Tortured Truth

On 15th July 1944, Anne Frank wrote in her diary that she believed "in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart". Circumstances went on to prove that her faith in the goodness of mankind was misplaced-- less than nine months later, at the age of sixteen, she was allowed to succumb to typhus in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.

While Anne's unwavering belief may be attributed to the innocence of youth, more seasoned individuals among us like to share a similar sentiment, even in the face of evidence to the contrary. Whether it be early man's use of primitive tools to maintain supremacy among the clan (immortalised in Stanley Kubrick's interpretation of Arthur Clarke's "2001: A Space Odyssey"), or more sophisticated tactics employed in mass genocide, there appears to be a strong predilection in man to turn to the dark side.

One does not need to be a psychologist (or even its armchair version) to understand that the power over another person's will is the ultimate driver of this misbehaviour. Whether it be a bullying teenager at school, a dominant partner in an unhappy marriage, or a rogue nation throwing its weight around, the positive feedback loop leads the wielder to justify hostile and brutal acts as means to a desired end.

In a famous controlled experiment at Stanford University in 1971, a group of twenty-four healthy undergraduate students were selected to role-play the relationship between prison guards and prisoners. The students quickly adapted to their roles, but the experiment had to be terminated when it was observed that the "guards" were developing genuine sadistic tendencies that crossed the boundaries of accepted (and expected) behaviour causing emotional trauma to their "prisoners". The study thus needed an authority figure (in this case, the Professor) to guard the guards and prevent them from engaging in acts of lawlessness.

Is our self-righteous humanness just a defensive masquerade meant to protect our own selfish well-being? Is humanity a pretentious value that can be discarded whenever it becomes politically prudent? The darker side of human history suggests that the propensity for oppression lies hidden just below the surface, and only societal norms like laws and regulations prevent people from descending into moral anarchy. In the absence of this communal control, even children are not immune to acting out their darkest animal instincts, masterfully portrayed in William Golding's "Lord of the Flies".

And when a state accepts the use of heinous and inhuman acts as official policy, be it Nazi Germany during World War II or America today, it makes a mockery of the values that bind people and nations together. The Nuremberg trials went a long way in condemning the perpetrators of the holocaust; a similar hearing is needed now to punish policy-makers who took liberties with the law and approved the use of torture on prisoners of war.

No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture.
United Nations Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, 1984

Bungle in the Jungle Habitat

As you make your way under the gigantic log structure at the entrance, erected to support the "Jungle Habitat" sign thirty-five years ago, a sharp pungent smell assaults the senses momentarily if only as a reminder of what the park once stood for. Nestled among the Norvin Green State Forest and bordered by the Greenwood Lake Airport, this safari-themed park was started by Warner Bros. in 1972 and contained over 1,500 animals, ranging from Indian elephants to Siberian tigers, roaming freely within its 800 acre property. Its twenty-six miles of paved road allowed vehicles to drive through, so that a car's windscreen was all that separated animal from prey.

Although the park had an estimated half-a-million visitors in its opening summer, its success was short-lived, and it closed its gates by the end of 1976. Reasons for its demise are varied and exaggerated, ranging from negative publicity surrounding a few isolated attacks (usually because of visitors not obeying posted rules) to the township shooting down a proposal to expand the park (the fact that traffic to this previously sleepy hamlet had spiked dramatically did not endear the park to local inhabitants). A similar Wild Safari still operates about a hundred miles south, but it is a much tamer version of the original Jungle Habitat, since only giraffes, zebras, deer and ostriches have unlimited access within its grounds.

Today the locked gates have a narrow opening on one side that allows people to squeeze through, and one occasionally comes across people walking their dogs or kids bicycling in gay abandon on a bright sunny day. The approach road rises sharply, offering a majestic view of single-engine aircrafts taking off in the west, and winds down half-a-mile to a 3,000 car parking lot with faded yellow markings on the ground. It also offers an eerie hint of something gone awry-- for the stillness of the spring air and the barrenness of the macadam clearing is not interrupted by a single vehicle.

Jungle Habitat also had a walk-through section that included a petting zoo, an aviary, an otter slide and a toy-train ride. Traces of these are still visible, although the wooden directions at trail intersections have had their lettering erased by the elements of nature. As one walks through the tunnels that once witnessed shrieks of delightful laughter from children experiencing a first echo, the only sound that pierces the silence today is that of a gurgling stream running by a crumbling ticket-office. Beyond it lies the collapsed aviary, an animal graveyard, and train lines in a clearing half-buried by dry leaves. It is oddly unnerving to lose oneself along the perfectly preserved paths, enveloped by a serene silence that accentuates the sensation of trespassing into a civilisation that met an untimely death, before being brought back to the present by the rude sound of returning aeroplanes.

Towns often preserve vestiges of questionable historical significance to build a feeling of pride and unity. Jungle Habitat does not fall into this category as it is not old enough to create its own mythology, and moreover because it has been allowed to fall into ruin. Yet, walking through its empty grounds, I felt a keen sense of living history around me, almost as if the simple act of shutting my eyes would transport me back in time and help spot an animal in the wild. As I exited past the visitors' kiosk, still adorning the corporate logo of a lion travelling on top of a Jeep, I could not help thinking that this was a park that even Time had forgotten all about.

Now Chil the Kite brings home the night
That Mang the Bat sets free.
The herds are shut in byre and hut -
For loosed till dawn are we.
This is the hour of pride and power,
Talon and tush and claw.
O hear the call! Good Hunting, All
That keep the Jungle Law!
Rudyard Kipling, The Jungle Book