The Anniversary of Porajmos

On this day in 1943, Heinrich Himmler—one of the most powerful Nazi leaders, and the main architect of the Holocaust—ordered that people of full or part Romani ancestry (a.k.a. gypsies) were to be put “on the same level as Jews and placed in concentration camps”.

Thus began the systematic extermination of Romani people all over Europe, resulting in 220,000 to 500,000 deaths—a quarter to nearly half the total population—though some figures put the death toll as high as 1.5 million. This event is sometimes known as the “Porajmos”, meaning “the Devouring”.

Himmler’s order was the culmination of the racist Nuremberg Laws of 1935, which classified Gypsies, like Jews, as “enemies of the race-based state”, ripping away their German citizenship accordingly. It also reflected centuries of hatred and antipathy towards the Romani.

Better known as Gypsies—after Egypt, which was believed to be their origin—the Romani or Roma people (to use their proper name) actually arrived in Europe and the Middle East from northern India over a millennium ago; many still retain some Hindu beliefs, customs, and symbolism, and speak a language related to Hindi. (Moreover, tens of millions of Indians maintain a similar nomadic lifestyle.)

Like the Jews, the Romani were regarded as an alien race, inherently strange, untrustworthy, degenerate, and devious. In some of the earliest records, they are described as satanically inspired wizards—hence the trope of the Gypsy curse or fortune teller. Depending on the time and place—or whether people needed a scapegoat—the Romani were either grudgingly tolerated, or chased out and killed. They were often subject to similar discriminatory laws and treatment, including enslavement, forced assimilation, separation from their children, and pogroms. They were banned from immigrating to the U.S., Argentina, and other settler countries. There is even a term for hatred towards them that is equivalent to anti-Semitism: Antiziganism.

Thus, as with the Jews, the Nazis simply tapped into a long-existing prejudice that was widespread and deeply rooted throughout Europe, which is why so many Europeans collaborated in rounding up, imprisoning, and killing them. It is believed part of the impetus for their mass targeting was the heavy resistance they posed to Nazi occupiers, especially as nomadic peoples who were often not well documented in national census data.

Unfortunately, it was their widespread invisibility that partly explains why Romani remain relatively forgotten, despite being one of the Nazi’s biggest targets. Overall records of their population before the Holocaust are sparse or unreliable, and after the war few gave them any mind; West Germany did not recognize them as victims of the Holocaust until 1982. Some scholars also attribute this to Romani culture, which is “traditionally not disposed to keeping alive the terrible memories from their history—nostalgia is a luxury for others”. Others blame the effects of pervasive illiteracy, the lack of social institutions, and rampant discrimination to this day, which has deprived the Romani of “national consciousness” and historical memory.

Pictured are Romani people being round up by German police in 1940; most were likely still detained, and thus later killed, following Himmler’s order.

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America’s Uniquely Bad Gun Problem

Whatever your view on guns, the causes of gun violence, and the best solutions, we should all agree that the data are overwhelmingly clear: for one reason or another (likely multiple reasons) the U.S. has an unusually high rate of violent gun deaths (which doesn’t include accidents and suicide, as these tend to inflate the figures).

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Note that even countries that are poorer and more unstable have fewer gun deaths than the U.S., including those with vast black markets or active gangs or militias. As NPR  reports:

When you consider countries with the top indicators of socioeconomic success — income per person and average education level, for instance — the United States is bested by just 18 nations, including Denmark, the Netherlands, Canada and Japan.

Those countries all also enjoy low rates of gun violence. But the U.S. has the 28th-highest rate in the world: 4.43 deaths due to gun violence per 100,000 people in 2017. That was nine times as high as the rate in Canada, which had 0.47 deaths per 100,000 people — and 29 times as high as in Denmark, which had 0.15 deaths per 100,000.

The numbers come from a massive database maintained by the University’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, which tracks lives lost in every country, in every year, by every possible cause of death. The 2017 figures paint a fairly rosy picture for much of the world, with deaths due to gun violence rare even in many countries that are extremely poor — such as Bangladesh, which saw 0.07 deaths per 100,000 people.

Prosperous Asian countries such as Singapore and Japan boast the absolute lowest rates, though the United Kingdom and Germany are in almost as good shape.

“It is a little surprising that a country like ours should have this level of gun violence,” Ali Mokdad, a professor of global health and epidemiology at the IHME, told NPR in an interview last year. “If you compare us to other well-off countries, we really stand out.”

Source: NPR

The Trent Affair and the Importance of Diplomatic Recognition

Last week was the anniversary of the Trent Affair, one of the most interesting scandals in the U.S. Civil War. It began in 1861 when the U.S. Navy illegally intercepted and boarded a British mail ship—in contravention of diplomatic protocol—capturing two Confederate diplomats as “contraband of war”. It was revealed that the envoys were bound for the U.K. and France to seek diplomatic recognition and possibly financial and military support.

As during the American War of Independence, the Confederate States of America (CSA) recognized the value of global legitimacy—and the subsequent aid it could bring—for strengthening their cause both ideologically and practically. Even one year into the war, the Confederates realized that ensuring independence against the more established and powerful Union would likely rest on foreign support—hence their secret mission to get the two leading powers of the day to back them.

Instead, they almost unwittingly caused the next best thing for their interests: another war between the U.K. and the U.S. American public opinion supported the capture of the diplomats and rallied against the British for perceived complicity. The British public disapproved of the violation of their neutrality and international law and viewed the Navy’s actions as an insult to national honor. Both countries clamored for war, with the British demanding an apology and the release of the prisoners; they even took steps to strengthen their military in Canada. The Confederates hoped that the tensions would, at the very least, rapture the “special relationship” between American and Britain, if not boil into war and diplomatic recognition of the CSA.

Unfortunately for them, Abraham Lincoln and his advisers were cool-headed and pragmatic; they recognized the very real risk of war with the U.K. and what a calamity a two-front conflict would be. This was far more important than saving diplomatic face. After several weeks, the crisis was finally resolved when the U.S. government released the two envoys and formally disavowed the actions of the Navy captain responsible—although without the formal apology the British demanded; for their part, they backed down from making this an absolute requirement, and settled for the resolution.

The two Confederate diplomats went on their way to Europe, albeit to no avail: the CSA never got the diplomatic recognition it craved, and that might very well have turned the war to their favor—after all, America’s securing of French recognition and support is what proved most decisive in guaranteeing its victory and subsequent independence.

The Only Coup in U.S. History

On this day in 1898, white supremacists seized power in Wilmington, North Carolina, in the only instance of a government being overthrown within U.S. history.

Originally described as a race riot initiated by blacks, over time, more facts emerged revealing that whites had planned an insurrection against the biracial “Fusion Party” that had been legitimately elected. A mob of over 2,000 whites, armed with over 400 small arms and a Gatling gun, expelled opposition black and white political leaders from the city, destroyed the homes and businesses black citizens built up since the Civil War—including the only black newspaper in the city—and killed an estimated 60 to more than 300 people.

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Black residents being forced to flee town. Wikimedia Commons.

Another 2,000 blacks fled, most never to return; the once black-majority city was now a white-majority one. In a cruel irony, the driving force of the coup was white resentment of “black success”, which was actually minimal: though blacks made up nearly 60 percent of the county’s population, only eight percent owned property; of nearly $6 million in real and personal property taxes, blacks paid less than $400,000 of this amount. Per capita wealth for blacks was $30, compared to $550 for blacks. Yet affluent whites believed that they were paying a disproportionate amount of taxes compared to blacks, who now held political power and were believed to be targeting white wealth.

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A group of “Red Shirts”. Wikimedia Commons.

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Mob posing by the ruins of The Daily Record, the only black newspaper in town. Wikimedia Commons.

There was also tension with poor, unskilled whites, who competed with blacks in the job market, and found their services in less demand than that of skilled black labor. In essence, Wilmington blacks were “caught between not meeting the expectations of affluent whites, and exceeding the expectations of poor whites, effectively moving too fast and too slow at the same time.”

(In a cruel irony, when those working class whites finally took the jobs that had once been filled by blacks, they were disappointed with the types of work, describing it as black jobs with bad black wages.)

Though some petitioned the federal government to intervene, the McKinley administration claimed it could not do so without permission from the governor, who had made no request for assistance. The leader of the mob, Colonel Alfred Moore Waddell—who had threatened to “choke the current of the Cape Fear River” with black bodies—was elected mayor of Wilmington, and held power until 1905. The vast majority of coup organizers and plotters went on to be politically successful: one leader served five terms in Congress, followed by a stint as governor; a woman who supported lynching was appointed as the first female senator (albeit for one day), and went on to be a prominent suffragist; several others became long-time senators and federal officials.

The Wilmington coup was part of a broader effort to take back control of post-Civil War North Carolina and reinstate white supremacy. Through rallies, parades, and organized militias of “Red Shirts”, blacks were intimidated from voting and the white-dominated Southern Democrats took statewide power. Just a year later, a flurry of Jim Crow laws was passed to restrict the voting, residency, and property rights of blacks, which would remain in place well into the 20th century.

The following is a long and disturbing account by a reverend of what transpired:

It was a great sight to see them marching from death, and the colored women, colored men, colored children, colored enterprises and colored people all exposed to death. Firing began, and it seemed like a mighty battle in war time. The shrieks and screams of children, of mothers, of wives were heard, such as caused the blood of the most inhuman person to creep. Thousands of women, children and men rushed to the swamps and there lay upon the earth in the cold to freeze and starve. The woods were filled with colored people. The streets were dotted with their dead bodies. A white gentleman said that he saw ten bodies lying in the undertakers office at one time. Some of their bodies were left lying in the streets until up in the next day following the riot. Some were found by the stench and miasma that came forth from their decaying bodies under their houses. Every colored man who passed through the streets had either to be guarded by one of the crowd or have a paper (pass) giving him the right to pass. All colored men at the cotton press and oil mills were ordered not to leave their labor but stop there, while their wives and children were shrieking and crying in the midst of the flying balls and in sight of the cannons and Gatling gun. All the white people had gone out of that part of the City, this army of men marched through the streets, sword buckled to their sides, giving the command to fire. Men stood at their labor wringing their hands and weeping, but they dare not move to the protection of their homes. And then when they passed through the streets had to hold up their hands and be searched. The little white boys of the city searched them and took from them every means of defence, and if they resisted, they were shot down … The city was under military rule; no Negro was allowed to come into the city without being examined or without passing through with his boss, for whom he labored. Colored women were examined and their hats taken off and search was made even under their clothing. They went from house to house looking for Negroes that they considered offensive; took arms they had hidden and killed them for the least expression of manhood. They gathered around colored homes, firing like great sportsmen firing at rabbits in an open field and when one would jump his man, from sixty to one hundred shots would be turned loose upon him. His escape was impossible. One fellow was walking along a railroad and they shot him down without any provocation. It is said by an eye witness that men lay upon the street dead and dying, while members of their race walked by helpless and unable to do them any good or their families. Negro stores were closed and the owners thereof driven out of the city and even shipped away at the point of the gun. Some of the churches were searched for ammunition, and cannons turned toward the door in the attitude of blowing up the church if the pastor or officers did not open them that they might go through.

The Great American-Iranian Social Media War

What a time to be alive: the President of the United States and one of Iran’s top military leaders are taking jabs at each other with Game of Thrones-style social media posts. (And HBO weighed in by tweeting “what is trademark misuse in Dothraki?)

I look forward to all our foreign policy pronouncements being conveyed social media through pop culture references.

Of course, Russian state media is more than happy to report the absurdity of this.

Olympe de Gouges

On this day in 1793, French playwright, journalist, and outspoken feminist Olympe de Gouges was guillotined during the early stages of the Reign of Terror for her revolutionary ideas.

45302282_10161165779455472_6445264199118487552_nWell ahead of her time both ideologically and professionally, she dared to write plays and publish political pamphlets at a time when women were denied public and political space. Following the publication of a play critical of slavery, she was widely denounced and even threatened for both her anti-slavery stance and her very involvement in the male profession of theatre. Gouges remained defiant, writing “I’m determined to be a success, and I’ll do it in spite of my enemies”. Unfortunately, pressure and outright sabotage from the slavery lobby forced the theatre to abandon her play after just three days. Continue reading

The World’s Tallest Statue

On Wednesday, India unveiled the world’s tallest statue: The Statue of Unity, which depicts the country’s first deputy prime minister and major independence leader, Vallabhbhai Patel. It is about twice the size of the Statue of Liberty, and taller than the previous record-holder, China’s Spring Temple Buddha.

Funny enough, it will not be the tallest statue for long: India’s state of Maharashtra is constructing a memorial to the Maratha warrior king Shivaji that will be several meters taller.

In addition to playing a leading role in organizing nonviolent resistance against the British, Patel was instrumental in forging a cohesive, democratic republic from the politically fragmented British Raj, which included both British-controlled colonies and over 560 self-governing “princely states” that had been indirectly ruled.

Through both force of personality and de facto command of the military, he managed to cajole nearly all these states to join India; this uncompromising willingness to do whatever it took to form India earned him the moniker of the “Iron Man of India” and “Unifier of India”. Patel was also the founder of the country’s massive civil service, the “All India Services”, which he identified as the “steel frame” of the country that would cement a fractious, disunified society.

Although widely beloved for his decisive leadership in founding India, many locals protested the construction and dedication to the statue, believing it to be a waste of well needed public funds; demonstrators were subsequently kept at bay during the unveiling ceremony.

See a slideshow of its construction here.

Source: BBC

Legal Advocacy at Its Finest

As a law student, I aspire to balance a fulfilling career with legal advocacy, taking on causes pro bono for those who lack the means to seek justice.  That is why I seek inspiration from the thousands of lawyers and jurists around the world who dedicate themselves to giving a legal voice to the voiceless — often at great risk and sacrifice.

Fortunately, I have no shortage of examples to follow, most recently and dramatically in the form of Saif-ul-Mulook, a Pakistani lawyer who saved his client from certain death, and who now faces death threats as a result. As the South China Morning Post reported:

After saving condemned Christian Asia Bibi from the gallows in Pakistan, her lawyer says he is facing the wrath of Islamist extremists – and wonders who will save him. But despite the threats against him, Saif-ul-Mulook says he regrets nothing, and will continue his legal fight against intolerance.

Mulook’s latest victory saw the freeing of Asia Bibi – a Christian woman convicted of blasphemy, who spent nearly a decade on death row – after the Supreme Court overturned her conviction on Wednesday.

[…]

The defence of Bibi was just the latest in a long line of controversial cases taken up by the barrister.

In 2011, Mulook was the lead prosecutor against Mumtaz Qadri over the assassination of Punjab governor Salman Taseer – a prominent critic of the country’s blasphemy laws and supporter of Bibi.

Qadri – one of Taseer’s bodyguards – gunned down his boss in broad daylight, citing the governor’s calls for reform of the blasphemy laws as his motive.

Mulook said he took on the case as others cowered, fearing reprisals from extremists. His prosecution resulted in the conviction and subsequent execution of Qadri, who was feted by Islamists and later honoured with a shrine on the outskirts of Islamabad.

If this man can brave violent extremism to save the lives of those condemned by both public opinion and an unjust legal system, I am pretty sure I can stay true to my goal.

The Murder Capitals of the World

The waves of migrants fleeing many Latin American countries is in no small part due to the horrifically high rate of homicide that collectively claims hundreds of thousands of lives annually.

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Source: The Wall Street Journal

With just 8% of the world’s population, Latin America accounts for roughly a third of global murders. It is also the only region where lethal violence has grown steadily since 2000, according to United Nations figures.

Nearly one in every four murders around the world takes place in just four countries: Brazil, Venezuela, Mexico and Colombia. Last year, a record 63,808 people were murdered in Brazil. Mexico also set a record at 31,174, with murders so far this year up another 20%.

By comparison, the U.S.–which has one of the highest murder rates in the developed world–lost 17,250 citizens to homicide in 2016. The same year, the European Union, with 28 countries totaling 513 million people, had 5,351 homicides, while China, with over 1.5 billion inhabitants, had a little over 8,600 murders. Given the amount of shock, fear, and sensationalism such comparative rare murders can elicit, imagine the amount of terror and trauma experienced by people in Central and South America.

In recent years, growing numbers of families from Central America, including women and children, have fled to the U.S. because of horrific violence. Gangs such as MS-13 and Barrio 18 enforce a reign of terror, dictating even where people can go to school or get medical care. El Salvador’s murder rate of 83 per 100,000 people in 2016—the world’s highest—was nearly 17 times that of the U.S.

A new study by Vanderbilt University shows that the strongest factor in predicting whether someone emigrates from Honduras and El Salvador isn’t age, gender or economic situation, but whether they had been victimized by crime multiple times in the past year. A World Bank study found that nearly a quarter of children in one Honduran municipality suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder due to violence.

To make matters worse, pervasive corruption has enabled much if this violence, if not colluded in it: law enforcement are known to be as abusive and exploitative as gang members, and often work in concert with organized crime; politicians or police officers who are not bought are cowed into fear, pushed out, or killed.

With little to no recourse for the violence they face, plus a lack of economic activity to boot, it is little wonder thousands are fleeing for their dear lives in droves.

Source: Wall Street Journal

The Bleak and Macabre Art of Francis Bacon

To commemorate Halloween, here are some surreal and often creepy paintings by Irish-born British artist Francis Bacon.

Although known for his bleak, existentialist worldview — which became more somber and macabre following the suicide of his lover — he was actually quite energetic and charismatic in person, and spent much of his middle age eating, drinking, and gambling in London’s leisurely Soho district.

Source: Wikimedia