Monday, 19 September 2011

The Good Guys

Larry Siems is one of the good guys.  He’s worked for PEN America and on Freedom to Write programmes for the best part of twenty years and, for me, he’s one of the moral touchstones of PEN International.

And good company too.  The other night Linda, Larry and I went along with five Norwegians – a fine seafaring nation – to enjoy a gentle boat trip along Belgrade's confluence of the Sava and the Danube.  We drank and laughed and watched a red sun set and a full moon rise.  Trine Kleven talked about the influence of the Norse language, Carl Morten Iverson evaluated the local beer, while Anders Heger – Norwegian PEN President and another of my touchstones – regaled us with tall, terrifying tales of his nautical adventures.  There were two Elizabeths present also, one of whom is married to an Aberdonian and mimics the accent pretty well.  It was a simple, wonderful evening but as the boat turned to begin the return journey conversation drifted to events this summer in Norway.  All had been shocked.  All were moved by the response of the Norwegian people, the coming together, the restatement of belief in human rights and democracy, the determination not to be held hostage as a nation by the actions of one sickeningly disturbed mind.  Our friends' justified pride in their country’s reaction was clear but, rightly, they didn’t want to dwell on it any longer so we moved on to more beer, increasingly puerile jokes about certain esteemed figures, and a little bit of soothing, harmless gossip.

Back on shore Larry mentioned The Torture Report, a new book he’s about to publish focusing on key cases from Guantanamo Bay and the perversions of the American justice system that ensued.  This led to talk about the writers and intellectuals who had supported the invasion of Iraq and who, ten years after 9/11, still cannot bring themselves to admit they might just have got it wrong – Christopher Hitchens, Michael Ignatieff and the rest.  We do not permit politicians space to admit mistakes of such – any – magnitude, partly because power requires the illusion of certainty, partly because they calculate the proportion of known facts to bellicose propaganda, partly because they have actual and legal responsibility.  Writers and journalists, however, have a moral responsibility.  They – we – do much to shape the landscape of opinion that allows politicians to act, so it behoves these great minds and clever wordsmiths to reflect with a degree of moral honesty on their past pronouncements.  Many, it would appear, haven’t got the balls.
At breakfast this morning Larry told me how he walked alone around Belgrade last night and in the middle of the old town found the Ministry of Defence HQ bombed by NATO during the Kosovo intervention of 1999, an act justified and widely applauded by the human rights lobby.  The Serbians have left the building exactly as it was, unrepaired, a strafed and crumbling monument to... well, take your pick.  Serbian nationalism?  The unintended consequences of our actions?  Moral certainty?

Larry has been wrestling with this all week.  As I said, he’s one of the good guys.

Drew Campbell

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