Just cogs in the machine – turning a blind eye to horror


Bodies carried ashore from boat tragedy

Hedy Bohm is 86. When she was just 16 she was transported to Auschwitz from her home in Romania. The experience has haunted her life. But she is a survivor, and this week she travelled to Germany to give evidence at the trial of Oskar Gröning.

He too says his life has been haunted by what he witnessed in the Nazi concentration camp. Gröning is a survivor too; but he was wearing an SS uniform, not a grubby uniform with a yellow star.

Oskar Gröning was one of 6,500 SS men in Auschwitz: 43 have been charged with offences, and only 25 have been convicted. It is a pretty sorry record.

Hedy is hoping to see Gröning behind bars. It was his job to take luggage from the Jews, Roma, homosexuals and other men and women branded ‘degenerate’ by the Nazis. Having lost their liberty, they were then deprived of the last few things they treasured.

Imagine what would have been in those suitcases: imagine you were forced to flee your home. What would you take? And what would you leave behind? That will not be much of a stretch of the imagination for some. Within recent history there were refugees in Belfast, and we are living still with the consequences of that mass movement of people.

In his defence, Gröning says he was just “a small cog in the machine”. And maybe he was. But more than a million people died in Auschwitz – he is charged with complicity in the deaths of 300,000 – and there is not much time left to bring the perpetrators to justice.

Hedy Bohm knows what she thinks of his excuse. “Whether you’re a bookkeeper, a supplier, a driver, a cook, whatever you are, if what you’re doing helps the machinery of death of a regime to keep rolling, you should be called to account. No one should ever be allowed to say ‘I was just a small cog in the machine’.”

There is nothing to compare what happened in Germany with what is happening on the seas between Africa and Europe. But there are parallels, and the scale of human suffering is truly horrifying. Not a week goes by without some tragedy.

Refugees, asylum seekers, and economic migrants are the labels we put on the victims in an attempt to distance ourselves from the reality that they are men, women and children – no different from ourselves.

And through the indifference of governments that we elect, they have been exploited by traffickers who herd them on to ships unfit for animals.

Europe has turned a blind eye to their plight – primarily because we do not want them to be a ‘drain’ on our resources. The British and Irish governments are complicit.

Indeed, the machinery of European states has been mobilized to repel those who are trying to come to our shores for safety. It is the equivalent of relieving pressure on the NHS by telling the police to stop sick people reaching hospital.

Last year, Europe closed its search and rescue mission on the pretext that it encouraged people to have a go at crossing the Mediterranean.

The International Organization for Migration believes 30,000 could lose their lives there this year – the number trying to cross is growing. Last year more than 3,000 deaths were recorded. The 800 who died in the sinking on Sunday – many locked below deck – brought this year’s total to almost 2,000.

One of the few world leaders to speak out on behalf of the victims is Pope Francis. This week he called on European governments to provide sanctuary for the victims, to stop the traffickers, and to deal with the underlying issues that have created the crisis in the first place – war, greed, power politics, and poverty.

His has been a lone voice since the early weeks of his pontificate. His first pastoral visit after his election was to the Italian island of Lamperdusa – just 80 miles off the coast of Tunisia – where he prayed for the victims of traffickers and called on governments to act.

Condemning the “global indifference” to the plight of refugees, he said we had lost our sense of “brotherly responsibility”. His words have fallen on deaf ears. But they apply to us all.

In one way or another, we are each a “small cog in the machine”. It is time to act. It is time to pressurize our governments to put the lives of vulnerable people above national self-interest.

  • This article appeared in The Irish News on Friday April 24 2015

One of their own: the tragedy of Karen Buckley


Karen Buckley: shock at her killing

It is one of those stories that stops people in their tracks. When the reporter said Karen Buckley’s body had been found, the living room went silent. The news was listened to with shock – for all that it was expected.

Every parent who kisses a child goodbye as they head out for the night, or to a sleepover, or off to college suppresses the thought that they might not come back. It is a fear all parents have to live with, even if it is one that rarely is realised.

But every so often the nightmare becomes reality.

The sympathy for John and Marian Buckley is so intense and so widespread, because every parent knows it could have been them.

Our teenage daughter is still at the stage where she is chaperoned to gigs. This week she asked to go into Glasgow with her friends on Saturday – it’s about 25 miles from where we live. Our evening was devoted to an analysis of the rights and wrongs. The anguished discussion would have made an expert in risk management proud.

It’s during the day. She will be with people. They are sensible. The risk is minimal. But you could say exactly the same things about a 24-year-old going out to a nightclub.

Like Belfast, Glasgow is a young person’s city. There are more than 45,000 university students, and countless more at college. By and large, students work hard, no wonder they love an excuse to party.

Karen was studying for a masters degree. It’s intensive work. If she’d asked – and at 24 she didn’t have to – John and Marian would have said: ‘Go out, enjoy yourself’. They would have suppressed the fear, because we all know that if you allow your life to be determined by fear, it will not be a life at all.

A man is in court tomorrow. In time there will be an opportunity to point the finger of blame and to condemn. Now is the time to mourn.

The Buckleys are in grief, and deserve the space they have asked for. Their grief will be lessened not one jot by the knowledge that it is shared across Ireland, and in Scotland too.

This is a country that values young people, and welcomes those who come here to study; a country which prayed for her safe return; a country that feels her loss intensely.

As far as the Scots are concerned, Karen was one of their own. That is how she will be remembered.

  • This article first appeared in The Irish News on April 17 2015. Karen Buckley was a student from Cork, studying at Glasgow Caledonian University. He body was found on April 16, she had been missing since the weekend. A 21-year-old man Alexander Pacteau has been charged with her murder

Obama handshake ties up Kennedy loose ends

Americas Summit

Barak Obama and Raul Castro at the Summit of the Americas

A handshake and four simple words – “those days are past” – signalled a new era of diplomacy between the United States of America and Latin America. The handshake between presidents Barack Obama and Raul Castro at the opening of the Summit of the Americas was the not the first (the two met at Nelson Mandela’s funeral), but it is certainly the most significant.

There is still a long way to go before US-Cuba relations are truly normal, with mutual suspicion and anger still running high. But the pressure to make the thaw work is greater and the diplomatic rebuilding is genuinely underway at last.

Cuba’s isolation is an anachronism, sustained more by the internal politics of the US (Florida in particular) than global politics. It is a loose end left by history – and it is rather satisfying to see a Democratic president tying up one left by another.

John F Kennedy’s presidency was defined by Cuba, first in the botched Bay of Pigs invasion, then in the stand-off with Khrushchev in the Cuban missile crisis.

Global crisis

The extent to which the crisis had transfixed America’s western allies is perhaps best illustrated in the memoirs of a prominent British observer, the Guardian editor of the time, Alastair Hetherington, which are held in the archive of the London School of Economics.

Britain, like the rest of the world, was a bit player during the missile crisis. As Peter Thorneycroft, Harold Macmillan’s defence minister, said: “We were all bystanders.” Macmillan offered support and a shoulder to cry on, but Kennedy was circumspect; this was the United States’ game. Britain may have had a special relationship, but like the rest of the world, Kennedy let Macmillan’s government know only what he wanted it to know.

The Guardian, which had opposed Eden on Suez, was just as concerned about the United States’ intentions against Cuba and opposed direct action. Hetherington, a former major in the Intelligence Corps, had been scarred by the reaction to his newspapers’s opposition to Suez and, as US-Cuba relations deteriorated ever further, he saw history repeating itself, but with much more serious – and more global – consequences.

A Guardian editorial on October 27 1962 addressed the issue of a possible attack on Cuba:

Is the United States about to bomb or invade Cuba? This is now the question. Worse, there is even talk of a possible nuclear attack on Cuba. This is reliably reported as under consideration because the authorities in Washington are so troubled by the rapid approach to readiness of the intermediate range bases on the island. It would be madness.

An American attack on Cuba, he wrote: “would seem to most of the world to be as much a piece of aggression as the British and French attack on Suez.”

The October 27 Guardian leader told Macmillan: “The British Government should make it clear that it must vote against the United States in the United Nations just as the Americans voted against us at Suez.”

Fraught relationship: Nikita Kruschev and John F Kennedy in 1961.
US Department of State, CC BY

Six weeks later, Hetherington met Kennedy in his study in the White House. The president talked for 40 minutes from his rocking chair. Hetherington’s note of their discussions, held in the archive of the London School of Economics, gives an insight into the mind of an editor whose views had been proved wrong by events, and a president who felt his allies had let him down.

On the brink

In the retained memo, Hetherington writes:

I began by saying I thought we ought to apologise for some of the things we’d said – for our misjudgements – at the time of the Cuban crisis. We’d been critical because we thought Kennedy was walking into a trap. We thought that the Russian objective was to establish the missile bases in Cuba as a bargaining counter against which they would try to trade all the American bases in western Europe and Britain. We also thought that the reaction would come with a new blockade of Berlin to balance the blockade of Cuba.

The president was magnanimous: “Kennedy laughed off the apology, and said that perhaps our analysis hadn’t been so far out. But there had been a bit of difficulty with the British press. He hadn’t had the backing he’d expected.”

As Hetherington records it, Kennedy said there were three things about Cuba. There was “deliberate bad faith” on the Russian side. Khrushchev had given “a personal assurance to Kennedy that there would be no offensive missiles in Cuba”.

Fidel Castro and Nikita Kruschev in 1961.
Superdominicano via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY

If the US had given in, its allies would have doubted its willingness to defend them in any future crisis. “This, the president said, was more important than the military effect of the missiles in Cuba… The Russians had brought about an open alteration in the balance of nuclear power. This had to be resisted.”

Kennedy told Hetherington: “Our intelligence had said that the Russians would never put offending missiles in Cuba. They would be too exposed… but their intelligence had obviously told Khrushchev that the Americans would not react.”

The most frightening thing about the crisis was just how far the two sides were from understanding each other. Hetherington writes: “Such misunderstanding could easily lead to nuclear war. This was what [Kennedy] found most frightening about the Cuba affair.”

In a statement Kennedy was fated never to see tested, he gave Hetherington his assessment of the likelihood of nuclear conflict: “How, he asked, can we get through the next ten years without nuclear war? He was not sure that we could do so.”

Asked whether there would be more progress on talks to ease tensions, Kennedy said he thought not. “It wasn’t possible to take their word for anything,” he said of the Russians.

The president then proceeded to lecture the editor on his editorial stance. “He thought the greatest flaw in what The Guardian had been writing was our failure to realise that the Russians were expansionist.”

He was dismissive about the need for a European nuclear deterrent. It would be too costly and the issue of political control was too complicated. “The bomb is great until you’ve got it,” Kennedy told Hetherington. National deterrents such as Britian and France’s, in his view, were unnecessary and dangerous.

Latin lessons

Kennedy told Hetherington that America would welcome economic competition with the Russians: “It was a challenge that the Americans would like to meet,” Hetherington reported.

Kennedy’s view was apparently that if the two powers competed economically rather than militarily, the world could benefit. In an exchange that resonates with the agenda for the 2015 Summit of the Americas, Kennedy talked Hetherington through the challenges facing Latin American states:

Kennedy said that yesterday he had been entertaining the president of Honduras, 60% of whose people were illiterate. The day before he had had a long talk with the ambassador of Brazil, where the country was almost bankrupt, and the day before that he had seen another Latin American ambassador, half of whose people were either undernourished or near starvation.

It would be much more profitable if the Russians and the Americans competed in trying to raise standards in these countries. But unfortunately the Soviet Union was not prepared for this kind of peaceful competition. It had the urge to expand.

We live in a different world today. Instead of gauging a president’s attitude to nuclear war, The Guardian is reporting on the beginnings of a real Cuban-American thaw.

The Castros still bear intense antipathy towards Washington and its machinations and it will be a while before an American president goes walkabout on the streets of Havana. But as relations between the two nations start to normalise, with an inevitable exchange of ambassadors, it might not be too long before some fine cigars are at last on their way to the White House in diplomatic bags.

The Conversation

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Strange Fruit and lynch mob justice in the USA


Lady Sings the Blues: Billie Holiday

Some voices are so compelling you just have to stop and listen. The American jazz singer Billie Holiday has such a voice.

Lady Day, as she became known, was a survivor. By the time she was 15 she had endured poverty, prostitution and prison, and you can hear it in her voice. It is the voice of a woman who has endured and lived to tell the tale. Many like her did not. One of her most famous songs is Strange Fruit. It’s not subtle.

Southern trees bear strange fruit,

Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,

Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze,

Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.

Into the 1960s, lynchings were all too familiar; about 4,000 have been recorded but many extrajudicial murders remain unrecorded. Whites were targeted by lynch mobs too, but African Americans bore the brunt.

As for the judiciary, it also too often believed being black was enough to prove guilt. Justice may be blind, but in the United States of America it was never blind to the colour of a person’s skin.

Historical stuff? Yes, America has been transformed, equal rights is embedded in law and an African American is in the White House. Yet earlier this week I listened to a remarkable interview given by Anthony Ray Hinton. Exonerated this week, Mr Hinton spent half his life in solitary confinement in Alabama, sentenced to death for a crime he did not commit. And yes, he is black.

The thing that pained him most was the injustice done to his mother. Denied the company of her son, she died while he was still behind bars. His priority on getting out was to lay flowers on her grave.

Miscarriages of justice happen – we have seen our share on this side of the Atlantic. But in a country where the death penalty is administered with psychopathic fervour, the wrong verdict is often a matter of life and death.

There are too many examples of injustice. Since 1973, 152 people been freed after being cleared of capital crimes.

The Alabama administration’s slogan is “connecting our state with its people”. It’s website invites us to explore the great outdoors. “It’s not called Alabama the beautiful for nothing”. But behind the slick marketing lies a sick regime that uses lethal injection and electrocution to dispatch those it deems unfit to “explore the great outdoors”.

The statistics are chilling. Alabama has more than 190 people on death row, and in the US more than 3,000 citizens are waiting for the executioner’s call. Since the death penalty was reintroduced in 1976, more than 1,300 have been executed. Hanging is too good for some. Electrocution, lethal injection, and the firing squad are all deployed.

The US obsession with the death penalty is wildly at odds with the Enlightenment spirit of its founding fathers. They proclaimed their independence with the words: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Injustice after injustice demonstrates these “unalienable rights” are for the chosen – and they are white.

Racial discrimination is a distinctive feature of the US justice system. According to the Equal Justice Initiative, more than half those on death row are people of colour – more than four in 10 are African Americans.

And a defendant is more likely to get the death penalty if the victim is white.

In Alabama, 65 per cent of murders involve black victims, yet 80 per cent of people on death row have been convicted of crimes in which the victims were white. The judiciary is overwhelmingly white. Only one district attorney is black, and 23 capital cases have been overturned because prosecutors were found to have excluded blacks from juries.

I listened to Mr Hinton with sympathy, but no real surprise. Later that day, when I heard Holiday singing Strange Fruit on the radio, I made the connection and fully appreciated the scale of the injustice done to him. Nothing much has changed. He was lucky to escape with his life.

While the US continues to use capital punishment, and until it addresses the racism in its judicial system, it cannot claim to be leader of the free world; and Obama’s two-term presidency will look like a hollow act of tokenism.

“Blood on the leaves, and blood on the root”, strange fruit indeed.

  • This article first appeared in The Irish News on April 10 2015