This iconic image of Ernesto “Che” Guevera de la Serna has adorned everything from bathing suits to Louis Vuitton bags. Like the keffiyeh, people wear it because it’s an attractive symbol of masculinity, and edginess. And like the keffiyeh, the vast majority of people who wear it have absolutely no clue what it means.
Ernesto Guevera was an Argentine Marxist revolutionary. He traveled through Latin America as a young medical student, and, after witnessing the immense poverty around him, concluded that Western capitalism and neo-imperialism was to blame. Guevera joined Fidel Castro’s Communist movement, and helped to overthrow the U.S.-backed Cuban dictator, Fulgencio Batista.He was eventually captured and executed by the CIA and by Bolivian forces, during his effort to incite revolution in Bolivia. Che was known to be cruel to anyone who did not support the revolution. His brutal firing squad took care of anyone who got in the way of his vision.
Many Cubans fled Castro’s dictatorial regime in Cuba and settled predominantly in Florida and New Jersey. In a Seattle Times article from 2005, it is evident that many Cuban-Americans are distressed by the very thought of Che Guevera. One man, named Carlos Barberia admitted to buying a Che T-shirt… and then promptly and publicly setting it on fire. Apparently, Che Guevera had ruthlessly murdered Barberia’s father.
This is what the two passengers on the streetcar were upset about: did the girl know what she was wearing? Did she know, that for many Cubans, this piece of clothing is as horrific as wearing a t-shirt glamorizing Hitler, or bin Laden? It’s possible that she doesn’t know the story behind that face. But, it’s also possible that she knows, and chooses to support him anyway.
This got me thinking about the “moderate Muslim” conception of violence and justice. After 9/11, Muslim immigrants in modern industrialized democracies were put on the spot, and they were forced to ask themselves: is violence ever justified?
In 1969, as a member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine: young and beautiful Leila Khaled hijacked a Boeing 707 on its way from Rome to Athens. No one was injured, but the plane was blown up after the hostages disembarked. After she became famous for her actions, she underwent plastic surgery to change her face so that she could attempt the publicity stunt one more time. In her next hijacking (a flight from Amsterdam to NYC in 1970), she was captured. Her partner, Patrick Arguello -- who was, incidentally, inspired by Che Guevera -- shot a steward. The steward survived, but Arguello was killed by Israeli forces.
Khaled claims that she had no intention of taking anyone’s life. Her goal was simple: to get exposure for the struggle in Palestine. And to this end, she was relatively successful. Her militant and rebellious efforts were glorified and she became a household name in the 1970s. Movies, books, and even songs were written about her. During a prisoner exchange, Khaled was released, and she is now heavily involved in politics. She is a member of the Palestinian National Council, and also appears regularly before the United Nations World Social Forum.
Something about Leila Khaled has always intrigued legions of people. On the one hand, she is everything women want to be: strong, powerful, deeply principled and respected by her fellow citizens. On the other hand, she is irresponsible and dangerous. There was a good chance that any number of small mistakes could have brought that whole plane down. And rather than coming out victorious, she would have set the "cause" back by another hundred years. To the eyes of the moderate Muslim, are her actions ultimately reprehensible, because of the potential damage she could have done?
An old adage comes to mind: an eye for an eye makes the world go blind. After World War II, the victors of the war and the subsequent global human rights movement painstakingly constructed domestic and international legal norms and political institutions on the premise that war is despicable and wrong, and should only be used defensively (as a last resort) by sovereign governments. The world decided that protecting the dignity of the individual is a just goal, and should be universally enforced. But, keep in mind, the post-war human rights movement is one built on the ruins of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, among other mass graveyards. The new liberal world order was erected over the tombs of thousands upon thousands of guiltless civilian casualties. So we must ask once again: is violence ever justified?
Many Muslims in Canada will respond that the answer is largely “NO”. Only the state should be able to legitimately use force and all other instances should be judged as violations of this principle. I know I would not trust just any citizen in the world to have free rein to take up arms, even on my behalf.
I recognize that I am making these judgment calls from a privileged position and I have no idea what it’s like to live under an oppressive regime. And I realize that political systems can be exclusive, risk-averse and overly bureaucratic, thus compelling the downtrodden to reinterpret the notion of “just war.” However, the issue of rising up against an illegitimate government (like the Darfurians against the government in Sudan, like the African National Congress in apartheid South Africa, like the Americans in the Civil War) is a wholly different issue than waging carefully choreographed attacks against innocent people in a different country altogether. The only crime most of these innocent people have committed is that they dared to be born in a Western nation.
Essentially, the grievances might be real. Terrorists do make claims about the United States that are 100% true. But, nevertheless, there is something undeniably hypocritical and malicious about the whole exercise of terrorism. The terrorist tries to make innocent people in another part of the world understand his plight by forcing them to taste the same devastation he has endured. Worse still, he is placated and even delighted by the whole event, treating it like a political victory for his side.
Though the question about ethics cannot be simply answered (and I recognize my own intellectual limitations), I do know this: for better or worse, the institutions that have been built since the end of the war have made every effort to prove violent behavior politically useless. A single person, acting on behalf of a large group, cannot exact revenge on a government by using blameless people as pawns. Despite the fact that the post-WWII institutions have yet to catch up with the problems of the post-9/11 world, the ends do not justify the means. As long as non-violent recourse exists, the end can be deemed good only by virtue of the means used to achieve it.
In my mind, Leila Khaled’s greatest legacy will be her non-violent critique of the unjust political system, not her militancy. The innocent citizens of Palestine, Darfur, Pakistan or Sri Lanka will probably be the first to say that the terrorist actions of a select few have brought them nothing of significant political or economic value. If anything, it has set them back. For when norms of human rights are violated, no matter how real your grievances, the rest of the world becomes blind to your cause, deaf to your message and mute on your behalf.