‘The Juwes are the men that will not be blamed for nothing’.
This quote has been attributed to a mysterious figure that spread terror through the streets of Whitechapel in the 1800s. Found scrawled on a wall close to the crime scene of a well-known serial killer – a mysterious figure known to the public only by the name Jack the Ripper. That name evokes a range of reactions, from horror to quiet fascination.
It cannot be denied that people have a fixation with violence. It is this hidden and unacknowledged fixation that the media is catering to through the creation of true-crime shows, podcasts, and websites dedicated to unsolved murder. The Guardian’s list of 50 best podcasts for 2018 includes two dedicated to true crime – that’s without counting those dedicated to exploring terrorism. Five of the best shows on Netflix right now according to Wired are to do with crime drama or true crime.
For those who are fixated, there is an element of voyeurism. We are watching, reading or listening as spectators, learning about someone who placed himself as judge, jury and executioner, someone who operates outside of what society deems acceptable. That is perhaps what makes shows like Hannibal, Dexter, and even Breaking Bad so compelling to watch.
Alan Moore explores this fascination in the graphic novel “From Hell”, where his protagonist walks the streets of London. Comics and graphic novels are often perceived as catering to the lowest common denominator – but Moore’s work challenges us to think differently. In “From Hell” his characters deliberately make reference to William Blake (often credited as the creator of the graphic novel with his woodcuts, combining text and image in the same way as modern graphic novelists.) Moore draws inspiration from Blake’s work in his depiction of Jack the Ripper, and specifically his work in “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell”, which explores concepts of good and evil in a way that rejects them as rigid fixed categories, as Notemboom explains.
Inspired by Blake, Moore’s depiction is not a simple condemnation of Jack the Ripper as a persona, but rather of the society that fostered and allowed for that persona to be created and to wreak such uninhibited violence. Moore himself says he saw the Ripper murders as “an apocalyptic summary” for the entire Victorian age, including and especially the inequality and poverty that persisted at the time.
At the US Holocaust Museum, the thing that struck me most was an exhibit depicting the birth of the National Socialist German Worker’s Party (or the Nazi Party, as it’s known).
It contained the photograph of an SS officer, holding a sign. “Germans, defend yourself against Jewish atrocity propaganda – Buy only at German shops!”
This boycott, in April 1, 1933 was one of the first public attacks by the Nazi Party, leveled against the entire German Jewish community.
It reminded me of the posters and leaflets I had seen, on Facebook and pinned on to telephone poles, calling for the boycott of halal food in 2013, and which was one of the rallying calls at the time of the Bodu Bala Sena (in fact, it formed part of a 10 point resolution that they launched at a rally in 2013).
I recalled, too, seeing the flash of saffron robes among the crowd assembled outside the Maharagama No Limit in January 2013, and more vividly, the smirk on the face of the bus conductor when we asked him what was going on, and why there were police barriers. It was the smirk of someone who silently asked, “How can you not know?”
My ignorance was shameful given that at the time, I was working at a national newspaper. I had spent most mornings poring over the English news, looking for stories to work on. Nowhere in those pages had I seen anything that hinted at why a group of people, including a number of monks, would want to protest against a store.
It all seemed to happen so fast. Around 2011, my friends and I explored with delight the intricately carved interior of the Angurukaramulla temple in Negombo – my friends both armed with their first DSLR cameras. We spent hours inside the temple. The caretaker monk smiled indulgently and answered my friend’s questions about the carvings depicted on the walls.
The next year, that same priest asked my friend to remove her hijab when she entered the temple. He explained that she was a visitor to a Buddhist place of worship, and that as a visitor, she must abide by that religion’s customs. I watched her silently unpin her hijab, knowing that we were both recalling the same day one year ago.
To ask what changed, is to ask the wrong question.
The real question is, what didn’t we notice?
I found an answer in the Ada Derana footage taken outside a Magistrate’s Courtroom in Theldeniya. The footage showed 32 suspects, arrested for inciting violence during riots targeting the Muslim community in March, climbing onto a prison bus – going back into remand.
From inside the bus, one shouts, “How will our daughters eat when you put us in remand like this. From where will we find the money?”
Outside, the family members of the suspects wail. “He has a child… just 5 months,” one cries. Another “We don’t have enough even to eat or drink. Please help us.” Yet another, “The whole country knows my son is a good person. He did nothing wrong. He didn’t kill anyone.” And another, “We have school-going children, who will look after them now? There is no one to help us.”
The answer, too, might lie in this section from a longer story on Groundviews, where residents describe giving loans, odd-jobs and rice to some of the people who later turned on their Muslim neighbours.
Or even among the crowd during an event held to commemorate the families of the disappeared on Valentines Day in Colombo, where Sinhalese mothers stand alongside Tamil and read out letters from missing family members.
Do we pay attention to them?
In Theldeniya, Akurana and all across the country, people are struggling to feed their families – and many are Sinhala Buddhist. In a country that constitutionally gives Buddhism the foremost place, it is easy to imagine why these people might feel that they deserve special attention. Easy to imagine why certain groups, with personal or political motives of their own, might want to capitalise on the anger felt by some of these people, an anger that stems from their feeling that they have been let down and ignored.
Recently, Ven. Wendaruwe Upali Anunayake Thera of the Asgiriya Chapter, speaking on former Defense Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapakse’s birthday, said “We need a Hitler to rebuild this country.” That sentiment was echoed by a popular cricket commentator, and received thousands of likes and shares on Twitter.
Using Hitler as inspiration for strong leadership is not a new tactic – it has been used as far back as the 1930s by leaders like D S Senanayake and S W R D Bandaranaike, and trade union leaders like A E Goonesinghe. It is chilling to see the same sentiments being expressed again – and received with such enthusiastic support.
In the US Holocaust Museum, footage shows cheering crowds receiving Hitler’s passionate speeches.
This country is split along invisible lines of class, caste, race and religion. Two successive regimes of political leadership show little to no interest in trying to bridge these divisions.
But we waited until after the fires were burning to hear the stories of those who lit them, and that makes us complicit. As citizens, we can and should call on our political leaders to do better.
Will Digana and Aluthgama become the apocalyptic summary of our postwar era? And are we content to continue to be spectators?