovered in 1945.

There will come a time when Sri  Lankan voter will quite literally take to heart the government’s trenchant submissions to move on and leave the past behind. On that day, will the government make the South into a Nandikadal, or will it have the grace to accept defeat of evil?

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Published in the print edition of The Nation, 6th May 2012.

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