Turning the Tragedy of Yenesew Gebre into Political Rally? By Tecola W. Hagos
“Death is not the greatest loss in life. The greatest loss is what dies inside us while we live.” Norman Cousins.
I. General Understanding
This tragedy of the act of immolation by Yenesew Gebre is the kind of tragedy that is truly incomprehensible. Thus, my first effort is to understand Yenesew Gebre the individual in this tragedy. I am not interested to draw some metaphysical principle, or make some grand ethical statement, or create some timeless hero from such a tragedy.
Many capable Ethiopian political commentators have written several articles in the past couple of Weeks, with more ore less similar insights, addressing that tragedy as an act of political dissention. Almost all of the authors focused on the act of immolation and its implication as an item of political processes, as a sort of rallying point. The person of Yenesew Gebre, who suffered greatly as an individual and died as an individual, was simply perceived as the instrument for the delivery of a great political statement. I have heard very many people claiming suffering is transformative, but that can be true only if the individual survives that suffering. Thus, I offer a different view to empathize with Yenesew not as a hero, a warrior, or political activist, but as a fragile fellow human being who suffered greatly and died.
No matter how hard I tried to see greatness or as some put it “heroic” act in Yeneswe’s immolation, I only succeeded to grief and empathize with the suffering and death of a young man. Hearing the interviews of alleged family members (Father, Sister) and reading a statement attributed to someone identified as a close friend to Yenesew, I am even more pained by the possibility that Yenesew was no exception to the millions of young Ethiopians who are crushed daily by parents or close relatives and society at large who are supposed to nurture and support them. I can imagine young Yenesew growing up in an Ethiopian household that of his sister’s home as a defenseless and vulnerable young child. He would not have escaped the scourge of Ethiopian-childhood, even though Ethiopian sisters are far more nurturing and simpatico to their brothers and sisters even more than parents are. On the other hand, I also suspect that the vicious hands of Meles Zenawi and his executioners, who have no limits on cruelty and indecency, blackmailing Yenesew’s Father and Sister to make them paint Yenesew as mentally unstable individual once more desecrating his memory as well.
II. Love Your Neighbor…
Even the Bible that reflects far more ancient Buddhist humanism and understanding does not admonish us to love ourselves less than we love our neighbors. “Love your neighbor as yourself” [Matthew 22:39; Lev. 19:18I] It goes against the teachings of the Christ and the Buddha not to love oneself at least as much as ones neighbors. If we have to be technical about it, what we find in the Bible is part of what is referred to both in religion and philosophy as “the Golden Rule” that one finds in very ancient scripture and texts including Greek philosophical works. I am very critical of any one causing pain and suffering on any individual. Immolation is no different just because the pain and suffering is self inflicted. I object in making a tragic act into a standard of virtuous behavior or making it into some kind of instrument. As a matter of organizational principle, I believe that “life” under the worst of conditions is far more positive than death. Death is not much of a choice, for it is only a matter of time that we all die; we have no choice in the matter. Therefore, the issue for me is how to engage events happening around us both prospectively and currently, better to die on a battle field than in bed sick or otherwise.
“Life” is virtuous as a principle of organization. Life is the opposite of entropy. Thus, we must be careful in our writings not to end up aggrandizing the entropic principle in the way we deal with the issue of political suicide or immolation. There is a very fine line that one must thread carefully between life and honorable death, or one would end up at the bottom of the abyss of desolation or despondency. The “tragic” is not necessarily the virtuous. If it were so there would have been no place for all those great Greek tragedies (plays) trying to teach us some standard of courageous behavior through the use of contraries.
III. Other Voices on the courage to live
I always remember with awe the kind dignity of teenager Ryan Wayne White (1971 – 1990), who knowing fully well of his imminent death, and yet faced panicking and hostile parents and teachers with respect and understanding. They kicked him out of middle-school for he was diagnosed with little understood HIV/AIDS at the time. His short life was a meaningful life. And I believe that every child with deformity or congenital defect or terminal disease who gets up every morning and faces his or her grim reality is the most courageous individual in life. In other words, the “courage to be” means living without complaint, without giving-up, and without taking oneself too seriously as the center of the Universe.
Political courage when practiced against an entrenched power structure and the leadership thereof becomes an act of moral/ethical duty. There were exemplary instances in history where acts of courage are manifested by few under most daunting situations. For example, the three hundred Spartans and a few hundred fellow Greeks facing off half a million Persian soldiers at Thermopile is an act of courage not of immolation. An exquisite story is retold by Herodotus in The Histories, about one of those three hundred Spartans who fought and died at Thermopile. Just before the battle started, when a Trachinian fellow soldier commented about the Persians being very numerous such that when they unleash their arrows the Sun would be blocked, the Spartan Dieneces coolly answered, “So much the better…then we shall fight our battle in the shade!”
Is committing suicide in order to avoid capture and mistreatment of torture and brutal violence a justifiable act of courage? Or is committing suicide acceptable if carried out to prevent oneself from divulging important information under torture? There are incidents in history where contrasting responses were possible by different groups facing similar situations. According to Josephus, in AD 73 at Masada 960 Sicarii Jews killed themselves rather than surrender to the Romans in order to avoid being enslaved or tortured by the Romans. Are such acts manifestations of acts of courage? By contrast, Jean Froissart in his Chronicles wrote about the Burghers of Calais and King Edward III of England who laid siege to the French town of Calais in 1347. After eleven months of siege, with the people desperately short of food and water, six of the leading citizens (Burghers) of Calais offered themselves to be executed by King Edward, in exchange for the freedom of their city. Is this a form of constructive suicide, or a type of political immolation of a group?
No one country or people have a monopoly on courage. There are many incidents in history that illustrate great heroism and courage. Close to home, in the 15th Century a group of truly courageous religious reformers faced the might of Emperor Zera Yacob (1426-1460) refusing to bow to the Emperor or to the Cross and were persecuted, tortured, executed, or imprisoned. That tradition of courage in different form was repeated countless times down to our own time, and that is also our history that need be remembered when dealing with the political problems of our time. The throng of very poorly armed patriotic Ethiopians standing firm against well-equipped modern army of Italy, in several parts of Ethiopia in the 1935-41 war of occupation waged by Italy is a great example of heroism.
The one illustrative heroic individual that comes to mind is Abuna Petros, for the fact that he stood against the entire Fascist Military for his faith and moral duty to the freedom and sovereignty of his congregation, the Ethiopian people. He was offered position and wealth if he could only compromise his duties and loyalty to the people of Ethiopia. He refused. He was executed by a firing squad on 29 July 1936. At the time of his execution, he said, “May God give the people of Ethiopia the strength to resist and never bow down to the Fascist army and its violence. May the Ethiopian earth never accept the invading army’s rule.” [Reported in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church Newspaper, Vol. 1, No. 8.9.10, 1945.] And there is the legendary hero Umar Moktar of Libya, a simple school teacher in his seventies turned guerrilla fighter against the Italian colonial Military and repeatedly defeated General Graziani. In his late eighties, Umar Moktar was finally captured and hanged on 16 September 1931.
In the examples given above of the Spartans at Thermopile, the Sicarii Jews at Masada, the Burghers of Calais, and the Ethiopians facing off Italy and others, what is common in all such historical events is the degree of courage manifested by the individuals facing great dangers. However, comparing the Sicarii Jews at Masada and the Burghers of Calais, I find a distinct difference in the moral content/strength of their respective actions. The courage of Abuna Petros and Umar Moktar is of a very different kind because they were the least equipped to fight a modern army, and yet they stood up against the might of a modern military. Despite my many criticisms, such courage is to be seen also in the handful of Ethiopian opposition political parties engaging the violence of Meles Zenawi’s Government and its security machine since 1991. Such are acts of courage. Such are the activities of courageous people, for the obvious outcome of their stand against overwhelming force and their defeat does not determine their decision to stand up against evil: it is the rightness of their act that is based on ethical grounds or loyalty or love that moves them to face adversity with courage whether they win or lose.
At any rate the debate as to Yenesew’s immolation whether it is an act of mental disorder or not is a non-argument, for if there is insanity involved in our discourse then it is “life” itself that is insane. Life defies reason or explanation, except when one reverts to the ultimate insanity of claims of revelations and creation myths. But that is taking me away from my immediate concern. The great significance of the immolation of Yenesew Gebre is to be found not in the characterization of his death as “heroic” or “courageous” et cetera, but as a lesson for us to find meaningful and enjoyable life. I hesitate even to think of such a tragic death of a young man as a “lesson” for others, for I truly believe the individual is an end in himself, and not just a means to somewhere else. Even to edify Yenesew’s immolation with the highest ethical attributes will fall short in the face of the depth of the tragedy itself, for the only true way to honor Yenesew Gebre is by each one of us living a happy and meaningful life. Requiem aeternam. Ω
Tecola W. Hagos
November 24, 2011