“That a man can take pleasure in marching in fours to the strains of a band is enough to make me despise him. He has only been given his big brain by mistake; a backbone was all he needed.”
(Published in Daily Times, 11 July 2012)
Washington is majestic, imposing and inspiring, full of splendid museums, memorials and monuments. Everything about the capital of the US, including its architectural layout, does credit to the world’s superpower. It has awe and aura without skyscrapers or military swagger.
The capital city of the country that built the first and has by far the most skyscrapers does not have even one. The world’s military superpower never holds military parades. In fact, none of the democratic Western countries hold military parades, as Pakistan, India, China and Russia do with much fanfare, not to mention the likes of Iran, Syria, Egypt, Myanmar and North Korea.
Military parades are charades that may move the gullible, moisten the eyes of the super-patriotic and spur the hyper-nationalists to kill and be killed for country. The great Albert Einstein, however, denounced them in these words:
“That a man can take pleasure in marching in fours to the strains of a band is enough to make me despise him. He has only been given his big brain by mistake; a backbone was all he needed. This plague-spot of civilization ought to be abolished with all possible speed. Heroism on command, senseless violence, and all the loathsome nonsense that goes by the name of patriotism – how passionately I hate them! . . . I believe this bogey would have disappeared long ago, had the sound sense of the nations not been systematically corrupted by commercial and political interests acting through the schools and the press.”
Museums, memorials and monuments are as numerous in Washington as mosques are in the capitals of Muslim countries. Heading the list is the absolutely fantastic Smithsonian Institution, which is in fact a cluster of 19 museums and galleries, as well as a zoological park. Many of these are situated along the elegant space called the National Mall, which connects the Lincoln Memorial with the Capitol, the imposing seat of the US Congress.
Entry to almost all the Smithsonian museums is free, funded by the US government. There is nothing like it anywhere in the world! And in the country renowned for its commercialism, whose citizens are trained to think that “there is no such thing as a free lunch”, these museums offer the highest value for free. Yes, absolutely free, free for one and all.
There is much more, besides the Smithsonian. There is even an International Spy Museum, which is privately owned. And the Newseum, an example of the American ability to innovate. Opened in 1997, the Newseum is an interactive museum of news and journalism featuring 15 theaters and 14 galleries. Its Berlin Wall Gallery includes the largest display of sections of the Berlin Wall outside of Germany.
Among memorials and monuments not to be missed are the Washington Monument and the Lincoln and Roosevelt Memorials. The Washington Monument is the world’s tallest stone structure and the tallest obelisk. The Lincoln Memorial is shaped like a Greek temple. The Roosevelt Memorial depicts Roosevelt’s presidency in a sequence of four outdoor open air rooms. Etched on their walls, as well as inside the Lincoln Memorial, are inspiring quotations pertaining to liberty, freedom and the dignity of man from these two great presidents.
Then there is the Victorian-style Jefferson Building, a unique blending of art and architecture. It is the main building of the Library of Congress, de facto national library and the oldest federal cultural institution in the United States. It is the largest libray in the world by shelf space and number of books.
Founded in 1800, the library was destroyed in August 1814, when invading British troops set fire to the Capitol building along with the 3,000 books inside. The Library of Congress collection now fills about 1,350 km of bookshelves and holds about 147 million items including 33 million books!
If the Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress stands out for its splendid ornate architecture, the White House is remarkable for its elegant simplicity. Before 9/11, one could have walked past the White House and not even notice it. But now, one can’t fail to notice because of the security presence in the form of road blocks and police cars, but these are still rather modest and unobtrusive compared with many other countries.
Yet Washington DC and American airports are the only places where enhanced security is obvious. Nowhere else did we feel that 9/11 had changed anything. For all I know, the US was and, by and large, remains the freest country in the world.
In mid-June 1985, I was seated for take-off on an American Trans World Airlines (TWA) plane in St Louis, Missouri, for a flight to Cincinnati when a sudden thunderstorm struck the area. The pilot announced that due to the storm all departures were held up. Apologising to his passengers for the delay, he offered to show us the inside of the cockpit to relieve our boredom. Many of us availed of this unexpected offer.
This opening of the cockpit for public viewing of an aircraft ready for take-off was very extraordinary in itself, but what made it particularly astonishing was that, only a few days earlier, another plane belonging to the same airline had been hijacked to Beirut by Islamic Jihad militants. Newspapers and TV screens around the word had splashed a famous picture which showed one of the hijackers holding a pistol to the pilot’s head in the cockpit.
And whereas this superpower didn’t bother a whit about internal security, the other superpower was paranoid to the point of lunacy. In 1976, a Russian air hostess on an Aeroflot flight from Moscow to Tashkent in the USSR pounced on me to prevent me from taking a photo of the view below from my window seat! It was against the law, she shouted.
Americans were immensely shocked by 9/11 precisely because they felt that their trust had been betrayed and abused with such devastating effect. And not by a lone lunatic or by a handful of crackpots but by a highly motivated organisation of Muslim religious zealots with substantial following determined to harm their country.
by Razi Azmi