Thoughts on the Rights of Man and the Execution of the Angel of Mercy
Go on then in doing with your pen, what in other times was done with the sword. ~ Thomas Jefferson to Thomas Paine
It’s barely eleven o clock and I’ve already been driven to tears twice this morning. I didn’t wake up feeling particularly emotional, but then I started reading where I left off yesterday the story of the life of Thomas Paine, the author of Common Sense and The Rights of Man, as told by Craig Nelson.
I’d spent most of yesterday reading about Paine’s involvement in the French Revolution, prior to his return to his native England around 1792. He had returned home no doubt with the aim of rousing in his fellow countrymen the spirit of republicanism.
Back in England he drafted what would soon become his most famous work, The Rights of Man, parts one and two, largely in response to Edmund Burke’s attack on the French Revolution, Reflections of the Revolution in France and on the Proceedings of Certain Societies in London to that Event, which Burke wrote in defense of the monarchy, and against what he considered ‘mob rule’.
Burke considered the masses of people to be a ‘swinish multitude’ and believed that only a nation’s elites should be permitted to rule; that only the aristocracy should hold power — and not ordinary men and women, whom he regarded with barely concealed contempt, arguing that:
‘The occupation of the hairdresser or of a working tallow-chandler cannot be a matter of honour to any person — to say nothing of more servile employments. Such descriptions of men ought not to suffer oppression from the state; but the state suffers oppression if such as they, either individually or collectively are permitted to rule…’
In response, Paine in his seminal work, The Rights Man, argued for a representative government based on the will of the people and for the abolition of hereditary power.
His book became one of the most widely read and sold in the history England; it was debated in coffeehouses and taverns across the country and won widespread admiration from many of his freethinking contemporaries, such as William Blake, Mary Wollstonecraft and Thomas Hardy; it was read to the common folk even at street gatherings.
However, it also invited the opprobrium of the monarch, George III and the wider aristocracy, causing First Minister William Pitt to undertake what became known as ‘Pitt’s Reign of Terror’ and led to Paine being charged for sedition and libel, a charge to which he stubbornly replied:
If to expose the fraud and imposition of monarchy, and every species of hereditary government — to lessen the oppression of taxes — to propose plans for the education of helpless infancy, and the comfortable support of the aged and distressed — to endeavor to conciliate nations to each other — to extirpate the horrid practice of war — to promote universal peace, civilization and commerce — and to break the chains of political superstition and raise degraded man to his proper rank — if these things be libellous, let me live the life of a libeller, and let the name of LIBELLER be engraved on my tomb.
It was the poet and mystic William Blake — in a meeting at the house of Paine’s publisher, Joseph Johnson, in mid-September 1792 — who had a premonition of imminent danger and warned his friend Paine: “You must not go home, or you are a dead man.”
That very night Paine, having collected a few of his belongings, set off for Dover in the company of two companions, with the aim of making his way to France by the nearest route, where he — who neither spoke nor read French — had been granted the title of Citizen and elected by no less than three provinces to be their representative in the National Assembly.
He consented eventually to become the representative of Calais. On his way to Dover, he was nearly arrested though, and had his person searched, his coffers inspected for illicit goods and writings, and his documents confiscated by a border official, known as the collector of the customs house.
This harassment of the famous revolutionary writer went on the whole night of September 13 1792, as the officers searched for anything to charge him with.
By the next morning a large jeering crowd had gathered on the docks of Dover, who further harassed Paine and his two companions with hisses and boos, shouting threats and waving their fists at the three as they made their way to the ferry. This humiliating send-off proved also to be the last time Paine would ever see his native England.
By the time the ferry arrived at Calais the next day, news had already spread far and wide that the author of the Rights of Man was on his way to accept the position as the representative of the people of Calais in the National Assembly.
In contrast to how he was treated at Dover and the humiliation he suffered in England, at Calais he received a hero’s embrace and the streets were lined with people cheering to welcome him to France.
One of Paine’s companions, John Frost, reported of their arrival at Calais, that: “all the soldiers on duty were drawn up; the officer of the guard embraced him on landing, and presented him with the national cockade, which a handsome young woman who was standing by begged the honour of fixing to his hat, and returned it to him, expressing a hope that he would continue his exertions on the behalf of liberty, France and the Rights of Man. A salute was then fired to announce to the people of Calais the arrival of their new representative.”
Nelson says that despite the rain, great crowds lined Rue de l’Egalite to shout and cheer at his passing carriage: ‘Vive le Thomas Paine! Vive la Nation!’
At this point in the story, I must admit, my eyes welled up. For a moment I felt as if I too were standing there barefoot and in rags among the downtrodden people of Calais in the Rue de l’Egalite with the rain pouring down my face, cheering ‘Vive le Thomas Paine, Vive le Revolution’.
Raised so suddenly from the lowly position he had found himself in at Dover and in his native country, before the city hall at Calais Paine was again greeted by a vast crowd of cheering supporters and the mayor, who introduced him as their new representative to the National Assembly.
At the theater that night he had a private box that was draped in a fabric that spelled out the words: ‘pour l’auteur de Droits de l’Homme.’
At that stage I had to stop reading because tears were clouding up my eyes and though I tried to read aloud, the words stuck in my throat as I thought of how he was despised, mistreated and driven from his homeland, only to be welcomed with open arms and celebrated as a revolutionary hero in another.
Paine — the author of that famous tract, Common Sense, who had so fearlessly advanced the cause of the American Revolution with his pen, with his astute logic, with his opposition to monarchical tyranny, and with his ability to communicate in simple and unpretentious language the most elementary principles of republicanism and to unlock therewith the common man’s deepest-held sentiments and longings — is no doubt an inspirational figure.
It depressed me to read of how he was abused, slandered and threatened in his native country and how he suffered at the hands of his countrymen for his principles and for his forceful arguments against the monarch, but it was the image of the downtrodden people standing in rags and tatters in the rain, many of them barefoot, I imagined, on the cobbled streets of Calais who came out to welcome him as one of their own that caused me to shed tears.
I decided to stop reading and go have a simple breakfast of cooked oats and warm water to calm my spirits before resuming my studies for the day. While I was eating my oats I turned on the computer, as is my custom these days, to catch up with the news of the day.
Slaying the angel of mercy
As has been the case for several days now, I scrolled past another report — a lament really — about the young Palestinian medic, Razan Najjar, who had been killed by an Israeli sniper a week ago in Gaza while she was attending to injured people.
She had been treating the wounded near the eastern perimeter fence in the Gaza Strip last Friday, where thousands of Palestinian protesters have been gathering week after week since March 30th to demand the right to return to their ancestral homes from which their parents and grandparents were forced after the establishment of Israel seventy years ago.
The story of Razan Najjar’s unlawful execution by an IDF sniper was one of many such incidents over the past few weeks — more than 130 unarmed protesters had been killed in similar manner by Israeli snipers in recent days — but her death has touched the soul of the world anew, and has raised painful questions in the heart of humankind.
She was shot in the back, sources on the ground reported.
Perhaps it was because she was beautiful, perhaps because she was a medic, perhaps because she was a woman, a mother, perhaps because she was unarmed, perhaps because she was trying to help others in need, or perhaps for all of these and more, her death seems to bring afresh to the eyes of the world a sense of the cruelty of the Israeli occupation and of our own cruelty for ignoring the suffering and wanton execution of innocent people.
Her sudden death, it seems, has wounded the conscience of every thinking man and woman and brings to the attention of the world the sad realization of the barbarism to which ordinary Palestinians are subjected every day — much like the extravagance and barbarism that characterised feudal aristocratic rule in France in the 17th and 18th century.
So, when I opened my Twitter account this morning, as has been the case since her killing last week, again I saw an image of the serene face of the slain Razan fleeting across the screen. I wanted to pass it by, to save myself from slipping into sadness, but the video started rolling and I had to watch.
The videographer had taken the blood-soaked vest of Razan and put it in a black plastic bag, and had gone around to people in Gaza, without telling them what was in the bag, to ask them to open it and see for themselves.
Finding that there was no precious gift inside, nothing to eat, nothing to celebrate, but only the bloodstained uniform of a beloved medic, their faces turned to sorrow and weeping. Their responses were a mixture of despair, anger and grief.
To see tears in the eyes of the Gazan people who are always portrayed by the media as dangerous fanatics, as terrorists, reminded me somehow of a song about the people of Soweto that I heard many years ago.
It was a time when black people in South Africa were much vilified and deeply feared by their white oppressors, as something dangerous that must be contained or destroyed. They regarded the black man and woman generally as untamed and dangerous.
I remember the words of that song about the beast that was so feared that it was kept far from view, hidden behind a wall and in a cage. It said that when one came close to it they could hear the beast, that ‘it wasn’t roaring, it was weeping.’
So, thinking of the motherless child of the slain Razan and of all the people of Gaza, who are treated and regarded as a wild and dangerous beast that must be contained or destroyed, I started weeping again: for a stranger that I love, although we never met and never will, for my brothers and sisters in that concentration camp called Gaza.
The world weeps for the children trapped by the miseries of the occupation, by its prisons and its many multi-layered lies, for the young woman who tried to bandage the wounds of her people and who refused to turn her back on them.
One of the people who opened the black plastic bag and held the blood-soaked uniform of the martyred nurse aloft, said of her that “She has given her life and her soul for the people.”
Many stood with the vest in their hands but were speechless and burst into tears. What more can one do? What more can one say when words can no longer be found?
Shortly before she was shot in the back, Razan herself showed that she was uncowed by the terror of the occupation. She said: “I will continue my task with determination. I will never give up. I will finish what I started.”
But now her battle is over and we who hate the occupation must march on and finish what we started. Yet, so many questions are left hanging here, like the bloodstained cloak of the slain nurse, whom they called the angel of mercy.
I wonder if like Thomas Paine, hated in his own country for his love of freedom and reason but welcomed abroad, Razan — hated and murdered by the foreign rulers of her country, will also be welcomed and embraced in heaven.
I wonder whether the rights of the Palestinian people will ever be recognised, as tangible and morally indisputable, as we regard the Rights of Man.