Sunday, December 18, 2011

Two Men Looked Through Prison Bars and Havel Had a Scooter

The last American troops are crossing the border today, leaving Iraq even as I write.

Meantime, an important man of peace has just died.  Vaclav Havel, writer and former president of the Czech Republic. In his twenty-year struggle for the freedom of the Czech people, he faithfully adhered to his central belief: "Truth and love must prevail over lies and hatred." He opposed war and violence even in the face of injustice.

My mother had a saying when we were kids: "Two men looked through prison bars, and one saw mud and one saw stars."

As a child I found this deeply puzzling. Why was my mother holding up prisoners as examples of something for us kids to learn. If they were in prison, hadn't they done something bad? And wasn't the real problem how to get out of that prison, rather than what they were looking at?

In his long struggle against Communist tyranny in Czechoslovakia, Vaclav Havel  actually went to prison more than once. He kept focused on the stars in the night sky, not the mud. He wrote plays and poetry and essays in prison. He kept writing about freedom. His works were smuggled into other Iron Curtain countries, especially Poland and Hungary. And -  finally  -  the walls came tumbling down.

A poet had spiked the guns of tanks with mere words and swept aside the Iron Curtain that had lain across all of Eastern Europe for 44 years. Havel then became president of a reborn Czechoslovakia.

But here's the best part. In the New York Times, his obituary reports that he traveled the long corridors of the presidential palace on a child's scooter. And on a stop at an airport he kept political heads of state waiting while he had a chat with Mick Jagger. He also loved jazz. This was a man who knew how to live!

Let me abuse the vehicle of metaphor for a moment and focus on the word "scooter" (no pun intended).

Remember, "Scooter" Libby and his bosses George W and Dick Cheney? Remember that they needlessly killed 4500 Americans and a ghastly number of Iraq civilians? Remember how "Scooter" lied to protect the devil duo and all that they stood for.  Might making"right" even when the premises are dead wrong. Large theories held with great delusions of grandeur. Lying to cover up bad stuff. And people dying, dying, dying.

Give us a man who prefers a real scooter, a kid's scooter, who goes gliding along the corridors of power with the purity of a child's heart, who believes in love and not war. Like Martin Luther King in "Letter from Birmingham Jail", Havel never took his eyes off the stars.

It's hard to preach peace, write well, bring freedom to a nation, and keep one's balance on a kid's scooter.

You did well, Mr. Havel. We will miss you, and we are better off for your having been with us. Thank you for speaking up for peace.

Like any good man of the theater, you timed your exit well. It's Christmas. And our troops are coming home.

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