(MR Zine, 10 January 2015)
Monday evening I had planned to write about the PEGIDA movement in Germany. Although in Dresden, their city of origin, the number of bitter marchers protesting the “Islamization” of the West had increased stubbornly to 18,000, I began to report happily that everywhere else in Germany they had been greatly outnumbered. In Berlin, only 300 turned up — and turned tail in the face of 5,000 opposing them. Even politicians who had ignored them, castigated their opponents by speaking of “terrorists of the right and left,” or used code words to express similar anti-immigrant feelings (and win votes ) now opposed them almost in unison. Berlin city leaders followed the Dresden Opera House by turning off the lights on Brandenburg Gate in protest against the racists. Church leaders in Cologne did the same, plunging their giant cathedral into welcome darkness, while 400 marchers were halted by 10,000 opponents. Thus, except in Dresden, Monday marked a victory against the efforts to set one group against another — a triumph of those who called instead for friendship, togetherness, and a welcome to seekers of asylum and a new, decent life.
But then came Wednesday and Paris, with its atrocious murders at Charlie Hebdo. Like so many millions I was shocked and horror-stricken. But I was also frightened. Now the PEGIDA crowd would shout, “You see! We told you so!” Even before Wednesday polls had shown 57% of non-immigrant Germans mistrustful of Muslims. But only small numbers had gone on the virulent marches. How many would now join in with flags, crosses, and slogans? How many right-leaning leaders would once again find their raucous voices? And how could they now be counteracted? Would the tragic shots fired in the rue Nicolas-Appert echo menacingly down the Alleen and Strassen of Germany? How could we now put brakes to the locomotive of hatred, already rushing dangerously from one end of Europe to the other, spewing sparks for new conflagrations which could burn us all?
Oh, what character flaw impels me to always swim against the current? Even now, with so many people stricken and determined to oppose murderous Islamists and defend freedom of a critical press, why am I troubled by so many doubts? Must sharp, iconoclastic satire, bravely spiting the powers-that-be with sharp pens and sharp words, purposely insult deeply-felt religious beliefs? A convinced atheist all my life, I have no sympathy whatsoever for religious fanatics, be they Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Hindu, or Buddhist. Some of Charlie’s foes were my foes; I enjoy attacks on fanatics, whether in Tehran, Riyadh, West Jerusalem, or West Virginia. For centuries they have caused far too much misery in our world. But that bothersome little voice whispers that, as a journalist, I might not have caricatured Christians while they faced lions in Rome’s old Coliseum, or even the most backward-looking Jewish daveners during Hitler’s reign. Attacking ISIS is good. But lampooning the beliefs of so many Muslims in Europe who face daily discrimination in schools and jobs, with mosques and minarets often attacked — and some peaceful Muslims as well? Should satire be unfettered? Almost always, yes! But perhaps not always libel — or in ridiculing prophets and beliefs that still provide solace to so many? Bloody fanatics must be opposed. But Moses, Jesus, Buddha, and Muhammad are long dead. Attacking them may sometimes be courageous, but is it wise or good?
No such worries justify Kalashnikov attacks and cold-blooded murder — definitely not of artists, writers, satirists. And the world has certainly seen far too many limitations on freedom! But why must my memory, so weak on recent names, faces, or events, again remain so strong on things long past? And why insist repeatedly that not only Muslims or Islamists can be bloody?
Must I recall the uprising in France’s colony of Madagascar in 1947, whose people, dreaming of independence, naively hoping for US assistance, began their fight, armed mostly with spears? A well-armed French army of 30,000 men adopted “a strategy of terror and psychological warfare involving torture, collective punishment, the burning of villages, mass arrests, executions and rape. . . In Mananjary, hundreds were killed, among them 18 women and a group of prisoners thrown alive out of an airplane.” An official estimate of the number killed was 89,000, but counting those who fled into the forest and were believed dead, it was more likely over 100,000.
And press freedom? “The French media reported little on the event . . . Very few details of the rising and subsequent repression were reported . . . outside France.” On the 65th anniversary of the uprising in 2012, Madagascar’s prime minister requested that the French government declassify archival materials on the uprising. The request was not approved.
Why must I recall the French war in Indochina soon thereafter? And what about Algeria? In 1841, eleven years after its conquest, visiting historian Alexis de Tocqueville commented: “Whatever the case, we may say in a general manner that all political freedoms must be suspended in Algeria.”
His advice was followed. After World War II Algeria also wanted independence — and had to fight for it. In the Battle of Algiers in 1957 General Jacques Massu‘s paratroop division made use of its methods in Madagascar and Indochina, also against civilians, with illegal executions and forced disappearances, in particular through what would later become known as “death flights.” “Viewing Algerians as a sub-human race made the use of torture more agreeable, if not . . . enjoyable[,] for the torturer.” General Paul Aussaresses referred to Algerian fighters and sympathizers as “rats, criminals, rebels, militants, and fellaghas (bandits).” In his memoir he wrote of the “disappearances” of many prisoners: “Only rarely were the prisoners we had questioned during the night still alive the next morning.”
According to an article published in Vérité-Liberté in May 1961, the “questioning” during the night went like this
First, the officer questions the prisoner in the “traditional” manner, hitting him with fists and kicking him. Then follows torture: hanging . . . , water torture . . . , electricity . . . , burning (using cigarettes, etc.). . . Cases of prisoners who were driven insane were frequent. . . Between interrogation sessions, the suspects are imprisoned without food in cells, some of which were small enough to impede lying down. . . [S]ome of them were very young teenagers and others old men of 75, 80 years or more.
Henri Alleg, a Communist journalist and writer, disclosed that the French military even buried old men alive. He was himself tortured and described in horrifying detail the method now known as waterboarding and also electrical torture with hand generators.
And press freedom? With the government long denying any use of torture, more than 250 books, newspapers, and films in metropolitan France and 586 in Algeria were censored; Alleg’s factual book La Question and Jean-Luc Godard’s film Le Petit Soldat were forbidden by a Socialist government headed by Guy Mollet. No, then and now, press freedom can never be taken for granted.
The war with Algeria still raged in October 1961 during the “Paris massacre.” Under orders from Chief Maurice Papon, later convicted as a war criminal, French police attacked a demonstration of 30,000 Algerians. The results were horrifying: many died when they were violently herded by police into the river Seine, with some thrown from bridges after being beaten unconscious. Others were killed in the courtyard of police headquarters while senior officers ignored pleas by other policemen shocked at the brutality. 10,000 were arrested, estimates on those killed range from 70 to 200.
No, brutality is not somehow restricted to Islam or Muslims. Even my short-term memory and US nationality force me to remember Abu Zubaydah, father of four daughters, arrested in Pakistan in 2002 and in US custody for over twelve years. During that time he was water-boarded 83 times and subjected to forced nudity, sleep deprivation, confinement in small dark boxes, stress positions. After physical assaults he lost his left eye. Videotapes were destroyed, but we know that the waterboarding sessions “resulted in ‘immediate fluid intake and involuntary leg, chest and arm spasms’ and ‘hysterical pleas’.” In at least one such session, he “became ‘completely unresponsive, with bubbles rising through his open, full mouth’. After medical intervention he regained consciousness and ‘expelled copious amounts of liquid.'”
In 2006 he was transferred to Guantanamo’s Camp 7, where conditions were especially miserable. Then in 2007 the Combatant Status Review Tribunal told Zubaydah that he was not significant: “They told me, ‘Sorry, we discover that you are not Number 3, not a partner, not even a fighter’.”
Gul Rahman was arrested at his doctor’s home after traveling to Islamabad for a medical checkup. He, too, was subjected to “48 hours of sleep deprivation, auditory overload, total darkness, isolation, a cold shower and rough treatment.” Gul Rahman died on November 20, 2002, reportedly after being stripped naked from the waist down and shackled to a cold cement wall in the “Salt Pit” with 36° F/2° C temperatures.
As one CIA interrogator reported, “‘a detainee could go for days or weeks without anyone looking at him’ . . . [H]is team found one detainee who, ‘as far as we could determine’, had been chained to a wall in a standing position for 17 days’.” Some prisoners were said to be like dogs in kennels. In 2006, during a CIA briefing, even President George W. Bush expressed discomfort at the “image of a detainee, chained to the ceiling, clothed in a diaper, and forced to go to the bathroom on himself.” This man was chained with one or both wrists to an overhead bar for 22 hours on two consecutive days. His imprisonment was concealed from the Red Cross International Committee.
British attorney Clive Stafford Smith reported on as many as twenty teenagers imprisoned at Guantanamo, some in long-term, solitary confinement. One Afghan human rights worker asserted that one lad was only 12 or 13 when he was captured.
Such victims’ names are rarely known or quickly forgotten. Despite that highly valued Freedom of the Press. Again, I must recall how in July 2011 NATO planes (35% of them French) bombed the Libyan state TV station, killing three journalists and injuring fifteen. The International Federation of Journalists stated: “We utterly condemn this action, which targeted journalists and threatened their lives in violation of international law. . . . Our concern is that when one side decides to take out a media organization because they regard its message as propaganda, then all media are at risk.” For some like me, the action recalled April 1999 when a NATO plane destroyed the TV and radio station of Belgrade, killing sixteen Serbian Radio-TV of Serbia employees with one well-aimed rocket and calling it “a legitimate target” because it was a “propaganda mouthpiece.”
But the men of Charlie Hebdo were writers and creators, unique and irreplaceable. True, I feel certain. Does that not also apply to Charles Horman, US journalist and film-maker, killed during the US-backed putsch in Chile in 1973 (and made famous by the film Missing)? Or, on the same occasion, to the wonderful singer-songwriter Victor Jara? Or the Belgian-organized, US-supported torture and murder of Congolese poet and political leader Patrice Lumumba? Or of novelist and film-maker Ken Saro-Wiwa in Nigeria, hanged with the connivance of Shell Oil? Or the Palestinian Ghassan Kanafani, considered one of the greatest modern Arabic authors, whose car was booby-trapped by the Mossad in July 1972?
I cannot help thinking that there are far too many very bloody, extremely wealthy criminals at large in the world, whose actions are rarely reported on, unless marital or extra-marital. Action based on a true belief in press freedom can be mercilessly punished, as it was learned by Julian Assange, Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden — or Mumia Abu-Jamal!
What I now fear is a renewed misuse of the latest assassinations, encouraging mass feelings of revenge not just toward a few dead assassins or twisted religious beliefs, but toward anyone with a darker skin color and differences in language or clothing — hence away from the well-protected perpetrators of the most dangerous crimes, those worsening the very social conditions which breed fanaticism, and from their marionettes, who have career goals but no consciences and are already spouting their now hardly diluted poison, cashing in on inflaming hatred. The PEGIDA marchers in Germany now plan to wear mourning armbands for Charlie — and look for belated applause by leaders of the major parties.
What we need is the very opposite! We must work to close gaps, clasp hands, and work together for a better world. We dare not forget those countless bloody deeds recorded largely in dusty archives — and their urgent lessons! I may well join in with “Je suis Charlie!” but must add: “I am Gul Rahman! I am Abu Zubaydah! I am Charles Horman and Ken Saro-Wiwa! I am Ghassan Kanafani and Victor Jara!”
With this broader view we must call to people in Dresden and other German cities. They have not been guilty of any crimes or real violence. But my own background makes me remind them that one or the other of their grandfathers may have joined in shooting down the great Yiddish poet Mordechai Gebirtig in Krakow on “Bloody Thursday,” June 4, 1942. Today’s generation bear no blame for such deeds. But they will bear much of the blame if Gebirtig’s great poem and song needs to be shouted once again as a new warning and alarm: “Es brennt! Brothers, our town is burning!”
Victor Grossman, American journalist and author, is a resident of East Berlin for many years. He is the author of Crossing the River: A Memoir of the American Left, the Cold War, and Life in East Germany (University of Massachusetts Press, 2003).