Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Violence and silence

We lift up our prayer against the odds
And fear the silence is the voice of God
Of God. Of God.

- Emmylou Harris, "The Pearl"

Alfred Herrhausen (1930-1989)

Carolyn Emcke's Stumme Gewalt: Nachdenken uber die RAF [Mute Violence: Reflections on the RAF] (2008) is a long essay by the goddaughter of Alfred Herrhausen, the Vorstandssprecher (CEO) of Deutsche Bank. Herrhausen was killed by the Rote Armee Fraktion (RAF) in late 1989, nearly 20 years ago. His assassination was one of the group's last high-profile actions. The murder has never been solved.

(I started this before the news that Dr. George Tiller had been gunned down in his church by a Christian terrorist gave it an immediately relevance to today's current news.)

Emcke gives us the basic facts of the killing. But her essay is really about her own mourning and her desire to achieve a closure she has not yet been able to achieve. But the story is also about silence, about the burden created by the silence of others that leaves a lasting burden for the survivors of someone who is killed.

She talks about a recurring dream that she had in which she would be sitting down with the terrorists who were planning the act and discussing with them why they wanted to do it and trying to talk them out of it. And she builds on that image throughout the book, imagining what it would be like if she could just talk to those who killed her godfather, with whom she was very close. How it would be if such a conversation could take place without accusation or threat, but completely openly. If she could talk to those who planned and executed the act to just understand what they were thinking, what their reasoning was, what they think about their actions from the perspective of today.

She continues on to propose in all seriousness an amnesty for the remaining RAF activists so that they actually could come forward, voluntarily and without the tradeoff of amnesty for their willingness to speak. While she makes good arguments for the idea, she also realizes that it's likely to remain a fantasy. And she talks about why that is so. The state is understandably reluctant to set aside its laws against murder for specific cases, and Germany has no statute of limitations on murder. Even if a special arrangement were made for the RAF cases to take prosecution off the table, those involved with the killing would still have powerful reasons to avoid speaking about it. They may have spouses and children who they don't want to know about that aspect of their past. Even if an individual wanted to talk themselves, they might have to betray others that were involved in doing so.

Another set of secrets have to do with the the East German (DDR) and West German (BRD) governments. The RAF was not directed by the DDR. But the DDR did provide them significant support from the start, including free passage through the DDR (and other countries of the "socialist bloc"), refuge and new identities during the 1980s for several members who had burned out on the underground terrorist life, and some direct military training. (Palestinian guerrilla groups also provided some training for the RAF.) A lot of the history of the RAF and the DDR is known. Other parts of it would be either "known unknowns" or "unknown unknown", to use Rummy's famous terms. The recent revelation that the policeman was the shooter in the killing of a demonstrator in West Berlin in 1967 - June 2, so today is the 42nd anniversary - is a reminder that there are still DDR secrets to be revealed.

I can't pretend to be able to give Emcke's specific proposal for an RAF amnesty dispassionate consideration because I'm so stunned at the willingness of our media and political establishments - sadly, of both parties - to like torturers from the Cheney-Bush administration skate without enforcing the law on the perpetrators. Torture actually is a distinct category of law from murder. But I find it hard to imagine how it can be a good idea in the end to indemnify people for murder. As a practical matter, this sometimes has to be done in civil war situations. And Emcke does reference "transitional justice" concepts in arguing for the kind of amnesty she proposes. But I'm not convinced, not least because in the case of the RAF, only they and a small handful of supporters through they were in a civil war in 1989, if even they did. And with a massive peaceful revolution under way at that moment in the DDR and other Soviet bloc countries, it's hard to see how the RAF's situation at that moment can be compared those in a civil war.

But she makes a moving statement on the effect of those unknowns, that thick and heavy silence, on the survivors of victims of terrorism.

Another part of Emmy's "The Pearl" seems appropriate for a conclusion:

It is the heart that kills us in the end
Just one more poor broken bone that cannot mend
As it was now and ever shall be, Amen.
Amen. Amen.

And here's a video of her performing the entire song, along with Buddy Miller, Patty Cayamo and Shawn Colvin:

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"It is the logic of our times
No subject for immortal verse
That we who lived by honest dreams
Defend the bad against the worse."

-- Cecil Day-Lewis from Where Are The War Poets?


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