Thursday, November 27, 2008

Do the duty that lies nearest to you, and the next will become clear

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is claiming that the terrorists who attacked Mumbai were of "foreign origin," an obvious dig at Pakistan, though the group claiming responsibility calls itself Deccan Mujahideen, an equally obvious reference to a feature of Indian geography. It is likely that at least a part of Singh's finger pointing is to cover the government's embarrassment that the terrorists traveled undetected through one of the world's busiest harbors , one that has been a center of world commerce and crucial to Indian defense for 300 years and that now serves as headquarters of the Indian Navy's Western Command. (Indeed, the HMS Minden, the British man-of-war on which The Star-Spangled Banner was written in 1812, had been built in Mumbai Harbor.) Local fishermen did in fact confront the intruders, according to Newsweek, tipped off by their comparatively lighter skin and failure to speak the local Marathi dialect, but were brushed off by the armed group.

As one American visitor commented, “The navy should be ashamed. A terrorist vehicle sails past their territory, and they don’t even know.” Meanwhile, a retired Indian Admiral follows his Prime Minister's lead in the art of sharing blame: “The police should have set up a marine force in Mumbai to patrol the harbor and the valuable ground installations....That’s not the navy’s job.” It's at least comforting to know that that kind of thinking is not confined to FEMA.

If anyone in the Indian government had been a fan of British and American thrillers, he or she would have learned that the idea of a terrorist attack from a harbor with inflatable craft was used 30 years ago by Frederick Forsythe in The Dogs of War , while John Grisham used a similar device to put an assassin ashore in The Pelican Brief. In any case, Mumbai Police and Indian government commandos fought bravely last night, and the chief anti-terrorism officer of the Mumbai Police was killed in the fighting. The terrorists seem to have based their attack on a search for British and Americans, and as always, I admire the understatement of the Brits, one of whom commented, "It was not the most pleasant experience."

Similar fortitude was required of another group of Englishmen who traveled here in 1620. For a look at modern Americans trying to live as they would have in 1628, watch the 2004 PBS series Colonial House . For an account of the difficulties the original Pilgrims faced in getting out of England at all, see a 1995 documentary filmed on location at the sites that were important to their early struggle. For a history of the Plymouth settlement, as well as a sobering account of the violence that ensued between the next generation of colonists and their Native American neighbors, culminating in King Philip's War, read Nathaniel Philbrick's excellent Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War.

Those who want a close look at Pilgrim life without the hardships of the Colonial House group should visit Plimoth Plantation, a living museum with costumed reenactors. I have never been there but saw an interesting news feature on it some years ago. One of the most amusing features of Colonial House was the dilemma faced by the modern colonists when one family simply stopped attending church and the rest of the colony had to decide whether to expel them. I call it amusing because, even though church attendance is no more my preference than that of the defaulting family in the program, they had known that such observance would be an expected part of their participation before they ever volunteered in the first place.

Though it was only for an evening, I used to visit an annual Pilgrim service held every year on the night before Thanksgiving in a local United Church of Christ, the descendant of the Pilgrims' Congregational churches. Members of the congregation dressed in Pilgrim costume, sang psalm texts a capella, listened to a lengthy sermon, and were awakened, if they dozed off, by a bircher patrolling the church with a rod that he used to nudge them, and whose stern and silent progress terrified my then-5-year-old daughter. Members would also be called up and rebuked before the congregation for sleeping and other faults, being reminded of the story of Eutychus, who tumbled from a window to his death, as we are told in the Acts of the Apostles, when he fell asleep during a sermon of St. Paul, whose prayer then brought him back to life. When she heard this, my daughter began tugging my sleeve and urgently whispering to me to ask if they had thrown him out the window. I explained that it was an accident, since he had apparently been sitting near the window and there were no bars to prevent him from falling. She thought a moment and then asked, "Well after St. Paul brought him back to life, where did he sit the next time?"

© Michael Huggins, 2008. All rights reserved.