Sunday, January 18, 2009

And then they came for him

"... there is now a widespread tendency to argue that one can only defend democracy by totalitarian methods ... These people don’t see that if you encourage totalitarian methods, the time may come when they will be used against you instead of for you. Make a habit of imprisoning Fascists without trial, and perhaps the process won’t stop at Fascists." - George Orwell, "The Freedom of the Press"

Lasantha Wickrematunge was a Sri Lankan journalist who had grown critical of the government's abuses of civil liberties and journalistic censorship in pursuit of putting a stop to the Tamil Tigers (the terrorist group that introduced the modern tactics of suicide bombing.) Anticipating that he would be killed for his dissent, he wrote his own obituary in advance. Demonstrating the on-going relevance of Orwell, The Economist notes

On the battlefield, the Tigers have nearly lost. Few neutrals can be sad about that. Alarmingly, however, Tiger methods—ruthless silencing of dissenting voices, insistence on fanatical loyalty—seem to be catching on. Spokesmen often justify the government’s murky behaviour by reference to the awfulness of the Tigers. But the outside world and Sri Lanka’s own citizens have the right to hold a democratically elected government to higher standards than a banned terrorist outfit. That demands a swift and decisive end to the impunity which those who menace and kill the government’s critics enjoy.
Wickrematunge's self-written obituary is titled "And then they came for me" and its profound message deserves a careful reading.

People often ask me why I take such risks and tell me it is a matter of time before I am bumped off. Of course I know that: it is inevitable. But if we do not speak out now, there will be no one left to speak for those who cannot, whether they be ethnic minorities, the disadvantaged or the persecuted. An example that has inspired me throughout my career in journalism has been that of the German theologian, Martin Niem”ller. In his youth he was an anti-Semite and an admirer of Hitler. As Nazism took hold in Germany, however, he saw Nazism for what it was: it was not just the Jews Hitler sought to extirpate, it was just about anyone with an alternate point of view. Niem”ller spoke out, and for his trouble was incarcerated in the Sachsenhausen and Dachau concentration camps from 1937 to 1945, and very nearly executed. While incarcerated, Niem”ller wrote a poem that, from the first time I read it in my teenage years, stuck hauntingly in my mind:

First they came for the Jews
and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for the Communists
and I did not speak out because I was not a Communist.
Then they came for the trade unionists
and I did not speak out because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for me
and there was no one left to speak out for me.

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