Unburdened by the past — really?

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One of US Vice-President Harris’ perplexing statements is about urging that one should just ignore one’s past actions and their impacts and carry on as before. — AFP photo

US Vice-President Kamala Harris has the penchant of coming up with perplexing statements.

One such statement was: “We have the ability to see what can be, unburdened by what has been, and then to make the possible actually happen.”

Some of her admirers are so enamoured by this, ascribing to it a zen-like comparison, like the Buddhist ‘koan’, the paradoxical anecdote that defies simple logical interpretation.

Much like the mind-bending riddle, ‘the sound of one hand clapping’.

So taken was Harris by her own collection of words that she reused them (with slight variations) several times at different occasions. However, the key words that caught my attention are “… unburdened by what has been (the past).”

My immediate reaction would be: “Huh? Unburdened by the past? How convenient.”

The past that had the most profound and devastating impact on the world was that of North America, Europe and Australia, now collectively called ‘The Global North’. It led to their profound political and economic development on the one hand, and the underdevelopment and devastation of the rest of the world on the other.

Despite the fact that the Global North is predominantly Christian, the concept ‘unburdened by the past’ is rather un-Christian.

The phrase ‘sins of the fathers’ appears in a number of the books in the Bible. The phrase is linked to the sin of breaking the ‘10 Commandments’ and the consequences of such sin passing through the generations.

The children of those who sin do, in fact, inherit the seed of sin, in other words – the inter-generational consequences. The Book of Exodus (20.5) expressly said: “…For I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me.”

Yet the US Vice President of a so-called Christian country, USA, can proudly say that one can be or should be, unburdened by the past.

Some years ago, I visited Vietnam. In the street of Hanoi, I came across a few limbless men. They carried placards that read: “For the Americans, the war ended in 1975, but not for us.”

In April this year the British newspaper, The Guardian, carried an article headlined ‘The 50-year fight to clear US bombs from Laos’. The journalist interviewed a team of brave people. They are members of the bomb-clearance charity, the Mines Advisory Group (MAG).

As part of its operation in the Vietnam War (1964-1975), American pilots flew 580,000 attack sorties over Laos, then a neutral country but suffered the fate of being contiguous to Vietnam, the site of the war.

There was an average of one planeload of bombs every eight minutes for almost a decade.

By the time the last US bombs fell in April 1973, a total of 2,093,100 tonnes of ordnance had rained down on this neutral country.

Laos, a country of just seven million people, retains the dubious accolade of being the most heavily-bombed country in the world per capita. These bombs remain live for decades.

While no one knows the exact figures, but an estimate of at least 20,000 Laotians have been killed or injured by unexploded ordnance since the end of the war. There were 63 accidents in 2021 alone.

Yes, Laotians are still being killed and injured as a result of a conflict that ended five decades ago.

Indian analyst, commentator and historian Vijay Prashad laid it out plainly and bluntly in his speech at the Glasgow UK, Climate Justice Coalition People’s Summit in November 2021.

The Summit was on defining ‘Environmental Justice, Climate Change and the Connection of Pollution to Colonialism’.

I quote liberally and in parts: “When I walked the streets of cities like Glasgow, the second most important city in the UK; beautiful buildings, beautiful streets, a gorgeous city. When I see cities like this, I think also about the other side of it.

“There’s a phrase from Walter Benny: ‘Every monument of civilisation is also a monument of barbarism’.

“I think of the famines in Bengal, the jute workers in Bengal sending jute to Dundee through the Glasgow Port.

“I think of human beings from Africa enslaved and brought from Ghana to the new world and all those profits getting sucked into cities like London and Glasgow.

“You know, between 1765 and 1938, the British Isles stole 45 trillion pounds sterling from India; 45 trillion sterling from India we never got repaid for.

“When the British left India, our literacy rate was at a mere 13 per cent.”

Of course, a nation must carry the burden of revisiting its past – to recognise the follies, the injustices, if any, and to honestly and with humility accept them and with good conscience vow not to repeat them.

For centuries, the West (Northern America and Europe) have been ‘the bullies and the plunderers of the world’. The world indeed was their oyster.

Now the US Vice-President, the second most powerful person in the most powerful nation, has urged that one should just ignore one’s past actions and their impacts and carry on as before.

In fact, America is emboldened by such creed (‘unburdened by the past’) and is brazenly carrying on its nefarious way and continues to act as the bully of other nations.

Let me relate a story as told through a video clip. There are dozens of such videos floating around on the Internet. I am sure many of us would have seen some of them.

The scene: a college’s big celebration in a stadium – band playing, students marching, dignitaries making rousing speeches. The school cheerleading team was performing impressive acrobatics – all very American. The climax of the cheerleaders show was when a petite girl climbed on top of the human pyramid and she was flung into the air; she did a triple somersaults and was expecting to land safely in the arms of a strong muscled male member.

To her surprise, her teammate was replaced by a soldier in full combat uniform. It took her a few seconds to realise the switch. Her reaction changed from initial shock to recognition, and to unbridled joy. She was in the arms of her beloved father who was on military tour in Afghanistan!

Unbeknownst to her, the father had finished his two-year stint and secretly came back to surprise her at that big event.

It was then happiness unconfined; mother and brothers came running to embrace the soldier father, the band struck up a patriotic tune like ‘America The Beautiful’.

On the giant display screen, the words ‘Thanks for your service’ were flashed. The pride and the joy in the stadium overflowed as they welcomed back the hero.

Wait a minute!

There is a question I want to ask; I want the family and the crowd to ask: “What did you do in your two-year tour in Afghanistan, sir?”

We know that for decades, the US has sent its military to many countries to spread or impose democracy and freedom. We know that in the process many countries were (or are still being) destroyed, millions of the population killed or displaced.

Who did the killing?

Perhaps the banners of the anti-war dissidents might give a clue. They read ‘Join the army, travel to distant lands, meet exciting, unusual people and kill them’.

US Vice-President Harris: “Unburdened by what has been, unburdened by the past, just plough on as before …”

My take: “We should carry the burden of examining and revisiting the past, to search our souls, recognise our mistakes (if any) and to guide us in the move forward.”