Power corrupts

Geneva, day 2; and we woke to find leaden skies and persistent rain. But no matter; we had a plan: visit the European headquarters of the United Nations, only a short tram ride from our hotel.

We alighted at the Place des Nations and weren’t sure where to go from there but a large building at the end of an avenue of flags looked promising; and the words – United Nations – emblazoned on the surrounding wall near a security checkpoint encouraged us to head in that direction. There was a sign at the entrance and I had only just stopped to read it when I heard a loud, angry voice behind me shout: “Get the fuck outa my way”. I turned to see a man forging his way towards the entrance and since there was no one else in the vicinity, I could only assume that he had meant me.

Now, his outburst was inappropriate for a couple of reasons. First of all, there was still plenty of room for him to get to the entrance, as demonstrated by the fact that he passed me without the need for me to move or him to make physical contact with me. Secondly, even if I had not been there, the sign I was reading was, and no amount of his threatening would have moved it. But more importantly, this was the European headquarters of the United Nations, for goodness sake: the place where people are supposed to work together to resolve their conflicts and solve their problems.

I was seething. As someone whose native country’s motto is formally translated as “No one assails with me impunity”, the man’s outburst, apparently directed at me, was difficult to shrug off. But since the man had already swiped his way into the secure compound, there was little I could do but to shout after him feebly: “Don’t you dare talk to me like that” – a pointless threat in retrospect, since he was already beyond my reach. I had been nothing more than an impediment in his path and having successfully negotiated that impediment, I was of no further consequence to him. He had already moved on, presumably to fight new battles.

One of the security guards in the booth alongside the gate asked, through a microphone, if he could help me and explained that we would like to visit the Palais des Nations. He explained, politely, that we needed to use the main entrance, 500 metres to the right, directly opposite the headquarters of the Red Cross. So we set off, following his directions and found the entrance exactly as he had described it. But all along the road, I could feel my blood boiling; and I could think of nothing but gaining entry to the UN building, seeking out the man who had provoked me, and confronting him. I didn’t know his name. But I knew I would recognise him if I saw him: around 6ft tall; mid to late fifties; dark hair, turning grey, not cut short, and with waves; wearing a fawn-coloured suit; and from his accent, definitely American, probably east coast; and a baritone.

When we reached the visitors’ entrance, there was already a queue of people waiting to go through the security scanning and identity checks. It was a slow process but the officers on duty were friendly and patient with the diversity of languages by which they were confronted. Then we were directed downstairs where a young woman was taking payments for the guided tour. She was cheerful and helpful; making sure that each visitor knew where to go from there and what to do; and taking pains to ensure that visitors were directed to tours in a language that was appropriate for them. And finally, we reached the building where the tours began and were greeted by two young men who were both charming and patient in their efforts to ensure that everyone knew what was going to happen, when it was going to happen, and what we could do to make ourselves comfortable until our tour began.

But despite all this civility, I was still harbouring a desire for justice. I was still on the lookout for the tall, middle-aged man in the fawn suit.

When the time came for our tour to begin, one of the young men who had welcomed us to this particular building, stepped forward and asked us to gather round. He was Spanish; but his English was impeccable. He was personable and amiable; and as I said before, charming. Over the next hour, he spoke with faultless authority of the history of the UN, the aims of the organisation, its organisational structure and its sources of finance; and whilst he had clearly told this story many times before, he delivered it in a way that was as fresh as though he were telling it for the first time. He took us to some of the key conference halls and explained how they functioned; elaborated on some of the more noteworthy pieces of art on display along the way; and gave us insight into the significant features of the architecture and furnishings of the complex. There was a lot to take in; and the tour was conducted with all the urgency one would hope to find in an organisation with such important agendas; but the hour passed in what seemed like an instant and he delivered us to the starting point, informed and intact.

My sole disappointment in the tour was that I had not, in the course of it, unearthed the man who was rude to me at the gate. Despite the fact that everyone else I subsequently encountered had behaved in a congenial and welcoming way, that one belligerent oaf had coloured my view and I was still struggling to get past it. On the tour, our guide had pointed out a sculpture in the forecourt. In its original form it had been coated in gold and it had rotated to align with the celestial constellations it portrayed. But time and the ravages of Geneva winters had worn the gold off and the machinery had rusted so that the sculpture no longer moved. In my now prejudiced view, I interpreted this as a metaphor for the UN itself: its luster had worn off and its machinery had grown rusty and seized up. Now, it only existed as a decoration, providing no practical function.

Later on the tour, although not part of the tour, I spotted a couple of peacocks, sheltering from the rain by one of the windows; and I thought of how many more peacocks might be found at the UN; individuals who were so filled with their own importance that those they considered lesser than themselves must stand aside to let them pass unhindered on their crucial missions.

Reluctantly, I left the UN complex, informed but unfulfilled and we made our way back to the Place des Nations, past the statue of Gandhi who probably wouldn’t have harboured the enmity that I was still harbouring. At the gate, where the incident with the rude man had taken place, I asked the policeman if it would be okay if I took a photograph of the avenue of flags and he very courteously told me that I could, so long as I stayed outside the fence. So, I did.

And it wasn’t until much later in the day, once my sense of grievance had finally subsided, that I realised that what I had experienced was a mere shadow of the many issues that the UN staff have to deal with on a daily basis – petty squabbles with the potential to escalate into major conflicts. It would have been wrong of me to judge the UN on the basis of that one, unsavoury encounter; just as it would have been wrong of me to judge Americans harshly because of the rudeness of one of their compatriots. But if we judge on the basis of our experiences and  if the only member of the UN I’d met that day was the rude man; and if the only American I had ever met was that same rude man; how could I not have judged those groups unfavourably. Whether we like it or not, whether we accept it or not, we are all ambassadors for the constituencies we represent to the world: our age group; our gender; our socio-economic status; our system of beliefs; our race; the country to which we belong; and so on.  And if we behave oafishly, it hurts all other members of the constituencies we represent.

By the end of the day, the rain had subsided and so had my sense of grievance. I was ready to move on, to leave Geneva with a balance of happy memories. But as the sage Lao Tsu said in the Tao Te Ching, “What has been said, cannot be unsaid;” and I still think it would have been better if the rude man had stifled his impatience and taken one small step to the left.


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