A time in the affairs of man

March 10, 2020 08:01
As chief executive, Carrie Lam has all the powers she needs to address Hong Kong’s underlying social problems, the author asserts. Photo: AFP

I am an ex-soldier, special forces trained. I know about violence.

My natural instinct is for fight rather than flight.

But I abhor violence in a civilian, peace-time setting, regardless of whether it is police or protesters who are responsible.

Objectively, it does not further the cause of either side; rather, it exacerbates animosity and polarizes opinion.

Neither is there, nor can there be, justification for unleashing the animal within, no matter how strongly held the viewpoint.

This is subject to the legal and moral qualification of acts in the defense of self or others for whom we are responsible. But self-defense must be proportionate to the violence offered or threatened.

And let us be candid: despite the advances of civilization, the beast lurks within all of us; it is the primary instinct of self-preservation.

The problem, which needs must be addressed, particularly in Hong Kong at this time, is that once the beast breaks out of its civilizing shell, like the genie, it is exceptionally difficult to stuff it back into the bottle.

Once a wild animal has tasted blood, its appetite will only be assuaged by blood.

The containing crust of civilization is thin and too easily cracked from within, giving mankind a taste for violence. It can numb our sensibilities.

Ironically, we even begin to rationalize the resort to violence, giving raw emotion a false veneer of reason.

Gratuitous, disproportionate violence by armed police officers cannot justify responding by throwing petrol bombs.

The failure of civic – note I use lower case here – leaders to condemn acts of violence and vandalism by the rabid fringes of the protest movement, is a dereliction of public responsibility.

Equally, the failure of the senior ranks of the police force to condemn outright the undisciplined savagery of front-line officers is tantamount to misconduct in public office.

Both sides retreat behind their respective political barriers and hurl insults at each other, waxing more and more vehement in their respective justification for the indefensible.

Vandalizing shops, MTR ticket machines and traffic lights and tearing up roads are mindlessly counter-productive. This is a Neanderthal mentality that offends reasonable people.

Physical attacks on people are sickening.

There will be those who relish witnessing heavily armed and armored police officers smashing people’s heads with their batons. Identifying with a psychopathic mindset says much about such folk.

Doubtless, there are the psychotically deranged who identified with the men who poured petrol on and set light to a man who had had the temerity to disagree.

Leave aside the criminally unbalanced on both sides of the argument, the bulk of the population must surely desire to see a return to reasoned debate.

The results of the local council elections, by themselves, pointed to the unmet dissatisfaction with a dysfunctional leadership, seemingly hell-bent on dreaming up starkly divisive issues while ignoring the aspects of social need that cry out for attention.

Perhaps I am wrong but I do not subscribe to the argument that Carrie Lam is Beijing’s puppet, incapable of doing anything unless it carries the central government’s imprimatur.

As chief executive, she has all the powers she needs to address Hong Kong’s underlying social problems. She does not need Beijing’s approval to establish an Independent Commission of Inquiry to look into the root causes of the protest and the excesses carried out by the participants on both sides.

As for the nonsense that she cannot resign, how can she be prevented from doing so?

Any reputable psychiatrist would soon put a DM5 label on the mental belief of infallibility.

Most politicians fall victim to self-delusion about their innate rectitude which, crossed with virtual omnipotence, is a fatal recipe for chaos.

Across the city, measured voices offer her sage advice, advice that is routinely treated with contempt.

Yet Hong Kong is like a man in a prolonged struggle against physical restraint, expending energy leading to lactic acidosis and muscle breakdown which, in turn, elevates potassium, and causes hypoxia leading to cardiac arrest.

The struggle is that of the young and the middle-aged who fear for their future. As the historian Timothy Snyder expresses it, "Functional states produce a sense of continuity for their citizens." Hong Kongers no longer sense continuity, bending the city into a dysfunctional state.

Some will criticize me for use of the word state in relation to Hong Kong but I use it in the sense of a semi-autonomous entity.

Objective observers are witnessing this process of snuffing out the future but are unable to intervene or summon critical care in the emergency. We feel like goldfish in a bowl watching a murder take place on the other side of the glass.

Every fiber in one’s body is shrieking stop! Yet our chief executive, like a demented Pierpoint, who delighted to have someone else do the hangman’s job while he got paid for it, is standing by watching the fabric of society being torn apart.

We have not yet reached the point of no return. Despite the unbridled violence unleashed on the people, there still exists sufficient of the gloss of civilization to prevent Hong Kong descending to the levels of evil witnessed among the communal violence in Delhi recently.

This window of opportunity must be accessed. There is no mechanism to impeach the chief executive if she lacks sufficient sense of shame to step down.

But if the Executive Council has the moral fiber to resign en masse, followed by those of her senior ministers with sufficient residual integrity to know that they will never be able to hold up their faces in public once they resume private status, perhaps there will be a Damascene moment.

Failing which I can only repeat what Oliver Cromwell said to the Long Parliament when he thought it was no longer fit to conduct the affairs of the nation: "You have sat too long here for any good you have been doing. Depart, I say, and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go."

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King's Counsel