“They are pulling my Daddy’s fingernails out.”
The words of the five-year-old were calm but the sadness in his eyes spoke volumes as he repeated himself, standing there in my dining room.
“They locked him in a bamboo cage. Now they are pulling his fingernails out.”
I listened with uncertainty and surprise. I was not more than two years older than him, but still old enough to know that keeping a man in a cage was wrong.
There was something unnatural about it that bothered me more than the torture he described. The pain of torn out fingernails would hurt, I thought.
But being in a cage? That was very bad. Did people really do that to each other?
“Why are they keeping him in a cage?” I asked.
“Indira Gandhi is scared of him,” he said.
Who was Indira Gandhi? How far away was India, where the boy and his mother were from? Why did they do those things there? Why were he and his mother now living with us?
I had so many questions.
“Hush,” my mother said. “They are family friends. Don’t talk about his father.”
Family friends they were, for generations. My mother, the daughter of a university president, had continued a deep friendship that her father had begun in the days of India’s early independence. And with the rise of Indira Gandhi to power and the declaration of emergency in the early 1970’s, political opponents were jailed and horrifically treated.
Thus the man’s wife and son fled to America and stayed with us for a time. Forty years later that friendship still lives, although it has been many years since I last saw them.
The day Indira Gandhi was machine-gunned to death by her own bodyguards I remember thinking, simply, that karma might be slow – but it never forgot to return and feed.
I grew up loathing tyrants but with a very firm understanding of power.
My mother’s politics were quite different from mine. A lifelong socialist educated at Berkeley, her economic beliefs were starkly opposed to the ones I embraced as an adult in my own right. But she successfully and fiercely instilled an important truth in me, and we never disagreed on this point even in the most heated political discussions that followed as I reached adulthood:
Power matters. Men with power eventually turn cruel ambitious guns on their brothers with predictable butchery. And the heroes of freedom often die miserably against a wall, or in a hastily dug grave in the forest. But the work they did was crucial to the tide of history.
And the only thing that opposed power, was power itself.
“Why can’t his family or friends just break him out?” I asked her.
“They have no power,” she replied. “They would be killed if they tried.”
I absorbed that, deciding that powerless was never something I wanted to be.
As I grew up the stories of resistance were often firsthand. There were many guests at the dinner table from far corners of the world. One gentleman, a politician exiled from Haiti under the regime of Papa Doc Duvalier, told me stories of the terrifying secret police under the dictator.
“They are called the Tonton Macoute,” he said.
“You knew them by their mirror sunglasses and their cruelty.”
I listened, rapt, still trying to grasp at that age how this thing called power worked.
“They would come and take you away in front of everyone. Beat you to death and hang you from a tree, and if your family did not leave your body there, they would be taken away too.”
“But couldn’t you fight back? What if everyone fought back all at once?” I asked.
I did not like this story. What if that was your brother, your mother, you had to leave hanging there? How could you just accept that without bringing justice back into the world?
He shrugged. “Do you want to be the first?” he asked. “That is how you die.”
“Bad men take power and everyone else suffers.
“Fear is how the powerless are controlled.”
He smoked his pipe, silently, and I considered what he said about power and fear.
Many decades later my father remarried a Frenchwoman and retired to the north of France. My new stepmother and I looked across the garden of the home she grew up in, and I listened as she told me the story of her older brother.
“The Gestapo took him that afternoon, in front of our mother and father.”
Her voice was level with characteristic Gallic phlegm. “They came with an officer and three soldiers. We never saw him again.
“They shot him at Stutthof camp in Poland as the end of the war neared. The Germans knew the war was lost. They killed everyone.”
Her brother was in the Resistance and paid the ultimate price for his opposition to power. The work he did of insurrection, of secret messages and smuggling, of sabotage and assassination, had impact.
There was sacred value in it. Though he did not survive to see his native France risen from under the boot of the invader, the work he did helped to change the fate of his nation and his people. And it was honored by them, with words that bespoke their love and respect for his sacrifice.
It is a small memorial, on the outside of the house. Underneath his name, graven there with dignity into the cold and weathered stone, the words are simple, solemn, and sublime.
FUSILLE AU CAMPE DE STRUTHOF
Here remained a patriot.
Shot at Stutthof, 1944.
He was twenty-seven years old.
But his countrymen remember.
He died for France.
A word that has grave and passionate depth, that exudes and resonates with power.
Power is the responsibility of every human being.
Personal power, tribal power, national power, power of civilization.
You will not impact fate without power.
You will not protect your family and community without power.
You will not steer the fate of your people without power.
Power is your prerogative, the demand of manhood.
Cultivate it, attain it, and deliver it.
Power is what unlocks the cage and frees bloody hands from torture.
Power is what halts men with mirror sunglasses when they arrive with machetes and cruelty.
Power preserves peace and safety in the garden, and power is what men honor after death.
Seek it, and hold it. You and your people will need it.
It is the way of the dark world.
This excerpt from The Nine Laws speaks sincere truth.
Understand your entitlements do not include pity.
Cultivate power for you and all your loved ones.
Much love, honor, and respect,