This is the fourth installment on coercion, and torture. What I want to address here is a broader context, including atrocities that haunt us, seemingly without end. History is full of shameful chapters where we did it again, and again, and again.
I ended my third entry with the question “How to argue that there are forms of coercion that need to be banned in their entirety?”. This is where I begin to take it up today.
In my line of work, the phrase “Never Again” is meaning a lot, used quite often, triggering many memories. Some of those memories relate to direct experiences with atrocities that I have witnessed. Some of them relate to atrocities that have set the stage for my desire to contribute to peace operations. Some of these do deeply affect the corporate conscience of the United Nations, in places where we failed to prevent atrocities, such as in Rwanda, and in Bosnia&Herzegovina. The earliest memories of wishing that it shall never happen again relate to the history of my country, Germany, before I was born. The history of my country, and how I was told, and learned about it, has formed main parts of my conscience.
In an earlier blog post, I referred to an Op Ed in the New York Times, Dec. 9, 2014, by Eric Fair: “I Can’t Be Forgiven for Abu Ghraib1”. Eric Fair, an Army veteran, was a contract interrogator in Iraq in 2004. In 2014, he was a Professor for creative writing at Lehigh University. Parts of his Op Ed deal with his revealing to his students what he did, in Iraq. He tortured. His Op Ed for sure is stirring up a lot of emotions, and I can only imagine that many of them will be very controversial, especially by those who have suffered from torture trauma, either being victims, or perpetrators (they too become victims, later on, may be even those with strong sociopathic traits2). Eric Fair ends the Op Ed with the following sentences: “In some future college classroom, a professor will require her students to read about the things this country did in the early years of the 21st century. She’ll assign portions of the Senate torture report. There will be blank stares and apathetic yawns. There will be essays and writing assignments. The students will come to know that this country isn’t always something to be proud of.”
Not even scratching the surface of the never ending row of atrocities in mankind’s history, how does “Never Again” work if we seem to constantly forget, and/or seem not to be able to abstain, even given the overwhelming testimony of what we are able to do to our brothers and sisters if we allow ourselves running unleashed?
What possible comfort can be drawn from a catch phrase that we so notoriously use, use it again, or may even use it for other situations whilst we stained our conscience ourselves?
Should we give that intent up?
For the record, I am not arguing this. I hear this sometimes, and in a more depressing mood this question can occur to me, too. Recently, I read an essay in “Harper’s Magazine3”, titled “Against Human Rights”, by Eric A. Posner, a professor at the University of Chicago Law School. This essay is so upsetting that I may dissect it at a later opportunity. It serves as an example for the, in my view, most dangerous rationale that would suggest that, because standing up for Human Rights allegedly did not work (which is untrue), the concept itself might be outdated (which is devilish).
As a child, and as a young adult, I believed in the notion that thousands of years of civilization had a cumulative effect, that somehow this effect would lead to a thicker cultural skin, that atrocities were less likely to happen, taking into account some societal learning. I may be excused for that naivety. I was a growing up teenager in a country that had not experienced war ever during my lifetime, had not participated in one. Neither I was confronted with actual atrocities we were committing, none that we had to actually suffer from. That all was part of a past long gone. During the 1970’s my political conscience began to grow. As a people, we were acutely conscious of the atrocities of the Holocaust that we had committed a few decades ago. This led to generations of young German citizens who had no direct experience with war, with killing, with torture, sadism, genocide.
The generations to which I relate, we grew up with a lot of guilt, and shame, for what our forefathers did. This type of German conscience was, and is, strong in saying “Never Again”. This is true until today, and it took me a very long time, and my direct exposition to the Hell that Mankind can create on Earth after I began to work in peace operations, to relate to why it is so incredibly important to uphold the call for “Never Again”. I can only speak for my generations, and I can only explain the context from what I experienced, and continue to experience, in some of the most brutal conflicts of today’s World. Whether there is a different conscience in younger people in Germany, very much along the lines of Eric Fair’s question at the end of his Op-Ed, I don’t exactly know.
However, this is precisely what Eric Fair is referring to: How can one ensure a remaining understanding, being part of a societal and individual conscience, that certain acts are acts of Hell on Earth, and that there simply shall not be any tolerance for them, justification of them, or committing them?
April 07, 2004 I attended a town hall meeting of the United Nations in Pristina, Kosovo. On this day, the United Nations commemorates the genocide that happened 1994 in Rwanda. Throughout approximately 100 days, Hutu extremists killed an estimated 500,000 to one million Tutsi and moderate Hutu.4”, as a consequence of a brutal, systematic, well organized genocide. For comprehensive reading, I recommend Lt. Gen. Romeo Daillaire, “Shake Hands With The Devil5”.
This April 07 in 2004 was a very special day for me: I was the Police Commissioner in charge of 4.500 international police officers and 6.500 Kosovo Police Service officers, within the United Nations Interim Mission in Kosovo. A little more than two weeks earlier, we had fought off three days of massive violence in Kosovo. There had been civil unrest on which some ring leaders had hooked up, deciding that it was now the time to drive the Serb minority population out of Kosovo. It was an attempted ethnic cleansing happening under the eyes of the United Nations and NATO. Together with our military NATO colleagues, my police officers and I engaged in fighting this off. Long story short, I claim that we succeeded. However, at the end of these three days we mourned killed and injured civilians, injured police officers and soldiers, a large new number of internally displaced persons, and the demolition of cultural Serb Orthodox heritage and uncounted Kosovo-Serb houses.
We were tired, shocked, recovering, regrouping. Within this deeply emotional phase, on April 07 we watched documentary about the Rwanda genocide. After watching this movie, the Principal Deputy of the Special Representative of the UN Secretary General, my friend Charles Brayshaw, was supposed to address us, assembled commemorating this genocide. He began with stating “Never Again”. As he wanted to continue his speech, his voice broke, tears were all over his face. He stopped, just with these two words. Because this is what we had lived up for during these three nightmare days. We had prevented it.
Yesterday, I walked the streets of Manhattan, on my way to a bookstore. It was cold, dark, a mixture of slush and rain was attempting to penetrate my coat. I thought about that I am growing 57 this month. I asked myself: “What is it that I want to see staying beyond? What will be the result of my contribution, when I die?”
All of a sudden I saw it: It’s not an accumulation of more. It’s about keeping the flame lit, to be a part of those who carry it.
There may be a future in which we will be able to fully commit to “Never Again”. But whether that is so, and when, we don’t know yet. However, one thing is clear: Until it will never happen again, it is about “Never Forget”.
That is why Eric Posner is wrong: The effects of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights may be disappointing, or not. I humbly disagree, but even more, abandoning them creates Hell on Earth. If we deprive people from inalienable human rights just because they have done this to us, we do not only enter into the “An Eye for an Eye” age again.
Rather, we allow the Doors of Armageddon to open.
2 As one of the most vivid examples for that even individuals with obviously strong sociopaths traits can be overwhelmed by a “gollum-like” recognition of what they have become, once their denial is broken up, watch the amazing documentary “The Act of Killing”. But beware, this goes under your skin! From the synopsis on the website http://theactofkilling.com: “…When the government of Indonesia was overthrown by the military in 1965, Anwar and his friends were promoted from small-time gangsters … to death squad leaders. They helped the army kill more than one million alleged communists, ethnic Chinese, and intellectuals in less than a year. As the executioner for the most notorious death squad in his city, Anwar himself killed hundreds of people with his own hands.
Today, Anwar is revered as a founding father of a right-wing paramilitary organization that grew out of the death squads. The organization is so powerful that its leaders include government ministers, and they are happy to boast about everything from corruption and election rigging to acts of genocide.
…Unlike ageing Nazis or Rwandan génocidaires, Anwar and his friends have not been forced by history to admit they participated in crimes against humanity. Instead, they have written their own triumphant history, becoming role models for millions of young paramilitaries. The Act of Killing is a journey into the memories and imaginations of the perpetrators, offering insight into the minds of mass killers. And The Act of Killing is a nightmarish vision of a frighteningly banal culture of impunity in which killers can joke about crimes against humanity on television chat shows, and celebrate moral disaster with the ease and grace of a soft shoe dance number.
3 Harper’s Magazine, Vol. 329, No. 1973, October 2014; http://www.harpers.org; Harper’s Magazine Foundation, 666 Broadway, New York, USA
5 ISBN 0 09 947893 5