The challenge of the one-track mind: Telling obsession from single-mindedness

Certain events this year have been sending my mind back to the forties and fifties when I used to put more time into reading novels than was good for me. Time and again this nostalgia has led me back to the novel ‘Far from the Madding Crowd’ by Thomas Hardy.

Leading character Gabriel Oak, a hard-working young farmer hoping to make his way to prosperity and a happy married life, had two dogs – experienced old George and his son, still nameless, still learning the ropes in the business of flock-keeping. One night Gabriel, before going to bed, tried to call the dogs, but only one – old George – responded. He had left them both earlier dining off a dead lamb. Just before dawn he was awakened by “the abnormal reverberation of the sheep-bell beating with unusual violence and rapidity.” The experienced ear of Oak knew “that the sound he now heard was caused by the running of the flock with great velocity.” He jumped out bed, dressed double fast and rushed out. The fifty or so ewes that had already given birth to their young and that were therefore kept in a separate enclosure were still there. But of the bulk of the flock, numbering more than two hundred, ready to give birth but yet to do so, there was no sign. The story is best continued in Hardy’s own words:

“Gabriel called at the top of his voice the shepherd’s call: “Ovey, ovey, ovey!”. Not a single bleat. He went to the hedge; a gap had been broken through it, and in the gap were the footprints of the sheep. Rather surprised to find them break fence at this season, yet putting it down instantly to their great fondness for ivy in winter-time, of which a great deal grew in the plantation, he followed through the hedge. They were not in the plantation. He called again: the valleys and farthest hills resounded as when the sailors invoked the lost Hylas on the Mysian shore; but no sheep. He passed through the trees and along the ridge of the hill. On the extreme summit, where the ends of the two converging hedges of which we have spoken were stopped short by meeting the brow of the chalk-pit, he saw the younger dog standing against the sky — dark and motionless as Napoleon at St. Helena.

A horrible conviction darted through Oak. With a sensation of bodily faintness he advanced: at one point the rails were broken through, and there he saw the footprints of his ewes. The dog came up, licked his hand, and made signs implying that he expected some great reward for signal services rendered. Oak looked over the precipice. The ewes lay dead and dying at its foot — a heap of two hundred mangled carcasses, representing in their condition just now at least two hundred more.

Oak was an intensely humane man: indeed, his humanity often tore in pieces any politic intentions of his which bordered on strategy, and carried him on as by gravitation. A shadow in his life had always been that his flock ended in mutton — that a day came and found every shepherd an arrant traitor to his defenseless sheep. His first feeling now was one of pity for the untimely fate of these gentle ewes and their unborn lambs.

It was a second to remember another phase of the matter. The sheep were not insured. All the savings of a frugal life had been dispersed at a blow; his hopes of being an independent farmer were laid low — possibly for ever. Gabriel’s energies, patience, and industry had been so severely taxed during the years of his life between eighteen and eight-and-twenty, to reach his present stage of progress that no more seemed to be left in him. He leant down upon a rail, and covered his face with his hands.

Stupors, however, do not last for ever, and Farmer Oak recovered from his. It was as remarkable as it was characteristic that the one sentence he uttered was in thankfulness:

“Thank God I am not married: what would she have done in the poverty now coming upon me!”

As far as could be learnt it appeared that the poor young dog, still under the impression that since he was kept for running after sheep, the more he ran after them the better, had at the end of his meal off the dead lamb, which may have given him additional energy and spirits, collected all the ewes into a corner, driven the timid creatures through the hedge, across the upper field, and by main force of worrying had given them momentum enough to break down a portion of the rotten railing, and so hurled them over the edge.

George’s son had done his work so thoroughly that he was considered too good a workman to live, and was, in fact, taken and tragically shot at twelve o’clock that same day — another instance of the untoward fate which so often attends dogs and other philosophers who follow out a train of reasoning to its logical conclusion, and attempt perfectly consistent conduct in a world made up so largely of compromise.” (Italicisation mine)

Many end up, or ought to end up, like George’s son, at least by getting sacked if not actually shot, just for doing their job too well. One has to feel sorry for them, and also, obviously, for their victims. Duty must be done, but the doer must think twice, and twice over again, before pulling the trigger, or ordering it to be pulled, to make sure no innocent person is unwittingly harmed in the process. If he believes he has been assigned an innocent target by his superiors, he has the option of proceeding ‘under protest’ while declaring as much, or resigning. Collateral damage is unacceptable in peace time.

In certain circumstances, it is morally better to pay the price of NOT doing one’s duty than to harm innocent people by doing it. There are cases galore of such mistaken acts – from isolated incidents to full-fledged intercontinental wars – where NOT doing one’s duty should have been the morally preferred option.

Currently the atmosphere is so clouded and the visibility so poor in our country that one cannot say for sure whether any such cases are happening or not; only time will tell. While we must all be thankful that the electorate by and large saw clearly which choice it had to make in order not to fall into a papadocracy, have we by any mischance fallen into a vendettocracy? But cases have happened abroad where there is no doubt about where the right and wrong lay.

Civilian airliners are totally harmless objects, except when it is known for a fact that they have been hijacked and are being used as bombs or other weapons of mass destruction. The Soviet military commander who ordered the shooting down of Korean Airlines Flight 007 off Sakhalin Island with 269 innocent civilians on board (01 Sept. 1983) and the American naval commander who ordered the shooting down of Iranair Flight 655 over the Persian Gulf with 290 more innocent civilians on board (03 Jul. 1988) got away scot-free for doing their job “well” and “in good faith”. Whoever it was who ordered the shooting down of Malaysia Airline Flight 17 over eastern Ukraine with yet another 298 innocent civilians (17 Jul. 14) is yet to be identified, but I strongly doubt whether he will ever be brought to trial. I wish there were a superior form of justice that treated all three like George’s son – putting them against a pillar the next morning and shooting them before noon.

And what can we say about President George W. Bush, another son of a George, as regards the war he unleashed upon Iraq on pretences that a small circle of bastards he relied upon briefed him about and convinced him of and that were later confirmed to be totally false and fabricated. In the final tally of that war, violent death figures are estimated to range from 500,000 to well over a million, internally displaced person figures are put at over one and a half million and figures of refugees fleeing to other countries at around 2 million. What does that represent in terms of human suffering?

Never mind the trillion dollars that the war cost the American taxpayer. In the process the Sunni administration of Saddam Hussein was replaced by the Shia administration of Al-Maliki which, because Al-Maliki was who he was and not necessarily because he was Shia, has done more harm to Iraq and to the region than Saddam Hussein ever could have done, including in particular the laying of the foundation for the development and growth of the ISIS movement that has become a threat not just to Islamic countries but to the whole world. The after-effects of that war are still continuing, and the political map of Middle East is likely to be changed for ever.

I do not personally think that President “Dubya” Bush, unlike UK’s Tony Blair and Australia’s John Howard (who had both jumped in to support him in that unholy war with grand visions of a return to Anglo-Saxon domination of the world) was himself was of evil nature. But if called upon by a UN-established international tribunal to do one’s duty by the pillar at noon, one should not draw back, even if the act has to be done with tears rolling down the cheek.

On a related matter, President Bush must take responsibility for the fact that Al-Maliki’s men jumped and danced over Saddam Hussein’s body after the latter’s death following his hanging. We would never want such a thing to happen to President Bush himself, not even to Blair or to Howard themselves. May they all die in such peace as they can find within their consciences.

  • Published in print edition on 24 July 2015

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