The Old Knight

Liz Wirth: What do you care? What do you care about Black Rock?
John J. Macreedy: I don’t care anything about Black Rock. Only it just seems to me that there aren’t many towns like this in America. But… one town like it is enough. And because I think something kind of bad happened here, Miss Wirth, something I can’t quite seem to find a handle to.
Liz Wirth: You don’t know what you’re talking about.
John J. Macreedy: Well, I know this much. The rule of law has left here, and the guerrillas have taken over.

 

Variations of the same story have been told many times but I find this one especially moving. The old  knight wears a cheap suit and his eyes show the pain of old wounds. His body has withered but not his determination to repay a personal debt and stand up for decency. We are not told much about him but his actions speak louder than words.

The evil monsters are not beasts from another planet or look any different. They are like us, fearful citizens of a small town that will turn a blind eye to what may be done to others. Those who think that it is better to keep quiet and cover things up if by doing so, they believe that their lives can go on unaffected.

We do not see the victim but like all victims, he was the other, the easy prey for those that want to vent their own frustrations. The victim is the outsider that will not be able to rely on friends or family and whose only support might be the laws of the land. Sadly, those laws, like most laws, are not always enforced to protect the weak.

Bad Day at Black Rock (1955)

 This variation of the story has made me think about the motivations of those heroes and their fate. Socrates argued that knowledge would firmly set us on the path to goodness. Unfortunately, human history has taught us that although knowledge may improve the chances of better human behaviour, it is certainly no guarantee.

If knowledge alone will not make us take a stand, is it just a combination of genes, personality and social circumstances?  Perhaps it is pointless to try to pinpoint what makes a hero and we should just conclude that there are only heroic actions. We humans are not made to be always heroes but can, under specific situations, perform acts of valour against injustice.

As for the fate of heroes, they are condemned, by virtue of their own behaviour, to be either ignored or simply destroyed and, in the best possible scenario, honoured only years later. If one reminds others of uncomfortable truths and challenges those in power, expect no mercy. Consider the case of Tommie Smith and John Carlos; the elite athletes whose careers were ruined by their raised fist gesture at the Mexico City Olympic Stadium in 1968. Suspended from the U.S. team, they were ostracized and subject to abuse, even receiving death threats. Remember their fellow athlete, Peter Norman, who also wore a human rights badge on his shirt during the ceremony to show his support and paid dearly for it.

Tomie Smith, (center) and John Carlos (right) showing the raised fist on the podium after the 200m in the 1968 Olympics, wearing Olympic Project for Human Rights badges. Peter Norman from Australia (left).

I firmly believe that this story, in all its variations, must be retold to remind us, generation after generation, of that which is so easy to forget, that we owe a debt to those that dare to spell the truth when lies are more convenient, protect the weak and stand up for what is right despite the consequences for their own safety.

We must repay the debt by telling the story again, in the hope that it will inspire us and others to sometime, somewhere, do what is right. The story will also remind us that the knights do not always wear shiny suits of armour, silence can be the worst of evils and that seemingly ordinary humans can be the cruellest monsters.  There are certainly many examples of injustice where those lessons are badly needed. Unfortunately, I am convinced that there will be even more in the years to come.

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