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Stop here or gently pass

- Some moments in the history of time

The United States of America is passing through a period of extraordinary commemorations. Some of these anniversaries are dominated by nostalgia for ‘greatness of the past’ that now eludes America.

Like the first flight by the Wright brothers, Orville and Wilbur, this month, 110 years ago in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. Walking on the short strip in Kitty Hawk from where the two brothers propelled themselves up for 120 feet in a mere 12 seconds, it is difficult to comprehend that those 12 seconds triggered man’s conquest of space today with the prospect of limitless such boundaries to be explored tomorrow.

The people living in Pakistan’s remote Federally Administered Tribal Areas are, however, likely to have a different view. There would not have been any drones on their skies if it were not for this first flight, the special anniversary of which is being widely celebrated. The survivors of Nagasaki and Hiroshima would have the same view, as well as the Vietnamese who had to suffer from napalm bombs dropped in their midst by US air force B-52s some 40-odd years ago.

What can one take home from another such anniversary about which everything that is to be said has probably been said in the 150 years since that event — one which still underscores what the US once stood for — the Gettysburg address by Abraham Lincoln in November 1863. A reminder perhaps, in the present-day world of words, that the length of words is unequal to their longevity in terms of impact or consequences.

One of the ironies of the Gettysburg address is that Lincoln was not what would today be called the keynote speaker at the dedication of a national cemetery at Gettysburg in honour of those who had died in the Battle of Gettysburg five months earlier. That slot was given to Edward Everett, who was a senator around that time and he dutifully performed in that role by doing what most politicians are good at: he spoke for a full two-and-a-half hours.

It was then the president’s turn and Lincoln spoke a mere 272 words in exactly two-and-a-half minutes. The invited audience was made up of several thousand people, but Lincoln did not have the benefit of a later-day microphone. That explains some of the photographs of the Gettysburg stage, which looks very crowded: unless people huddled close to the speaker, they could not hear him.

When the two-and-a-half minute speech was over, there was complete silence and no applause because the audience could not believe that the president’s speech was over before they assumed that he was just beginning an oration similar to Everett’s. And most of the people had not heard what Lincoln had said. So the applause, which came slowly, was more polite than any real response to what he had said.

And because the speech is only 272 words and can fit into one sheet of paper, even in double space, it is taught in American schools all over, where fifth or sixth graders easily memorize it. In the segregationist south, though, the Gettysburg address was not taught in schools until well into the 20th century. But 150 years after its delivery, the address has become the most iconic speech read out to students across the US. Joseph Reidy is Associate Provost at the historically black Howard University in Washington. The university is named after General Oliver Otis Howard, a valorous Union general who died in the Battle of Gettysburg. Reidy spoke to foreign correspondents on the eve of the 150th anniversary.

An interesting sidelight from him is about the way Lincoln would compose his more famous speeches. “Often, he would scribble down notes, then he would tuck the notes in his top hat.... It was a stovepipe hat that probably stood 12 or 14 inches above his head. So, arguably, it had the equivalent of what was perhaps, in 21st century terms, a file cabinet’s worth of storing capacity. So he had notes tucked into the hat and he would pull them out, he would modify them, he would add a thought to them. He tucked them back in again and then pulled it all together.”

According to Reidy, “Lincoln’s vision remains a work in progress. It is a destination toward which the US and arguably much of humanity is still proceeding, still in transit. That remains a challenge for the 21st century, as well as it was for Lincoln during the mid-19th century.”

The 150th anniversary had an Indian angle, inevitable perhaps in view of the growing Indian American immigrant presence in the US. Four Indians were administered the oath of citizenship by a supreme court justice at the same solemn ceremonies in Gettysburg on November 19. It was perhaps a sign of the times that one of them, Mary Edara, originally from Andhra Pradesh, is an Ayurveda practitioner and a yoga teacher. It was a reflection of the diversity within the Indian American community that of the other three, two are practising medicine while one is a university teacher of English.

Then there was the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s assassination in November 1963. Going from Lincoln to Kennedy, both presidents who were assassinated in office, an eerie truth that got publicity only during the commemoration was that killing an American president was not a federal crime when both those murders took place. Strange though it may seem, even trying to harm the head of State was not a federal crime.

It was only two years after JFK’s assassination that his successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, campaigned and designated it as such an offence. By the time George W. Bush came to office, even wearing a T-shirt with a protest slogan was not tolerated, and such protestors in the audience were evicted.

It says something about crime investigations in America that even in a high-profile crime like JFK’s murder, Lee Harvey Oswald, the alleged assassin, was detained, but not for killing the president. A police officer in Dallas was shot dead within an hour of the other, bigger tragedy and Oswald was actually held for shooting the policeman.

Just as Reidy talked about Lincoln’s legacy being a work in progress, the Kennedy anniversary was a time to reflect that the hate which ended JFK’s life of unfulfilled promise is much in evidence in America today. Guns kill many more people — unsung Americans unlike the Camelot president today — than they did half-a-century ago. And the same hate that JFK and his assassinated brother, Robert Kennedy, faced, is multiplied and in evidence in efforts to block everything that the first black US president, Barack Obama, is trying to do by his governance.

The last in this list is not an anniversary. But the attention that this single event is drawing speaks volumes of its significance: the graceful departure from office of General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani as Pakistan’s army chief. In a country that is very crucial to US strategic interests, Kayani was already the toast of Washington’s strategic community when an elected government completed its term in office for the first time in Islamabad and paved the way for another headed by Nawaz Sharif.

But Kayani was last week the talk of Washington because he then allowed Sharif a free hand in choosing a successor. Kayani’s favourite was General Rashad Mahmood, but the prime minister chose fellow Lahori, Lieutenant General Raheel Sharif. The new army chief has no intelligence background in the Inter-Services Intelligence, which is discredited in India and considerably in the US. Nor has General Sharif held any major corps command. Whether that will weaken the role of the army in Pakistani politics and the South Asian strategic space is something to watch out for.