I know not how best to explain it. Conceivably, it could have something to do with the way I was originally wired. Sometimes I arrogantly imagine I’m uniquely equipped with a one-of-a-kind psyche that renders me impervious to the usual effects of bad news. Which is not to say I am altogether unfeeling; it’s just that by the time my blood temperature has been pushed to boiling point, those with regular response systems have not only recovered from their stresses but they have also moved on blissfully to the next amnesia-inducing state-sponsored bacchanal.
Now, I am well aware that the above confession will comfort detractors long ago self-convinced I’m the closest thing to an alien—yes, yes, that I am actually inhuman (subhuman?)—based on a perceived difference between my reactions and those of people deemed normal. Ah well, such is life on this Rock of Sages. Better to revisit our starting point: I was acknowledging my slow response to news particularly disturbing to regular mortals.
My peculiar disease was unforgettably shoved in my face several years ago when I picked up the phone during breakfast on a Sunday to the worst news imaginable. It came from a sister domiciled in Toronto: just days before my brother—also resident in Toronto—was scheduled to return home permanently someone had fatally stabbed him in the heart; thirty-two times.
I remember clearly everything I had done immediately following the call: I finished off my breakfast; kept an appointment with a woman with her own sorry tale to tell, something to do with a recent experience at Victoria Hospital. Not that thoughts of my murdered brother Vaughan did not occupy my mind. In truth I simply could not shake the feeling that for reasons beyond my comprehension I had been especially blessed . . . never mind his hardly secret appetite for sybaritic activities, I could not recall an occasion when I’d seen him truly happy. And yes, I blamed myself for not trying harder to get close to him . . . at any rate, close enough to glimpse his soul. It seemed to me as I pondered my brother’s relatively short life that some people, no matter how hard they try, are doomed never to touch the sky. Others who break all the rules at every turn seem to have everything good tossed at them. Count me among the latter.
It wasn’t until Vaughan’s ashes had been brought from Canada nearly a month after his murder that I arrived at the end of my fuse. Alone in my parked vehicle, well away from the crowd at the burial site, I could do nothing about the ocean of emotion that had suddenly exploded in my chest and set me bawling like an abandoned child for the brother I had lost to violence . . . in circumstances that to this day remain a mystery. Others who knew my brother well are similarly confused. Just hours before his friend plunged a butcher’s knife thirty-two times into Vaughan’s chest as he slept—on that same friend’s living room couch—my brother had been partying with his killer and his wife at the residence of shared friends.
Last Sunday morning, as I lay in bed enjoying the season’s special TV programs, I took a call from a female acquaintance. “Rick,” she said, “have you heard? I haven’t gotten the details but my father just called to tell me some men entered the cathedral and set the congregation on fire.”
I sensed the shutdown of my nervous system. The best I could manage was “What! Clue me in when you know more!” There had been a time when I might have jumped out of bed before my friend had completed her news bulletin. In that earlier period I had written some of my more memorable stories—“Miracle at Dennery,” about a child who claimed the Blessed Virgin had appeared before her . . . area residents swore they’d witnessed rocks coming out of nowhere and crash-landing all over the wooden shack where the little girl lived . . . Another story I covered had boasted all the ingredients that two years later would make The Exorcist a box-office smash.
I remained glued to the TV, although not with the same concentration that had preceded that call about the cathedral. Then my lady friend called again, this time to say at least one person had been fatally cutlassed near the main altar.
“Any arrests?” I asked, in the same tone I might’ve queried the hour.
“I don’t know.”
“Okay then,” I said, “call me again, I’ll be right here.”
On reflection, it strikes me that my usually sensitive friend had not asked why I was still at home and not on my way to Castries to capture pictures for the purposes of history, if for no other reason. Actually, I did consider the idea but quickly abandoned it, maybe because I was, for once, without a single camera. Yes, I know, a pathetic excuse. In that revisited earlier time it would’ve taken me but a few minutes to collect my equipment at my studio. This time around, I stayed put, certain that at least two of my reporters could be counted on not to behave like their jaded employer in the face of what was obviously no run-of- the-mill roro.
The third time my friend called it was to let me know Cletus Springer was on the radio delivering a blow-by-blow of the action at the cathedral. He had been in church when hell’s angels descended on fellow worshippers with their flaming torches. Again I thanked my caller and quickly hung up. I was wrestling with the idea of getting out of bed and turning on the radio when the phone rang one more time. Someone wanted to know whether I’d forgotten a promise that required my presence at Ciceron.
“Hang on,” I reassured her, “I’m on my way.” It turned out I had not turned off my car radio the last time I used my car. As I turned on the ignition, the familiar voice of Cletus Springer caught my attention. For the next fifteen minutes or so I listened to details of what Springer described as his “worst experience.” Compared to it, the fire that had consumed the 16th century Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama on December 15, 1963 “paled into insignificance.”
It was an altogether unnecessary comparison, a comment that under regular circumstances would not have fallen from the normally meticulous mouth of Cletus Springer. The recalled incident had always marked an especially significant part of the civil rights struggle in America. The Birmingham fire had destroyed more than just a famous house of prayer; it had also taken the lives of four little girls! At the memorial service for the martyred children the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had delivered the eulogy. His dream dominating his anger, the civil rights leader had promised: “They did not die in vain. God has a way of wringing good out of evil.”
Cletus suspected the incident at the Castries Cathedral was rooted in politics. At any rate, that was the impression I formed after he associated the attack with his recent controversial attempts to avoid going into a discussion on the merits of a government of national unity. But let me be safe and say also that on the morning of December 31, 2000, even before he started talking about what some have described as a pie-in-the-sky notion of government, Cletus thought it necessary to offer his audience something of an apology!
I had returned home from Ciceron when I became disturbed about my detachment from the morning’s horror. Why was I not shocked, as it seemed the whole nation was, by the day’s violence and the seemingly casual desecration of God’s real estate?
The answer hit me as I drove to Castries, having finally decided I might live to regret not having witnessed first-hand the result of this thing that was quickly shaping up to be Saint Lucia’s Crime of the Century. The answer I settled for was simple: there was little new about what had happened, save for the location.
Several months earlier a man had been murdered not far from the cathedral’s front entrance; burned alive. Person or persons unrevealed had doused him with gasoline, then set him aflame, for all I know, with a torch similar to those used at God’s palace. What little was broadcast about the then unprecedented murder by fire included the irrelevant detail that he had been “a vagrant.” Other stories suggested the homeless man had been for some time clearly off his rocker. Thank goodness that someone remembered, almost as an afterthought, that the man who was roasted alive had never actually harmed anyone.
If there were expressions of sorrow at the particular example of man’s inhumanity to man, they most certainly did not amount to a public outcry. There were no special words from an inconsolable prime minister. No sesquipedalian emissions from the government’s legal department, nothing from the garrulous minister of bacchanal. And most striking of all, not one word of regret or reproof from Sarah Flood-Beaubrun—the nation’s health minister with responsibility for what passes for mental hospitals in our country—parliamentary representative for Central Castries, the constituency where the vagrant was barbecued by invisible demons.
Then again perhaps the resounding comparative silence had everything to do with the respective crime scenes: one being consecrated, the other being, well, an established hang-out for lost souls—a natural habitat for the drugged out, the deaf, blind and dumb.
As horrifying as Saint Lucia’s first murder by fire had been for me, what had finally moved me to protest was the public’s shocking reaction—or lack thereof. Some weeks after the incident I invited two relatives of the deceased to join me on TALK— in a desperate attempt to humanize “the vagrant.” If the show achieved its aim, still the fact remains that to date there has been no related statement by the government; no public demand that the police take all the steps to uncover the worst kind of pyromaniac in our midst. He remains at large, as I said on TALK, to keep on playing with fire at someone else’s expense.
As I now think about it, what I had experienced after Sunday’s first call about the violating of the cathedral might be described as a feeling of déjà vu. To borrow from Voltaire, once a philosopher, twice a pervert. Already I had been well and truly traumatized, psychically deflowered, if you like—perhaps rendered immune to future shocks—by the so-what public attitude to the open-air roasting of a fellow human being whose circumstances had rendered him a no-account vagrant, therefore unworthy even of human compassion.
It occurs to me that senseless violence was no stranger to the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception. Remember the demonstrated brutality of an alleged “madman” with a machete that left two worshipping elderly tourists maimed for life? It happened in 1987. Just last August a church fire in Soufriere had generated its own shock waves, if only among the town’s most faithful. To the best of my knowledge there were no serious follow-up investigations, let alone guarantees against future firebugs. That’s just the way it is in bountiful Saint Lucia, where “crisis is we business.” We kolcha!
No surprise that on arrival outside the Cathedral on Sunday morning I found myself immediately surrounded. Although the incident was already two hours old, scores of individuals obviously not dressed for mass were determined to make themselves heard. For the most part they cursed “those human rights activists” for what had befallen the city’s good Christian people. At one point I lost control and lashed out in defense of the absent Mary Francis and Martinus Francois and, l might as well acknowledge, in defense of my own sense of justice.
“Look,” I said to one particularly noxious character near the church entrance. “You gotta be human to appreciate human rights.”
To another delirious detractor: “Tell me, when was the last time you read about a human rights activist who endorsed murder, whether by private citizens out of their gourd or by the state in the name of people who abhor the taking of human life under any circumstances?”
Naturally, the name Alfred Harding was invoked. Weeks after his controversial brutal slaying by an off-duty trigger-happy cop, the generated acrimony had not subsided. The day’s particular disaster added more fuel to the raging bonfires of hate.
“Why are you guys so concerned about Harding?” asked someone in t-shirt and shorts. “Why do you care? He was killed by one of us. Why don’t you just forget about the whole thing and move on?”
“I never knew Harding,” I replied. “What I care about is our Constitution—which demands a full accounting for every unnatural death, whether of police officers or of escaped convicts and vagrants. And while we’re at it,” I went on, “does anyone know why we arrested Harding in the first place? Our legal affairs minister said publicly there were no outstanding warrants for his arrest!”
The progress of this particular train was interrupted by a drunk who professed an abiding interest in the whereabouts of Martinus Francois. Time to move on.
As has already been acknowledged, what befell Saint Lucia on New Year’s Eve was terrible; horrifying; unconscionable; an abomination. Let it also be acknowledged that it was merely a natural escalation. Could it have been prevented? Who knows for certain? Still we must remind ourselves that problems ignored are destined to become bigger and bigger problems finally beyond our control.
A disease denied is not a disease cured. It occurs to me that about a year ago a Saint Lucian with St. Croix as his surname made headlines in New York and elsewhere after he was caught desecrating church property. Only the local police know for certain whether Mr. St. Croix was among seasoned, possibly insane criminals recently deported by United States authorities to their native Saint Lucia!
Editor’s Note: The preceding first appeared in this newspaper on January 6 2001