What’s the Matter with Che?
“[T]he first thing a principle does – if it really is a principle – is kill somebody.” – Dorothy L. Sayers
If you haven’t read Dorothy Sayers’s novel Gaudy Night, you really should. It’s the kind of book that you’re always getting something new out of. It changed the way I look at the world. Not bad for mystery fiction.
A few days ago, two of my friends posted lists of things that were wrong with idolizing Che Guevara, or even using him as a symbol of freedom. A bit later, I was having a discussion on a friend’s facebook page about the label “terrorist.” In the course of the discussion, the person I was talking two made two points: first, that as a white person, I have no right to say anything at all about African conflict; and second, that she would achieve racial equality “by any means necessary.”
I assume she was young because the idea that we can put things right by simply rising up is a youthful idea, or a pathological one. Most intelligent, ethical people have the “by any means necessary” mentality at some point, but one of the things Gaudy Night and my own experience have taught me is that the ends really do not justify the means.
I could never, ever, in a million years do work like my friend Christos has done in Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland is my sore spot. It’s my weakness. It’s my ethical blind spot. I’m honest enough with myself to know it. I grew up during the height of The Troubles, and I knew it. It’s not my parents’ fault. I went to Catholic school. The pastor was Irish. My dad’s family is Irish (among many other things), and the older generations aren’t shy about saying what they think in front of the kids. We were taught in school to pray for Republican victories. This has sunk so deep into me that I am not sure how much of this is stuff I’ve learned and how much is racial memory. Robert Emmet, Eamon de Valera, Michael Collins – these men were, and frankly are, heroes to me. I have an uncle who looks a whole lot like Gerry Adams. I have been tempted, from time to time, to send money to Sinn Fein. I would name a child Saoirse. The first time I heard “Young Ned of the Hill,” I wept and sang along in bitterness and anger. In my heart, and contrary to all my beliefs, I cursed Oliver Cromwell and wished him in hell. Irish Republicans don’t need me. They have plenty of me. They need Greeks like Christos, and Chadians, and Laotians, and many others, people who can be helpful rather than passionate.
I’m glad I never sent money to Sinn Fein. I’m even more glad I was not born in Ulster. On the Irish side, the conflict in Northern Ireland is bankrolled by the American diaspora, supplemented by criminal activity – gun-running to Colombia and Congo, drug trafficking, and much more. Aligning oneself with the Republican Cause is like aligning oneself with the Shoreline Crips. Yet there is real injustice here. Native Irish are targeted and killed at a far higher rate than Scots Unionists. Republican militias are outgunned, outfunded, and outnumbered by Unionist militias. The power of the police has been used by Unionist factions against Republicans, or Irish Catholics more generally. Unemployment is higher in Catholic communities, jobs pay less, and we were there first.
Yet these injustices and nearly a thousand years of others don’t justify the death of a single man on the wrong side of a peace line, and I cannot bring myself to think it would be right to succumb to the temptation to support a United Ireland with my money. Though the Irish have been put through starvation, forced and coerced migration, rape, the murder of elders and children, and the attempted complete destruction of language and culture, it is not worth that man’s life. That one result of generations of armed struggle has been an independent Irish Republic doesn’t justify that death. Each human being has infinite potential, and while war is sometimes necessary, it should not be undertaken lightly or without compassion and regard for real consequences. And war has rules; it is not a free-for-all. Until you are able to look into the eyes of the mother who is grieving her child or the wife grieving her husband, and really understand that pain, and then say, “I did this, and I’m not sorry I did; I would do it again because I am serving the greater good” – until that time, you have no call to talk about achieving equality “by any means necessary.” Generations of Ulster children have grown up never knowing either peace or freedom. It is far too easy for Americans to sit in their comfortable rooms and say they would do this or that in the name of equality or justice. See some of the things I have seen, or some of the things any soldier has seen. See countries and lives destroyed for both sides, destroyed in a way that will last generations. Then, if you can still say that your particular vision of a perfect world is worth that, if you can still stomach the example you are taking from your hero Che, go ahead and talk about using “any means necessary.” And realize that if you do so, I can put a name to you. That name is Pol Pot.