*The Vanquisher and the Vanquished: Nagasaki and Two Uncommon Lives

Nagasaki After the Bombing --- Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

Charles Albury, posing with a picture of the B-29 bomber & its crew

Tsutomu Yamaguchi, survivor of the Hiroshima & Nagasaki bombings

Tsutomu Yamaguchi and Charles Donald Albury died within months of each other.  The former lived to the ripe old age of 93, and passed away in January this year; the latter died in May last year, at the age of 88.  I was reminded of Yamaguchi this month, as the bells tolled, as they do every August 6th and 9th, in remembrance of the dead at Hiroshima and Nagasaki; and when, poring through my files, the obituary of Albury came to my notice, I knew at once that their stories had to be told together.  There is no other way to tell their stories, even if their lives, and obituaries, have never been linked together.

Yamaguchi and Albury never knew each other; neither was known very much to the outside world, even if their names are, or will be, indelibly sketched in history books in unlikely ways.  They ought to have known each other, all the more so since Charles Albury was dispatched to kill not Tsutomu Yamaguchi but the likes of him.  We cannot characterize Yamaguchi’s killing as a targeted assassination; some will even balk at calling it a killing, considering that Yamaguchi survived the attempt to eliminate him by close to sixty-five years and, more poignantly, outlived Albury.   Indeed, Albury would never have known of Yamaguchi’s existence when he was sent on his mission, and I doubt very much that he knew of him at all before he died.   If Albury did know of Yamaguchi, he seems never to have betrayed that knowledge or acted upon it in any way.

No bookie could have placed bets on Yamaguchi’s chances of survival and walked away with a booty.   After hearing Yamaguchi’s story, one might be a thorough non-believer and still believe in miracles.  And, then, as if Yamaguchi’s life doesn’t already stand forth as eloquent testimony to the cliched observation that ‘fact is stranger than fiction’, one is even more surprised to find the lives of Yamaguchi and Albury linked in the strangest ways.  Even the gifts of a supreme artist are likely to be inadequate to describe their association.

Yamaguchi was a 29-year-old engineer at the Mitsubishi Heavy Industries when, in the summer of 1945, his boss sent him to Hiroshima on a business trip.  His work wound up in early August and he was preparing to leave the city on August 7th, but before he could do so the bomber Enola Gay dropped ‘Little Boy’ on Hiroshima and flattened the city, killing 80,000 people.  Yamaguchi survived the bombing:  he was a little less than two miles away from ‘ground zero’ when the bomb exploded, and he escaped with ruptured eardrums, burns on his upper torso, and utter incomprehension at what had transpired.  High up in the sky, Charles Albury, a first lieutenant in the United States Air Force, was in the support plane behind Enola Gay:  as Colonel Paul Tibbets released the bomb, Albury dropped the instruments designed to measure the magnitude of the blast and the levels of radioactivity.

From an altitude of over 30,000 feet, Albury would not have noticed the Japanese engineer.  Yamaguchi could not have appeared as anything more than an ant from that immense height; at any rate, it is reasonable to suppose that the training of those charged with an extraordinary indeed unprecedented mission would have stressed on the necessity of shelving aside the slightest sentiment about feeling something for the hated enemy.  Albury did, however, have the presence of mind to notice that he was a witness to a spectacular sight:  as he told Time magazine a few years ago, he dropped his instruments and “then this bright light hit us and the top of that mushroom cloud was the most terrifying but also the most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen in your life.  Every color in the rainbow seemed to be coming out of it.”  Robert Oppenheimer made a similar observation when the bomb was first tested in New Mexico:  a more scholarly man than Albury, with some inclination for such esoteric things as the Sanskrit classics, he noted that he was reminded of verses from the Bhagavad Gita when he saw the stupendous explosion – the splendor of which, akin to the “radiance of a thousand suns” bursting into the sky “at once”, turned his mind towards Vishnu.  “Now I am become Death, the Destroyer of Worlds”, says Krishna (the incarnation of Vishnu) to Arjuna.  There is no reason to suppose that Yamaguchi, or any of the other victims of the atomic bombings, experienced anything resembling the beauty of a thousand suns or the most dazzling rainbows.

Unlike other survivors of the first atomic bombing, Yamaguchi had no reason to stay on in Hiroshima; he didn’t have to hunt for survivors among family or friends.  So Yamaguchi headed home – to Nagasaki.  On the morning of the 9th, still nursing his wounds, Yamaguchi nevertheless reported to work.  When his boss sought an explanation for his dressings and unseemly appearance, Yamaguchi began to describe the explosion and insisted that a single bomb had wiped out Hiroshima and much of its population.  You must be mad and gravely disoriented, said his boss:  a single bomb cannot cause such havoc and destruction.  At that precise moment, Charles Albury, co-pilot of the mission over Nagasaki, dropped the second atomic bomb, nicknamed ‘Fat Man’, over the city that had in the 19th century been Japan’s gateway to the West.  Eighty thousand people would perish from the atomic bombing of Nagasaki, half of them instantly.   Yamaguchi would become, one might say, thrice born; he survived the blast.  “I could have died on either of those days”, he told a Japanese newspaper only months before he died in January 2010.  “Everything that follows is a bonus.”  A new word, hibakusha, the explosion-affected people, was coined in Japanese to describe the survivors of either atomic bombing; and yet another phrase describes the “twice-bombed” survivors, known in Japanese as nijyuu hibakusha.  Yamaguchi was the only officially acknowledged nijyuu hibakusha, otherwise believed to number around 165.  I don’t believe that there is a vocabulary in any language that can describe what Yamaguchi might have gone through.

Yamaguchi’s wife died from kidney and liver cancer in 2008.  His daughter describes her mother as having been “soaked in black rain” from the bomb.   Her brother, born in February 1945, was exposed to radiation, and would fall a victim to cancer at the age of 59.  Yamaguchi himself struggled with various illnesses but held on to life with tenacity and philosophical composure, displaying an equanimity that might explain the energy he displayed, at the age of over 90, in finishing 88 drawings of the images of the Buddha, representing the same number of temples – or stations – encountered on a religious pilgrimage around Shikoku.  Later in life, after his son passed away, Yamaguchi became an ardent critic of the nuclear race, and he denounced the obscenity of possession of nuclear weapons.

Meanwhile, his mission accomplished, Charles Albury returned to the US, became a pilot with Eastern Airlines, and settled down in Florida.   He would say, when questioned, that he felt no remorse:  the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki had, he argued, saved hundreds of thousands of lives, Japanese and American, lives that would have been needlessly sacrificed had the US commenced a land invasion.  We need not be detained by the fact that this argument is now largely discredited, certainly keenly contested; nor need we ask why a second bomb had to dropped at all, when the Japanese high command had been thrown into utter confusion after the destruction of Hiroshima.  In 1982, while being interviewed for the Miami Herald, Albury stated that he opposed war but would drop the bomb again if the US were under attack.  We know what such ‘opposition’ to war means.  “My husband was a hero”, Albury’s wife of 65 years told the Miami Herald after his death, adding:  “He saved one million people . . .  He sure did do a lot of praying.”  Since Charles Albury felt no reason to be contrite, one wonders why he prayed; and, if he prayed, whether he prayed that he might become a better Christian, or that the souls of the Japanese might be saved.  Still, since prayer is a reclusive matter, a form of communication between the worshipper  and the Divine, one should allow Charles Albury the privacy of his religious beliefs and practices.

The Americans vanquished the Japanese.  So goes the story.  However, pondering over the twisted tale of Tsutomu Yamaguchi and Charles Albury, I believe one can never be certain who is the vanquisher and who the vanquished.  All too often the vanquished have given birth to the vanquisher.  There are many possible readings, but when one places the stories of Yamaguchi and Albury in juxtaposition, it is quite transparent who represents the nobler conception of human dignity.  The ontology of the vanquished, as the life of Yamaguchi shows, always has room for the vanquisher; the same cannot be said for the vanquisher.  In this respect, at least, we might say that the vanquisher is always a lesser person than the vanquished.  I would like to believe that Yamaguchi crossed over to the other side with an ample awareness of this fundamental truth.

*The Mosque at ‘Hallowed’ Ground, Part II: Some Notes on the Politics of Place & Name

One of the most notable elements in the public discourse on the proposed Islamic Center in lower Manhattan, which is conceived as a multistory building of which the mosque will constitute one part, is the extraordinary and troublesome ease with which it came to be characterized as the “Ground Zero Mosque”.   The association of ‘mosque’ with ‘ground zero’ informs all arguments emanating from those who have voiced their opposition to this project, just as it becomes the pretext for rendering this ‘Ground Zero’ as “hallowed” ground.  Some supporters of the project, and even those who might profess indifference to the entire controversy, have observed quite rightly that the Islamic center and mosque is in fact two city blocks away from ‘Ground Zero’.  But such an argument presupposes that opponents of the proposed Islamic Center are interested in, and willing to be persuaded by, facts.  If one were interested in facts, one could point to many more that are pertinent to this discussion:  at least two churches – St. Paul’s Chapel, which dates to 1766, and the Church of St. Peter, in what is described as “New York’s oldest parish” — exist in closer proximity to ‘Ground Zero’ than the proposed mosque.  The supposition that adherents of Islam wish to claim ‘Ground Zero’ solely for their own faith is nothing short of preposterous.  But none of this is very germane, since such controversies are never at all about ‘facts’.

If the numerical table begins with zero, let us likewise also commence with ‘ground zero’ and the implications of rendering this as ‘hallowed ground’.  The term ‘ground zero’ is defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as “that part of the ground situated immediately under an exploding bomb, esp. an atomic one.”  The OED has traced the first occurrence of the phrase to an article appearing in the New York Times on 7 July 1946 (p. E10), wherein it was stated, apropos of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, that “the intense heat of the blast started fires as far as 3,500 feet from ground zero”; as a further illustration of how the phrase has been deployed, it points to the September 1955 of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists:  “There was no noticeable contamination even at ground zero at Hiroshima.”  We can see that the OED’s stress on “esp[ecially] an atomic” bomb, to describe the impact on the ground situated directly underneath an exploding bomb, is not misplaced.  Now, within hours of the attack upon the Twin Towers, the phrase ‘ground zero’ began to be used by American reporters:  the intent, it is reasonable to infer, was to suggest that that the destruction of the World Trade Center (and a portion of the Pentagon) was America’s Hiroshima (and Nagasaki).

It is precisely this sleight of hand, this tacit attempt to draw a parallelism between the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on the one hand, and the terrorist attacks upon some of the most iconic structures of the American landscape, that must be decisively repudiated – and, at the same time, affirmed for very different reasons than those which are summoned by those who speak of the ‘Ground Zero Mosque’.  The parallelism is gravely suspect, and not merely for the reason, if at all that is a reason, considering that the loss of one innocent life is too excessive a loss, that the 3,000 odd victims of the September 11 bombings are a much smaller number than the more than 200,000 dead from the atomic bombings:  more importantly, unlike the attacks of the September 11 suicide bombers, the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were authorized by the President of the United States.  The wanton destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was an act of state; the same cannot be said of the September 11 attacks.  If, further, we are to identify the suicide bombers of September 11 as Muslims, as everyone has so effortlessly done so, even if it might be with the implicit encouragement of the terrorists themselves, should we not also identify Truman and the members of his war cabinet as Christians?  And, so, let us concede that the attacks of September 11 also call to mind the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki:  if the atomic bombs forever altered warfare, ushering in an altogether different register of the mind at war and bringing forth a new conception of terror, we might well say that the September 11 attacks have similarly necessitated a radical rethinking of the conditions under which war might be waged.  Let those who seek to sanctify ‘Ground Zero’ also understand that the terrorism of the atomic bombings is the underpinning of all modern forms of terror.

Even as the controversy over the ‘Ground Zero Mosque’ continues, many Americans have begun to describe ‘Ground Zero’, where the Twin Towers stood and then collapsed, as “hallowed ground”.  Obama himself sanctified this usage when, in the White House iftar dinner last week, he declared: “I understand the emotions that this issue engenders.  Ground zero is, indeed, hallowed ground.”   Some Americans, at least, will at once recognize the hallowed provenance of “hallowed”, as it calls to mind the address, “short, short, short” (in the author’s words), delivered by Lincoln at the battlefield of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, on 19 November 1863.  The north and the south were in the grip of “a great civil war”, proclaimed Lincoln, “testing whether that nation, or any nation, so conceived, and so dedicated, can long endure.”  Let us leave aside, so that we can get to the notion of “hallowed ground”, the obvious temptation to probe whether some American commentators are not convinced that the United States today is similarly faced with a test of endurance:  if the likes of the grunting troglodytes on the right are to be believed, America’s future is jeopardized both by enemies from within (so-called liberals and leftists, whatever these anodyne terms mean in the US) and from without (Muslims).  Here is what Lincoln was moved to say:  “We are met here on a great battlefield of that war.  We have come to dedicate a portion of it as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live.  It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.  But in a larger sense we cannot dedicate – we cannot consecrate – we cannot hallow this ground.  The brave men, living and dead, who struggled, here, have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract.”

Thus, to render Ground Zero as “hallowed ground” is at once to lay claim to the legacy of Lincoln, the most hallowed figure in American history, and to render the space of Ground Zero as ‘sacred’.  Lincoln significantly abjures the idea that the ground can be rendered hallow:  “But in a larger sense we cannot dedicate – we cannot consecrate – we cannot hallow this ground.”  It is human sacrifice that consecrates a ground as sacred, and what is sacred is a form of being rather than a form of becoming.  For the present purposes, though, it suffices to note that the opponents of the proposed Islamic Center are firmly attached to the idea that ‘Ground Zero’ is sacred space and that the construction of the mosque would desacralize this space.  If it is sacred, then it is sacred for a religion, or – as is the case with some religious sites or cities, such as Jerusalem — sacred for several (but not all) religions.  Yet, what makes ‘Ground Zero’ sui generis as a sacred site, if at all it is sacred in the same way that Gettysburg is hallowed ground, is that the adherents of perhaps all the faiths — and certainly Muslims — were present in the Twin Towers, and we know as well that more Muslims have paid for those bombings than the practitioners of any other faith.  Those who would deny Muslims an Islamic Center on ‘Ground Zero’, on the grounds that it is sacred space, have thus arrived at a conception of the sacred that has no room for the Muslim at all.  That opens further the doors of the Islamophobia that has already crept upon the United States.

See also Part I, The Controversy and the Meaning of ‘America’


Part III (forthcoming):   Islamophobia and the new Anti-Semitism in the US

*The Mosque at ‘Hallowed’ Ground: Part I, The Controversy and the Meaning of ‘America’

Nearly all the fundamental questions that might animate anyone interested in what I would call ‘the question of America’ seem implicated in the swirling controversy that has arisen over the so-called Ground Zero Mosque in lower Manhattan.   As much as any other place in the world, the history of the United States is inextricably interwoven with the narratives of immigrant groups.  Muslims are, for the most part, among the more recent of the immigrants who have made their way to the United States, furnishing the latest challenge to those who insist that America remains the ultimate haven of religious freedom.   Are the Muslims as welcome in the US as the adherents of any other religion?  If so, what arouses the passions of those Americans who, to put it mildly, feel resentful about the proposed installation of an Islamic center and mosque at what is called ‘Ground Zero’?  If not, does that tell us something about the limitations of religious freedom in the US and expose the grand lie that the freedom of religious belief and practice is the most venerable of all the freedoms, real or imagined, to which America is said to give unrivalled expression?

There are other prior questions:  are immigrants from Indonesia, the Gulf states, North Africa, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and many other parts of the world which are predominantly Islamic to be viewed first as Muslims and then as being immigrants from those countries?  If, as is apparently the case, the answer is in the affirmative, is that because (say) Indonesian or Pakistani Muslims themselves insist that their principal identity is as Muslims, or is it because in the United States, as in most of the West, it is fondly imagined that religion is the fundamental and most irreducible part of an identity in what is characterized as the Muslim world?  Was it not the ‘Muslim world’ that Obama addressed last year, and can one imagine a Muslim, Hindu, or Buddhist leader addressing the ‘Christian world’?  Why is it even that the ‘Muslim world’ comes so effortlessly to the tongue of most people, including those we suppose are intelligent and even leaders of free societies, but that the phrase ‘Christian world’ would strike the same people, even when they are observant Christians, as awkward?

The unseemly controversy over the mosque has brought many other considerations to the fore.  No one who has been keeping abreast of events in recent months, never mind the last nine years since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 brought down the Twin Towers, could have failed to notice the rising tide of Islamophobia.  Considering how little intelligence has been displayed by some previous occupants of the White House, such as his grey eminence George W. Bush, one should expect almost nothing of the likes of the Lieutenant Governor of Tennessee, who came up with this inexcusably stupid formulation:  “You could even argue whether being a Muslim is actually a religion or it is a nationality, way of life or cult, whatever you want to call it.”  One of the highest-ranking retired officers in the American armed forces has openly stated that practitioners of Islam are not entitled to the protections accorded to the adherents of other faiths in the Bill of Rights.  And so might one continue in this vein, but all this gives rise to the glaring question:  is the US in the grip of Islamophobia?  Some will suggest that Muslims have replaced communists:  it is not difficult to fathom the argument, certainly, that the gargantuan military-industrial complex is constantly in need of new enemies.  But there are other, more interesting, complexities to this Islamophobia.  The remarks now so cavalierly bandied about as characterizations of Islam would not be tolerated if they had been made apropos the practitioners of another faith.  One is tempted to say that the abuse of Islam is the new and fashionable anti-Semitism of America.

Let us consider also another distinct oddity in the present debate.  Among the ‘national’ organizations that have expressed their strong displeasure at the proposed construction of the Islamic Center and mosque is the Anti-Defamation League.  So just what is it that rankles Abraham Foxman and the League about this mosque?  Unless Jews, or more precisely Zionists, have some proprietary interest in this matter, why should their opinion matter so much or at all – their opinion, that is, as Jews rather than as human beings who may, like any one else, feel invested in this subject — and why should they even presume to suppose that their have more of a vested interest in this mosque than Hindus, Buddhists, or Sikhs, all of whom are represented in not insignificant numbers in contemporary America?  At a demonstration last month against another proposed mosque in Nashville, Tennessee, protestors appeared waving American and Israeli flags.  All such evocations of jingoism are nauseous, but should we not be mystified at the presence of demonstrators carrying Israeli flags?  Should we suppose that this signifies that America is fundamentally a country built on the Judaeo-Christian tradition, and are Israeli flags meant to put Muslims on notice that any assertion of Muslim identity, even if this is taking place in a country purportedly built on the edifice of individual liberties and religious freedom, will be taken to be an affront not only to the US but to Israel as well?

That the word ‘Muslim’ itself signifies acute discomfort in the United States is also signaled by what, to people with a modicum of intelligence, must appear as the rather comical and persistent confusion about whether Barack Obama is a Muslim or not.  According to one poll conducted last week, almost a third of all Americans now believe that the American President is a Muslim.  The word ‘now’ is underscored since the figure increased from 18% only a short while ago:  Obama’s apparent defense of the right of Muslims to build a mosque ­at Ground Zero has fostered the impression that he belongs to the Muslim faith.  If other words – at Ground Zero, for instance — in my own discourse have to be underscored,  it is only a sign of the fact that nothing in this discourse is as it seems.  Far from being a Muslim, Obama, according to a White House press release, is a practicing Christian who consults daily with spiritual advisors.  We can marvel at a more apt moment about Obama’s intense religiosity and pray that he does not turn into another Tony Blair, the once boyish-looking Prime Minister turned into an evangelist.  I suspect that the degree to which Obama has now become a fervent and emboldened Christian has some proportional relationship to the degree to which he is imagined to be a Muslim by a good number of Americans.

There are, then, many elements of the discourse surrounding the proposed and inaptly named ‘Ground Zero Mosque’ that need to be parsed in substantial detail; and I shall do the same in subsequent posts over the next few days.  In the meantime, however, the larger meaning of this controversy should not be obscured.  The ‘debate’ – a rather dignified word to describe some of the squabbles in front of the ‘hallowed’ ground, not to mention the rantings of the right that have filled the airwaves – implicates many of the central questions in American history since the ascendancy of the European colonists.  Just what is signfied by the ‘American way of life’?  Why does every dispute become an occasion to affirm, for those on either side of the divide, an American exceptionalism?  Is American exceptionalism itself the pretext for permitting Zionism a special place in American politics, a place that exempts it from the critiques that one might direct at other ideologies?  Why, and in what respects, is religion so critical to the American imagination, and does the United States truly know how to live with religious and cultural difference?  Is the United States at heart a Judaeo-Christian civilization, and, if so, what does it portend for the more recent wave of immigrants?  Is American-style multiculturalism the only template for contemplating diversity and pluralism?  Can American Islam assist in shaping the future of Islam worldwide?  What role if any might Muslims in the United States play in the arguments that seem to inform most contemporary discussions about Islam?   As we begin to unravel these questions, much will be revealed about the meaning of ‘America’ – a meaning in which, for better or worse, every nation is heavily invested, considering the nonpareil symbolism that American presents to the human imagination.

See also Part II, Some Notes on the Politics of Place and Name

*The Expulsion of the Roma: France & the Anxieties of Transgression

Some 150 years after the French Revolution, Chairman Mao was asked what he thought of that watershed moment in modern history.  Mao is reported to have said, ‘It’s too early to tell’!  Mao has been credited with many things, but his sardonic wit has been underestimated.  What might he have had in mind?  That a revolution devours its own children is something about which Mao would have known a thing or two.  Could it be that the promise of the French Revolution had never been fulfilled?  Whatever liberties the revolution brought to France, it diminished neither the appetite for colonies among the French nor their bloodthirstiness in suppressing the aspirations for freedom among others.   Toussaint Louverture and the Haitians were among the first to be brought to the brutal awareness that ‘liberty, equality, and fraternity’ were intended to enrich the lives of not all humans but only those who pompously declared themselves custodians of civilization.

The French are at it again:  when they are not purifying their language, or congratulating themselves for their supposed refinements – from wines and perfumes to lingerie and fashions — they are busy engaging in ethnic cleansing.  Their attention has now turned to the Roma.  Well might it be said that they scarcely have a monopoly on this exercise, what with Americans flying repeated sorties over the last few decades over Cambodia, Vietnam, Sudan, Iraq, and Afghanistan, to mention only some of the darker nations which have experienced the terror of American bombing, but of course no country has such fanciful ideas about its own ‘civilization’ as do the French.   The French have never been short of overweening pride:  the law of February 23 2005, before it was repealed by President Jacques Chirac in early 2006, stipulated that ‘school courses should recognise in particular the positive role of the French presence overseas, notably in north Africa.’  Even as the French National Assembly was pushing through this odious piece of legislation, the heavy hand of the state was coming down upon young men of North African origin who are largely viewed as inassimilable to French society.

On Thursday last week, the government of Nicolas Sarkozy expelled 700 Roma – or, in more common parlance, gypsies — from France, and many more expulsions are anticipated in coming weeks.  The French police are dismantling what they describe as ‘illegal camps’ and deporting the Roma to Romania and Bulgaria.  Some in the French government are describing themselves as surprised by the attention being given to the present round of expulsions, since they claim to have carried out 10,000 such expulsions last year without any publicity.  Another predictable argument being furnished in favor of the expulsions is that the Roma are prone to theft and criminal activity, and public safety demands the removal of those who have overstayed their welcome.  We might quibble about the word ‘welcome’, since even a modicum of familiarity with the history of the Roma suggests that they have never been welcomed in most parts of Europe.  (The Roma, in varying numbers, have been expelled, quite recently, from Italy, Sweden, and Denmark.)  Indeed, it is commonly forgotten that Hitler directed a ferocious campaign of extermination against the Roma as much as he did against Jews.   But France has struck upon another ingenious method to ward off criticism:  in the official version, the departures of the Roma are ‘voluntary’ and the resettlement sum of US $385 that has been given to each Roma is a testimony to the goodwill of the French.  This piece of deception serves two purposes:  first, it seeks to insulate the French against a legal challenge from human rights activists and, in particular, the European Court of Human Rights.  Secondly, since international law specifically prohibits targeting an entire group on the basis of ethnicity, religion, sexual preferences, and so on, France can present the departing Roma as animated by individual choice.

We need not waste time in asking if the French are racist.  They are.  Their history of barbaric conduct, whether in Indochina or Algeria, provides unimpeachable evidence of their sentiments.  The question now raised by their expulsion of the Roma is a different one:  just what is it about the Roma, small in numbers and living at the extreme margins of society, that arouses the anxieties of the French and others in Western Europe?  Supposing it were true that the Roma are prone to criminal activity, as is commonly argued even if it is far from established, it is also clear that they largely stand charged of insolent behavior, petty theft, and conduct that fills ‘ordinary’ or ‘normal’ people with uneasiness.  The Roma seem menacing; that, apparently, is their real crime.  We notice how, in the dominant discourse about the Roma, they are always spoken of as a collectivity, so that every Roma stands implicated in criminal activity, something like the ‘criminal tribes’ invented by the British in colonial India.  Supposing, again, that they were criminals, their petty crimes pale in comparison to the monstrous atrocities committed by the French in their colonies.  So what is it about the Roma that disturbs the placid waters of French self-enchantment?

The history of the modern world has been shaped around the nation-state, and many historians, among them Eugen Weber in his famous Peasants into Frenchmen, have chronicled the bloody process of nation making.  People have to be cajoled into constituting themselves as subjects of the nation-state, and the national anthem and the national flag exist to remind those with wavering loyalties that the nation-state is a stern taskmaster.  Above all, however, the nation-state is marked by boundaries, generally well-defined and occasionally contested, and the map is enlisted to turn these boundaries into stone.  Once the nation-state comes into place, it views its boundaries as sacrosanct and worthy of the highest approbation.  The most characteristic feature of the Roma, of course, is the fact their entire mode of living is in defiance of the logic of the nation-state.  The Roma represent a time when, in their (from the standpoint of modernity) state of unfreedom, the ancestors of those Europeans who today inhabit the various nations-state of Europe could wander around relatively unhindered.  Modernity’s own preferred narrative about itself is to think of modern times as uniquely characterized by extreme mobility, but such mobility is, in fact, highly restricted and bears little relationship to the nomadic sensibility of the Roma.  There is, thus, in the activities of the Roma a mix of anxiety and envy that Europeans experience:  envy because the Roma, forsaking the protocols of the nation-state and modern bourgeois living, embody an admirable spirit of freedom and lack of self-restraint; and anxiety because their transgressions generate acute uncertainty, a fear that the boundaries placed between the self and the other will collapse.  If Europe is not to become even duller than it is, living on its museums, heritage sites, and the various affects of ‘the refined life’, it would do well to learn to live with the Roma.

*’No one is illegal, Canada is illegal’: Persistent Racism in the ‘Gentle’ Colossus

On 13 August 2010, the passenger ship MV Sea Sun docked at Vancouver, British Columbia, carrying 492 Tamils seeking entry into Canada as refugees.  And, once again, indeed as has happened scores of times in the history of this nation, in sickening fidelity to the idea that each generation must inflict its own quantum of stupid bigotry upon others, these Tamil refugees have been met with racial hostility, unfounded accusations about their supposed support of terrorism, and xenophobic demands for their repatriation to Sri Lanka.   All 492 of the Tamil refugees remain under detention, even though a batch of 75 had hearings before the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada this week.

Though the long-drawn and bitterly fought civil war in Sri Lanka came to an official end last year with the defeat of the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) and the death of their leader, Prabhakaran, unrest in Sri Lanka persists.  The Sri Lankan government disputes the charge, levied by various human rights groups, that the political, economic, and cultural rights of Tamils continue to be violated at the end of the military conflict, but it cannot be doubted that Sri Lankan Tamils are caught in a humanitarian crisis.  The United Nations estimates that the military operations of 2009 led to some 80,000 civilians fatalities and the displacement of close to 300,000 Tamils.  The bulk of these Tamils remain in makeshift camps, and many of them allege that the Sri Lankan state persists in their persecution.  A Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora has been in the making for over three decades, and unless tensions between the Sri Lankan government and Tamils are resolved soon and Tamils feel that they have a genuine stake in the nation-state, their flight from Sri Lanka will continue.

The Tamils who arrived at Vancouver Island braved a three-month journey.  Though the Tamils are dispersed throughout the world, Toronto’s Tamil diaspora of 300,000 makes it one of the largest Tamil diasporic communities outside Sri Lanka and the Indian state of Tamil Nadu.  Many Canadians and others are likely to point to the size of the Tamil population in Canada as an illustration of the largesse and goodwill of successive Canadian governments.  Though the long history of racial discrimination and outright hostility to colored immigrants is stitched into Canada’s history, many Canadians like to imagine themselves as the benign and gentle neighbors of the imperialists south of the border.  It is not necessary, for our purposes, to inquire if there is even a semblance of truth to this self-representation, considering that Canada has displayed a pathetic incapacity for any foreign policy independent of American interests; moreover, as is the case with the other white dominion Australia, which if anything is even more of a cauldron of the worst kind of racial bigotry, one can legitimately ask if Canada has not tacitly accepted submission as the price to be paid for an American military cover that permits the country to divert more resources to social services.

The office of Canadian MP Keith Martin is reported to have received hundreds of calls objecting to the arrival of Tamils on the shores of British Columbia.  Questions are being asked why Canada should assume responsibility to house and feed outsiders when the country’s social services are already under considerable pressure.  To this there are many rejoinders:  one could speak of humanitarian considerations, of the obligations that humans have to each other, and of the tacit and unwritten laws of hospitality that compel allegiance.  There is something far nobler about the hospitality of those living under some stress than the hospitality of the rich.  Some callers objected that the Tamilian passengers had ‘jumped the immigration queue’, but there is no queue for refugee claimants.  International law has provisions for asylum for refugees precisely because it is understood that, economic motivations for emigration aside, political persecution impels people to move to other lands.  One would have thought that if this ought to be clearly understood anywhere in the world, it should be in Canada and the United States.  Other callers, whose sentiments have been echoed by the irresponsible Public Safety Minister Vic Toews, claim that some among the Tamil refugees are members of the LTTE, outlawed in Canada as in many other countries as a terrorist organization.  However, there is not an iota of evidence to support this allegation, and it is significant that a similar panic was aroused in 2009 when the ship Ocean Lady arrived with 76 Tamils on board.  After detention and interrogation of all the men on board, all were released when their presumed terrorist connections could not be established.

Some Canadians will fret at the racism and hostility directed at refugees because it spoils the country’s reputation as a kinder and gentler neighbour of the colossus down south.  But does Canada have a reputation to maintain?  Canada has thrived on the perceived notion that it is (pleasantly) different from America, free of imperial ambitions, more caring of its citizens and less hostile to ideas of state responsibility, and genuinely multicultural in spirit.  Its health services have been celebrated by the likes of Michael Moore, and at least a few American liberals have been similarly enthused by the fact that Canada does not appear to thrive on a huge and unabashedly celebratory gun culture.   The question is not whether Canadians are more sensible than Americans in facing up to some of the facts of life but whether anyone could be as intractable as the Americans in giving expression to the most indefensible positions on social issues, whether it be gun ownership, the right to affordable health care, state subsidies for mass transit systems, and so on.  The unpleasant truth is that Canada has also been more successful in persisting with certain fictions.  ‘First Nations’, the preferred term in Canada for the indigenous populations, sounds properly respectful even reverential, but we know well what would happen if ‘First Nation’ people forged a secessionist movement and demanded the dissolution of what is now called Canada.

In May 1914, the Komagata Maru, with more than 365 passengers on board, the majority of them Punjabis, was turned away at Vancouver on the grounds that the immigrants had ‘failed to comply with the requirements of the Canadian law.’  The ship made its way back to Budge-Budge, Calcutta, where the understandably restless passengers were not favorably disposed to being met by a large police force that had been warned about the presence of ‘undesirable’ characters on board.  Twenty-six people would be killed in a police firing, but that history has been narrated elsewhere.  Then, as now, the elements of the narrative remain undisturbed: a ship arrives in Vancouver with colored immigrants, at least some of whom are accused of being political extremists, even ‘terrorists’; a mass hysteria is engendered among the city’s citizens, and it is said that ‘public safety’ demands the removal of those seeking entry into Canada illegally.   The historian who famously spoke of the short twentieth century could have made a more compelling case for the long twentieth century.  What to speak of the genocide of the indigenous populations that occurred throughout the Americas, Canada has unfortunately left far too many trails of bitter tears when it comes to immigrant histories.

The real stakes in this latest episode of Canada’s ugly treatment of Tamil refugee claimants are eloquently expressed in the slogan of one migrant justice organization, ‘no one is illegal, Canada is illegal.’   It is intolerable that a country built on the back of immigrant labor should have the effrontery to describe anyone seeking to arrive at its shores as ‘illegal’.   Those who dispossessed the indigenous populations can have no moral claim to sole possession.  There have been calls to declare some cities as ‘world cities’, as zones free of the jurisdiction of the nation-state; but we can be simultaneously more utopian and ethical in contemplating truly democratic futures.  Canada itself should be declared a free zone, with unhindered access to the country for one and all.  If Canada truly wishes to be marked as different from America, it shall have to do something far more radical than describe its indigenous people as ‘First Nations’ and still allow them to languish in poverty.   Canada shall have to do far more than permit visitors the taste of England – what with its formal allegiance to the Queen, tea with scones in Wellington, and its Bobby-like policemen on horses – while remaining wholly wedded to the American way of life in so many spheres.  What the racial discrimination with which the Tamil refugee claimants have been received demonstrates is that the wide expanse of the ocean is not enough to shelter Canada from the other.  When the inner demons of life are not confronted, the other will always persist.