Daily Archives: January 8, 2015

A few observations about ritualized grief

It is easy to write inspiring and touching messages of solidarity in the aftermath of a tragedy. Tragedy, like failure, has a way of concentrating one’s mind and ideas. It has a way to distil one’s essence. I am as prompted by tragedy and failure as the next person. Hence the following is what I wrote on my Facebook update yesterday.

Charlie Hebdo’s cartoonists went about their work openly with conviction. They came to work with their faces uncovered and known. They signed their work.

Their killers came surreptitiously, masked and armed with Kalashnikovs. They killed without revealing who they were and fled.

That is the difference between genuine belief and genuine delusion.

Purely objectively, I did manage to extract the essence of what I was feeling in the aftermath of the Paris killings. That said, I am also mindful of how every tragedy has a short shelf life in our collective conscience. We have already moved on from the ghastly killings of some 140 school children and teachers in Peshawar. Our sense of solidarity and outrage was as sharp and focused then as it is now on what happened in Paris. My concern is that grief has been ritualized. At one level I understand the inherently transient nature of any heightened emotions caused by a tragedy like the Charlie Hebdo killings or the Peshawar massacre. One also understands the grief fatigue that follows. And yet it is hard to reconcile with the fact that we act as if we constantly need new highs and lows of joy and grief.

In this hectic era of social media-fueled hyper-expressiveness and connectivity we have become extraordinarily good at efficiently creating emblems and icons of our raw emotions. It was amazing to see how quickly the ‘Je Suis Charlie’ (I am Charlie) signs and badges became emblematic of the Paris killings. I just hope that we are not merely becoming a society high on smart sloganeering and low on substance. I am not for a moment denying the soothing effects of a collective expression of grief, solidarity and resolve that invariably follows such killings. I am wondering aloud whether we are using it as a substitute for deeper reflection and more enduring resolution of the crisis we are facing as a civilization.

Getting off that lofty perch, the Paris killings remind me of the abortive plot piloted by the now jailed David Coleman Headley to kill staffers of the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten. The newspaper was targeted by Headley, now serving 35 years in a US prison for his involvement in the November 26 Mumbai terrorist attacks, for publishing in 2005 cartoons of Prophet Mohammad that many Muslims found offensive.

The threat in question was constituted by the plot hatched by Headley with apparent blessings of the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) against the newspaper offices in Copenhagen and Aarhus. One of the elements of the abortive attacks, which was deliberately meant to stun the world, was to behead captives at the newspaper and throw their heads on to the street in Copenhagen. The idea behind this macabre plan was to provoke the Danish authorities into a strong, possibly military, response. While Headley’s plot failed, the one in Paris unfortunately came to pass. Of course, the killings in Charlie Hebdo’s office were more special ops military style than what Headley had planned for the Jyllands-Posten journalists.

While watching television discussions on CNN, I heard one panelist talk about the growing grip of Salafi thinking among certain sections of Muslims in Europe. That also brought back memories from the Headley trial. As pointed out by Assistant US Attorney Daniel Collins prosecuting the case, Headley had discussed with his handlers which Islamic denomination his fellow accused Tahawwur Hussain Rana, also serving 15 years for his role in facilitating Headley in the abortive Denmark plot, belonged to as well as the need to win him over to the Salafi side of Islam.

Salafi adherents treat the companions of Prophet Mohammed and the two immediate generations of Muslims that followed as their role model. Headley said LeT believes being a Salafi "is a prerequisite to jihad".

According to the prosecution, Headley and Rana even debated who should declare jihad, whether a head of an Islamic state, as Rana believed, or someone else. Headley explained to Rana that a head of state was necessary only if it was to be "offensive" jihad but for "defensive" jihad of the kind currently underway it was not necessary.

It is amazing how deeply entrenched such thinking is across the fundamentalist movement.

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The M16 in all its breathtaking glory

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Credit: NASA/ESA/Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)/J. Hester, P. Scowen (Arizona State U.)

NASA has just released a spectacular high resolution image of the Eagle/M16 nebula taken by the Hubble telescope. Known as the “Pillars of Creation” it is 6500 light years away from us. In effect what we are seeing now is 6500 years old. It has taken the image those many years to travel at the speed of light to (186,000 miles a second) to reach us now.

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Detail of the M16

The first image of the same nebula was taken in 1995. As NASA explains, in the 19 years since things have happened in the nebula. “By comparing the 1995 and 2014 pictures, astronomers also noticed a lengthening of a narrow jet-like feature that may have been ejected from a newly forming star. The jet looks like a stream of water from a garden hose. Over the intervening 19 years, this jet has stretched farther into space, across an additional 60 billion miles, at an estimated speed of about 450,000 miles per hour.”

Everything in the universe is a constant reminder of our piddling existence, including a cosmically minor detail such as 60 billion miles that the jet has stretched since we last saw it.

I started out wanting to paint the M16. I even got the basic colors right as I began but immediately realized the futility of replicating what the universe has already done. The result was that I ended up with the following painting.

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The M16 by Mayank Chhaya