Friday, April 20, 2007

Remembering the Killing Fields....

I’ll get back to music and the arts in a day or two but the thing that has me distracted isn’t the Virginia Tech shootings so much as the little electric jolt of memory that I felt when I read Liviu Librescu’s biography in the Washington Post and NY Times. Librescu was the 76 year-old professor who died using his body to block the classroom door and allowing his students to escape through the window.

When I read about Librescu’s death – a Romanian Jew, survivor of the Holocaust – the shock of recognition sent me back to February of 1996 and the shooting death of Haing S. Ngor in Los Angeles by a street mugger when Ngor refused to surrender a locket he wore with the picture of his wife inside. Ngor was an obstetrician whose wife died in childbirth. A Caesarian section could have saved her life, but he would have been exposed as an educated person had he done so and both he and his wife would have been executed by the Khmer Rouge.

I can’t quite imagine him standing by, unable to assist. I have a pretty strong imagination, but I can’t really imagine Pol Pot, nor can I imagine Hitler. I can visualize both of them, standing there, looking like they do in photos. But I can’t really imagine the killing fields of Cambodia or the camps at Treblinka or Dachau.

Liviu Librescu lived through the Holocaust as a teenager and fought against the Communist dictatorship in Romania, losing his government aerospace job when he sought to emigrate to Israel.

After the collapse of the Khmer Rouge in 1979, Haing S. Ngor worked as a doctor in a refugee camp inside Thailand, and left for the United States on August 30, 1980. In 1985 he won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his portrayal of the journalist Dith Pran in the film The Killing Fields. He'd never acted before and I don't believe he ever did again.

Both men survived some of the worst horrors humanity has managed to come up with to date only to die senselessly in their adopted country. Some people would turn this into a call for stricter gun control laws. Some others might turn it into a metaphor for the meaninglessness of life, the fundamental pointlessness of existence, the “Spin the big wheel!” character of it all.

Increasingly I think we see the world and our lives as a movie, I think it is the dominant metaphor, the template we overlay on the world to makes sense from it. It’s fun to do that; sometimes it’s an action adventure movie, sometimes a mystery. Sometimes is one of those quirky independent films; on occasion it can be a prime example of experimental cinema when fueled by the right stuff.

But it isn’t a movie.

It doesn’t follow the most basic rules of narrative storytelling. And it is most definitely not a movie about us. I can’t say that it is a solace I take from it, but the deaths of Liviu Librescu and Haing S. Ngor and countless others are a reminder that life, while like a movie, isn’t a movie. I don’t think it is meaningless, I just think that whatever it means, it isn’t about us.

I’m sorry if that’s just too confused, it started out as if it would have a bigger payoff at the end but ended like T.S. Elliot said the world might, not with a bang, but a whimper.

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