Wednesday, April 22, 2009

The Stranger, Camus, Pirates, Somalia and Us

A note to MeanMesa visitors: This posting is a bit removed from what you might expect on this traditionally political blog. If you are a visitor who has never read Camus, consider doing it. If you have, try to remember. The analogy drawn here is far from perfect, but perhaps it will prove thought provoking, and should that be the case, it may have value.

If you were educated in the public schools many years ago (during their more functional period), you were probably confronted with Albrect Camus’ 1942 novel, The Stranger. It was presented as a study in classic “alienation.” The story of Mersault, the unintentional murderer of an Arab on the beach near Algiers, his imprisonment, trial, and execution by guillotine, seems to spring to mind, once again, borne on the events of the recent week. Mersault’s narrative of events as he proceeds through the gloomy story suggest many literary ideas of darkness, isolation and existential detachment, but perhaps the most relevant of them is his inner sensation as the unavoidable reality and inevitability of his situation gradually penetrates his practiced indifference.

Now, to 2009. The fourth and only surviving “pirate” (they claim to be members of a Somali Coast Guard) captured by the Navy off the coast of Somalia could have been a snarling, swashbuckling, Captain Blue Beard type. Had that been the case, a certain discrete vindication of all the cheaply manufactured news stories about the piracy there in the region could have possibly boosted the sagging viewer ship (and credibility) of the “alphabet network” media.

Too bad. This pirate is a sixteen year old boy with a mother in Puntland (a region of Somalia along its NE coast) who is already claiming his essential innocence and begging for judicial mercy. Her account of his involvement is the plaintive plea of all mothers finding their sons facing shocking criminal charges. “He fell into bad company, and was used in ways which eluded his sixteen year old understanding of things and judgment.”

Now, the sixteen year old is seven thousand miles from his bed in her house, one of the many we have been shown from satellite photographs, snapped safely from 200 miles high. The surveillance photos of Somalia almost convey the conditions of the place in the image. The pathos they show is too far removed from the frame of reference we bring with our curiosity to provide much more.

Now, the sixteen year old is in a cell in a Federal Youth Facility in New York, New York, USA, with a bed and clean sheets, a shower, and indoor latrine and what he might consider some alien, but tasty meals. His cell is well ventilated, cooled or heated, and equipped with electric lights and running water. He has seen a counselor, and he has had the service of a translator. He has probably been advised that he will be provided the necessities of Islamic prayer.

Before much longer he will receive what is probably his first physical health examination, his first visit to a dentist and his first experience with a psychologist from the Corrections Department. He has most likely been informed that some ambitious young prosecutor will seek to try him as an adult as well as an estimate of the sentence he may face if convicted.

Please do your best to consider what his days were two weeks ago as a sixteen year old in Puntland. Please do your best to imagine what he might be thinking as he boards a jet on his way to the United States, as he is illuminated by flashbulbs and harried by reporters on his way to jail, as he sits in his cell. Camus' old story no longer has to struggle to relevance.

He has experienced all of this surrounded by people speaking a language he has never heard before. The sixteen year old -- his education is unknown if it exists at all -- could probably not point to his location on a globe if asked where, exactly, he presently stood.

His future, most likely, will include a regime of American “youth offender rehabilitation,” accompanied with all the -- to him -- incomprehensible aspects of that process. Even the dreams of his adulthood, casually held three weeks ago, have now become imponderables to him.

None of this implies any special sympathy for the boy. After all, he is a pirate. However, we should be able to extract a bit of understanding about alienation which might serve us in our own lives.

Are we doing the best we can? Have we forgotten anything?

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