Us, and them
And after all were only ordinary men.
Me, and you.
-The Darker Side of the Moon, Pink Floyd
Long time ago we were going on a pilgrimage. I think I was 10 or 12 then. We stopped at hotel by the road to have tea. I was looking around, looking at the shops and boutiques by the side of the road. They were colourful and exiting to my childish eyes. Then something caught my eye, which struck me because it was so different from the colourful surrounding, which I still recall vividly. It was a shop, abandoned, charred black, looking very dismal. I asked what it was from my grandfather. “පුතේ ඔය දෙමලුන්ගේ කඩ ගිනිතියපුවා!” (Those are the burnt down shops of Tamils, son!). He answered so casually and without emotion I got the impression that burning down of shops of Tamils is a very natural thing such as having evening tea. Now this is the same grandfather who taught me it is wrong to hurt animals, who taught me beautiful stories and who was loved and respected by the family, neighbours and relatives.
When I was working in a surgical ward in National Hospital there was an LTTE Karuna faction cadre. I’ll call him R. R had injuries due to a blast and stayed in the ward for a long time undergoing various plastic surgical procedures. He was a very nice fellow, cracking jokes, sometimes giving a helping hand to the other patients and hospital staff. R had told me he had two children and he loved them dearly. He was counting fingers to go back to his wife and children who were living in Batticaloa. Sometimes R related some of his past experiences and adventures. Once he described how he with other members of his squad massacred a whole village where Sinhalese and Muslims lived. During the whole account he never showed any regret. In fact he was laughing when he described how they cut off penises of the villagers! I asked him didn’t you feel sorry for them. His answer was “Sometimes. But those days it was like that.”
Several years back I went to a garage at Pilimathalawa with a friend of mine to repair his car. We were introduced to the owner of the garage (whom I will refer as D) by another friend of ours. D was a person approaching the middle age, well built with some thinning of hair in the front. While the car was being repaired he had a casual talk with us. He was running a decent business, married and with several children. He was bit boisterous when telling about his family which comprised of several brothers and which he described as rich and powerful in the area. He mentioned how he and his brothers burnt down and beaten away Tamil people in the neighbourhood during 1983 riots. He went on describing how some Tamils were smashed by driving vehicles over them and how they earned money by selling looted jewellery which belonged to Tamil families. D seems to take pride in those atrocities by the way he described them. I don’t recall being shocked while listening to his stories. I felt the story was quite natural though a bit boisterous.
I have Questions
Why didn’t my grandfather taught his grandson (myself) hurting Tamil people was wrong? Was it because he was inherently an insensitive and an evil person? Or is it because murder and robbery has become was so common in Sri Lanka during the recent past so that people has become insensitive to it? He was such a kind hearted and a just person in general.
Why isn’t R sorry or shocked at murdering people? Is that because he is an inherently evil person, a terrorist? Or is it because being a member of a military he had to carry out his orders? If he was just carrying out orders, when doing these terrible things, why would he enjoy what he was doing? (He was laughing when he talked about how they mutilated bodies of their of victims)
Now the last story about D is the most shocking one to me. Now here is a living in the normal civil society who has committed murder, robbery and looting and even boasts about his activities. Is this person an evil sociopath? And why weren’t us (including the author) looked at that person in shock and disgust? Are we evil people?
Us and Them
It took me a long time to realize it was this separation of “us and them” has allowed happening of these terrible things. To my grandfather, to D, to me (before realising this) it was us; it was Sinhalese defending against them, Tamils. To R it was us, Tamils defending against Sinhalese. One group (“us”) justifies being insensitive of, robbing from, beating, killing, raping the other group (“them”).
“if you put ordinary decent people in groups and create a division between ‘us’ and ‘them’ then they will descend mindlessly into brutality, to the extent that they might even be prepared to commit mass murder.”
Now we are not talking about the diversity among human beings. Of course we are diverse on race, religion, skin colour, economic status, education level, tastes etc. But we don’t go about killing each other just because of that diversity. As long as we don’t think (erroneously, of course) we needed to be defended from the other group(s) there will not be havoc.
I think I have answers for the questions now.
My grandfather was insensitive specifically to hurting Tamil people(“them”), because he identified himself with the Sinhalese(“us”) whom he was convinced needs defence from the former.
R was able to carry out his brutal acts against Sinhalese and Muslims (“them”) not just because he had to carry out orders. He identified himself with the Tamil militant group (“us”) which he firmly believed needed protection from “them”. He was able to justify his actions through that mentality.
D was probably thinking he is a patriot and he is protecting his country when he robbed, beaten down and may be even murdered those innocent Tamil people. Because to him it was “them” against “us”.
I had been justifying my insensitivity towards the Tamils (“them”) because I have been thinking it is “us” being threatened by “them”.
If there was no such havoc my grandfather would have said “පුතේ මේවා හෙන ගහන අපරාද!”; R would have lead a peaceful life, farming and taking care of his family; D would have given a helping hand to his Tamil neighbours.
But one question remains “Who are the evil people, who are terrorists among the characters (including myself) we discussed so far?” I leave it to the reader to answer, because I don’t know.
Who created “Us vs Them”?
So how this “us protecting against them” concept arose? There was no need of such a concept for ordinary people who were working, eating, drinking, growing up, looking after children and enjoying life to create such a concept, let alone going on beating, raping, killing fellow human beings. There was no actual insecurity to ordinary people before all this began.
“But we do not interpret the world on our own, as many social psychological models tend to imply. Rather, people are surrounded by would-be leaders who tell them what to make of the world around them. Indeed, tyrannical leaders only thrive by convincing us that we are in crisis, that we face threat and that we need their strong decisive action to surmount it.”
The leaders have a pattern of doing this. First they will show a distinction separating “us” (ingroup) from “them” (outgroup). Then they will show that “them” are a problem or more seriously a threat to “us”. Finally they will tell us we are the sum of all virtues. Thus showing “us” defence of the virtues requires the destruction of “them” who threatens us. This makes all those killing, beating, raping, burning and driving away people something honourable.
Tyrannical leaders knew this very well. I think it is best exemplified by this quote by Hermann Göring.
“Naturally, the common people don’t want war; neither in Russia nor in England nor in America, nor for that matter in Germany. That is understood. But, after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine the policy and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy or a fascist dictatorship or a Parliament or a Communist dictatorship. …voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is to tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country”
This is what JR Jayawardene said weeks before the onset of Black July;
“I am not worried about the opinion of the Jaffna people now… Now we cannot think of them. Not about their lives or of their opinion about us… The more you put pressure in the north, the happier the Sinhala people will be here… really, if I starve the Tamils out, the Sinhala people will be happy…”” — from an interview with J.R. Jeyawardene by Ian Ward. London Daily Telegraph, 11 July 1983.
”]Between 23rd and 26th July 1983 thousands of innocent Tamils were killed; tens of thousands of houses were destroyed; more than 50 000 people were made refugees in their own country; 37 Tamil prisoners were killed in Welikada prison by Sinhalese prisoners using knives and clubs.
Velupillai Prabhakaran said this in 2005 “Heroes Day” speech;
“They are not prepared to be tolerant any longer…. we will, next year, in solidarity with our people, intensify our struggle for self-determination, our struggle for national liberation to establish self-government in our homeland.” –from ‘Heroes Day’ speech On November 27, 2005,by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) chief Velupillai Prabhakaran
”]In the following year hundreds of innocent Sinhalese including pregnant women and children were killed by bombs, shooting, cutting, clubbing etc which included Gomarankadawala massacre, Welikanda massacre and Kabithigollawa bus bombing.
Within this article I cannot do justice to the overwhelming evidence to prove how leaders of our country contributed to the “Us and Them” separation. Not only the political leaders sowed thess seeds of hatred but also there were academic, philosophical and even religious leaders.
Two Different Stories
Terrible things happen when people fail to realize others are also human beings, when divided into groups. They fail to realize there is humanity uniting us all above the race, religion, caste or whatever other category we belong into. Yet there are individuals who could resist losing their humanity at even most trying situations. Below are two such anecdotes both of which occurred while I was an intern in the National Hospital during the latter half of 2008.
There were lot of soldiers admitted during this time as it was the height of the war. Among them there was one soldier from the Medical Corps whom I will call him P. P had a through and though gunshot wound to his abdomen with the exit wound in the lower side of a flank. This wound was literally an irregular shaped hole which pored out litres of intestinal fluids per day. It was a very difficult and painful job to clean this wound and apply drains into it, which needed to be done every day. I used to talk to him while doing that and we became friends over weeks. There were around thirty people from the Sri Lankan armed forces at a given time during that period and they had a sort of community among themselves. Something I noticed was most of the other military men didn’t like to talk with P. So one day while dressing the wound I asked about this odd behaviour from P. At first he was reluctant to answer. But later just few days before our internship appointment finished P told me his story. “Doctor, they consider me as a traitor!” said he.”That was when I got injured. I being one of medical corps stay behind the front lines and we do not engage in battles unless it is absolutely necessary. Caring for the wounded soldiers is our job.” “On that day there was a sudden crossfire between us and the enemy. And between the two groups firing at each other there were some unarmed people. I don’t know whether they were civilians or terrorists. Most of them ran for cover but there was one woman who was carrying a child and holding another by hand who was unable to run away. I cried at my fellow soldiers not to fire but I couldn’t stop them. So I ran forwards and grabbed the woman and children to the ground covering them with my body. Then I was hit. I don’t know whether it was a bullet from the enemy or from our side. In the end I was able to save that woman and children but I was scolded by my commanding officer for not obeying orders to stay behind. And as I got injured I couldn’t care for my fellow soldiers who were injured.” “Why did you do that?” I asked.
“I don’t know doctor. Being never married I don’t have children. But when I saw that mother with two children about to be killed, I just couldn’t stay observing it!” said he. I learned later P passed away due to septicaemia several weeks after this dialogue. He never received any medal or any appreciation for his conduct. On the contrary he was labelled as a traitor by his own colleagues. (But he remains as a hero in the memory of a young doctor who worked in the ward where he was admitted.)
One of my roommates was Suresh Ayya. He had only one brother who was worked at northern Sri Lanka. He was killed by the LTTE in late 2008. Suresh Ayya was very sad and was crying when we visited his place. After return of Suresh Ayya to our small room at National Hospital quarters after finishing the funeral functions and the seventh day alms giving there was a small gathering of our fellow interns where there was heated talk against terrorists and how they should be eliminated. Suresh Ayya was quiet for most of the time and when everyone left the room he told a strange thing to me.” මචං අපේ එකා යන්තං ඔලුව උස්සන් එනකොටම නැති උනා. ඌ ගැන අපේ පවුල ගොඩාක් බලාපොරොත්තු තියාගෙන හිටියා. උට වෙනින් රස්සාවක් සෙට් උනා නම් ඌ තාම ජීවත් වෙනවා නේ බන්! උට වෙඩි තියපු අනිත් පැත්තේ එවුන්ට අපිට වඩා කොච්චර ප්රශ්න ඇත්ද. අපිට නම් අඩු ගානෙ කන්න දෙයක් ඉන්න තැනක් තියනවා. ඒත් උන්ට එහෙමත් නැතුව ඇති. මේකෙන් දෙපැත්තෙන්ම මැරෙන්නේ එක වගේ කොල්ලොනේ බන්!”.(Machan, Our one died just as he started a decent life. Our family had lot of hope on him. If he had got a different job he will be still living! How much troubles ones from the other side may have! We have at least things to eat and a place to stay. But they may not even have that. It is boys who die from this at both sides are similar!)
We have seen a terrible past which cannot and must not be forgotten. Unfortunately we cannot change the past. We might be able to change the future for better so that those terrible things will not happen again. But what is terrifying me is same things that led to that terrible past is happening may be even more intensely now. We may not be able to change others, but we can at least change ourselves so that we don’t see us versus them but it is just you and me!
- S. Alexander Haslam and Stephen D. Reicher. Questioning the Banality of Evil. The Psychologist 2008:28(1):16-19.
- Reicher, S., Hopkins, N., Levine, M. & Rath, R. Entrepreneurs of hate and entrepreneurs of solidarity. International Review of the Red Cross 2006:87, 621–637.
- Michael Roberts. The Agony and the Ecstasy of a Pogrom Southern Lanka, July 1983. Nethra 2003:6(1&2),199-213
- Maya Jayasinghe Abeywickrama. ‘Memories of my Jaffna days’. Daily News 11.10.2004