Sunday, August 01, 2004

Watch out for the human 'crows'

By Asad Latif
1 August 2004
Straits Times

ONE day, when I was a child, I saw a wounded crow. One of its wings was smashed. It was trying to fly on the other wing, but failed pitifully.

As it crawled along the street, other crows gathered around it. First, they watched, just cawing. Then, they came closer and began to peck at the fallen crow. It tried to fight back, but could not.

More attackers arrived, descending eagerly from the trees nearby. Earlier, each crow had attacked it singly and had retreated after a few pecks. Now, finding strength in numbers, they set upon it together.

A terrible cawing followed, the death cries of the victim drowned out by the war chants of the attackers.

I ran screaming to my mother.

It was that image that came to mind last month when I read of the widow of one of the men who died in April's Nicoll Highway collapse.

Now, it appears that a bunch of crows in human form has set upon his widow.

According to the news story, strangers go up to her to enquire about the public donations that have poured in and how much money she has in the bank. Some friends even wonder if she might steal their husbands.

Madam K, 35, who was not identified in the article in order to protect her from more harassment, has problems visiting the wet market.

There, people have walked up to her and said: 'Wah, the newspapers say you're now very rich! Is it true?' Others have pointed at her, whispering among themselves and saying: 'She's still young and has a lot of money. Surely a lot of men will go after her.'

Her plaintive cry: 'I want my husband back, not all this money. They can take it if they want to.'

She should not have said that. Can you hear the crows cawing in greedy expectation? Their cacophony starts in flats, spreads through the housing estate, travels all the way to the wet market and encircles the bank where the widow keeps her money.

'Give us the money, give us the money,' they caw in unison. When Madam K refuses, because they cannot give her back her husband, the crows turn into the predators of the Alfred Hitchcock thriller, The Birds. They attack the hapless widow and her young children.

I am letting my imagination run wild, of course. But the truth is that wild varieties of human behaviour are proof of what John Bleibtreau calls 'the nature within' in his book of anthropology, The Parable Of The Beast.

The nature within - biology - drives life on relentlessly. From cattle ticks, mosquitoes, snails, lizards and frogs, to honey bees, earthworms and birds, and on to men, nature cleverly anticipates every evolutionary turn and places its mark on consciousness.

It is that nature which runs through the people tormenting Madam K.

Bleibtreau's conclusion: 'Love and hate, aggression and submission, need and satiety: One may see all these forces working themselves out quite simply and mechanically in the behaviour of fish, reptiles and birds.'

But he sounds a note of hope: Homo sapiens are not mere prisoners of biology.

Thus, 'it is as one ascends the ladder of psychological complexity, as one observes animals up through the class of mammals, up through the order of primates, finally reaching man, that one finds what seems to be a progressive blurring of that which is innate, or given by the genetic heritage, and what is the individual response to individual experience'.

The hope lies in those words: 'individual experience'.

Unlike the crows which I encountered in my childhood, which were acting instinctively and as a group, Madam K's tormentors must have been taught by their experience of living in society that they should not prey on her.

Moreover, of course, crows have no sense of cruelty any more than they understand altruism, but humans appreciate the difference between the two qualities.

Obviously, socialisation has not succeeded very well in the case of Madam K's tormentors.

They should not get away with it. There is a need to take a stand against those who behave so disgracefully. If a friend or neighbour makes cruel comments about a wounded woman, it is important to have the courage to disagree with them.

To honour the memory of a departed man in any genuine way is to protect his family from those who rub salt into their wounds.

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