Who Breaks a Butterfly upon a Wheel?

Even the Dead Have Not Seen the End of Folly

In June 1967, Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones, was sentenced to three months in prison for possession of a few amphetamine tablets. Jagger was a first-time offender caught with French seasickness pills, which are openly sold in France but required a prescription in England. On July 1st 1967, The Times, and its new editor, William Rees-Mogg invoked Pope and denounced the excessive sentence in “Who Breaks a Butterfly upon a Wheel?” Rees-Mogg criticized the judge for undue severity in a minor drugs case, while arguing that justice ought to be the same for the rich and the poor, for the famous and the unknown. It was an editorial where the establishment and the counter-culture came together.

We are at similar crossroads again. Last month, Charlie Gilmour, the stepson of Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour, pled guilty to violent disorder exhibited during the student riots over tuition fee increases last December. Gilmour was a male model who was as the Independent put it, “more Beau Brummel than Che Guevara”. As he infamously climbed up the Cenotaph, the Cambridge history student, was oblivious to what the Cenotaph symbolized. (David Gilmour who once famously sang, “We don’t need no education” could probably see some irony here.)

Young Gilmour was sentenced to 16 months in jail — an abnormally harsh punishment for a first-time offender whose indiscretions, while excessive, were committed during a protest march. Twitter is abuzz with outrage, and today, the Times thundered again with indignation. I have nothing but contempt for Gilmour’s acts; I viewed them as pure hooliganism; in Gilmour, I saw a privileged scion protesting against tuition fee increases. First and foremost, it was a selfish act to preserve a broken faux-egalitarian system that handouts free rides to the rich and the privileged.

But as Rees-Mogg would say, it is possible for the guilty to be prosecuted in an entirely unfair way. And now he has. The class-conscious courts which sentence the infringers from poorer backgrounds to community service have felt that Gilmour’s celebrity status would send a strong signal.

Yes, it did. But it was a signal as misguided and disgraceful as the one Gilmour cadenced from the Cenotaph to proclaim. And equally wrong.

Sri Lankan Civil War (1983-2009)

By the time Sri Lanka’s bloody civil war ended in 2009, it had already claimed 100,000 people. Although colonial legacy, as often in such cases, was a favored villain of the conflict, the causes of the conflict between the Buddhist Sinhalese and the Hindu Tamils were more immediate. In the early 1970s, gradual disenfranchising of minority Tamils began with passing of two laws — the first which limited Tamil enrollment in universities, and the second which declared that Buddhism had ‘foremost place’ in Sri Lanka. As Tamil opposition grew, de facto segregation of two ethnic groups inside the civil service, police and army only intensified.

In 1976, the guerrilla group now known as Tamil Tigers was formed under Vellupillai Prabhakaran, and began its bloody campaign for a Tamil homeland in northern and eastern parts, that claimed 60% of the island’s coastline, and its only major port, the famed Trincomalee. For the next three decades, a spectacularly bloody civil war was fought on land, in water, in air (Tamils even had an air force) and with proxy armies, although the successive Sri Lankan governments dismissed the Tigers as a terrorist group. But what a formidable force it was. Supported by its shady business dealings, and remittances from large Tamil diaspora, the Tigers pioneered the use of suicide vests and claimed, among its countless victims, a Sri Lankan President and an Indian Prime Minister.

The government behaved hardly better. Scorched-earth tactics, and indiscriminate killings of combatants and non-combatants alike were practically achieved through ignoring international concerns and shutting off news media. Even by these brutal standards, the fury it unleashed during the last days of the civil war was staggering; it was effective, and managed to corner Prabhakaran’s movement to a single beach in the northeast of the country by the early 2009.

Under intense international pressure, the military declared a “no-fire zone” — a de facto safe zone for Tamil refuges between the government and the rebel lines — although The Times reported that it continued shelling inside the zone up to the very end of the conflict. The Times also claimed that over 20,000 civilians were killed in the final stages of the civil war, mainly as a result of government shelling, three times the official figure. While no independent observers had access to the remote war zone, The Times took the above photo of the no-fire zone while travelling with the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon, who commented that it was “the most appalling sight” he had seen in his career.

But the UN already knew what was happening there; publicly, it blamed both sides, but its records — obtained from local contracts –showed that the majority of deaths were caused by the government which attacked hospitals, schools and the beach full of refuges. Sri Lanka, one of Asia’s oldest democracies, has refused to allow any independent investigation into the conflict, rejected an damning UN report two days ago, and began cracking down on internal opposition. Sri Lanka is unlikely to be referred to the International Criminal Court because of its powerful allies such as China, but its victory over the Tamils will be go down into the annals of history as a tainted triumph.

(Full Times Article is reproduced here at a Tamil website, with photos. For gorier details, see Al Jazeera’s coverage below.)

Libya, Jack Hill

As I have noted previously, I am on vacation; when I am on vacation, I do not blog, but I broke that rule yesterday and I am breaking it again. As I type this, sitting in my room in St. Moritz, sipping my apres ski Hot Toddy, and reading the Daily and the Times on iPad, I feel somewhat sad and disillusioned about the situation in Libya. I have many comments, but cannot bring myself to write them down from safe and cozy distance of my hotel room. I wonder whether many other commentators feel this way.

Anyway, onwards to photos. No matter what you may think of the Libyan Campaign, it cannot be denied that a lot of great photos are coming out of it; I don’t know why but Iraq and Afghanistan produced not that many memorable/iconic images, considering that there were so many photographers working there. On the cover of yesterday’s Times, there was a beautiful (if carnage can be described as such) photo of a tank explosion (above). Immediately, I told myself, wow, there was one iconic image. Many people felt this way, I guess, for today’s Times featured a piece by the photographer, Jack Hill:

About 30 km south of Benghazi, we came across the site of a huge airstrike. One tank was destroyed and another was burning. There were abandoned self-propelled guns and charred bodies covered with blankets.

Slightly farther down the road was more destruction: a munition truck was burning heavily and the ordnance was exploding out of it. It was a dramatic sight.

I moved carefully towards the burning truck. I was captivated by the smoke and the colours within it, and the exploding shells wee an impromptu fireworks display. How to photograph such a scene? It was hard to know where to look or start.

I added a 1.4 converter to my longest lens, a 70-200 mm and I filed the frame, aiming to illustrate the power and destruction of the strike. Edging as close as I felt comfortable, I compared a picture just as contents of the truck started exploding again. I started shooting, not even checking my exposures. I was shooting 1/6400th of a second at F5.6. That was accident rather than design, but the exposure was good. As I was shooting a young ran across the frame. At the time, I though “if that works out, it won’t be a bad picture”. It was hard to know what to shoot. There was so much to take in.

I chose this picture over the others because it gives a human scale to a scene that I couldn’t have imagined.”

Other great photos on Libya are courtesy of Goran Tomasevio, Suhaib Salem and Finbarr O’Reilley for Reuters, and Anja Niedringhaus for AP. (shameless ad: I recommend getting an iPad, if only for photos; its resolution is great for viewing photos, and photo sections of the Times, the Daily, Paris Match, and the New York Times really make iPad an aesthetic device).