Tuesday, October 22, 2013

One hundred years alive, ten days dead

It’s about trying to understand why this story still matters. A very old man, aged one hundred, still imprisoned – albeit under comfortable house arrest, at the residence of his lawyer – for a crime he committed a lifetime ago, on 24 March 1944. The man dies. You might think it’s the end of the story, or you might hope for some closure. But immediately another story begins: how are we to dispose of his body? What rites are to be afforded to this man – what kind of comfort in death?

The man’s name was Erich Priebke. For the neonazis that three months ago, when he turned one hundred, painted his name on the walls of Rome, he was ‘the captain’. They wrote Happy birthday, Priebke. And Honour to the hero Priebke.

Priebke’s crime, beside the many likely ones that haven’t been documented, was to have taken part in the Ardeatine Caves massacre at the time of the German occupation of Rome. The order came directly from Hitler, who had asked initially for an even bloodier reprisal. Not ten, but fifty dead Italians for every German, and the destruction of an entire suburb of the capital.

The day before, a group of communist partisans had carried out a daring attack at Via Rasella, killing 32 soldiers of an Italian military police corps attached to the SS. It was eventually decreed that 320 Italians would have to die, then 330, when one of the survivors died in hospital that evening. The designated victims were partisans who had been imprisoned and tortured in the infamous Gestapo headquarters of Via Tasso, 57 Jews who hadn’t yet been deported, and the balance to be comprised of common criminals, all of whom Captain Priebke had helped to select. The men were taken to the remnants of ancient catacombs along the via Ardeatina, on the outskirts of the city, made to kneel and killed with a single shot each at the base of the skull. Then the caves were sealed with explosives, to conceal the bodies and make sure there wouldn’t be any unlikely survivors.

The memorial at the Fosse Ardeatine
This was the hero Priebke. Second in command to Marshall Kesserling, he helped oversee this cowardly massacre, which was besides more an act of bureaucracy than a military action. And an atrociously clumsy one at that: once they reached the caves, the officers realised they had rounded up five men too many, but judged it too late to release them. Thus the final number of victims was 335.

Then, at war’s end, like a hero, Priebke fled. For nearly 50 years he lived as a free man in Argentina, where he became a respected member of the community of Bariloche. The director of the German cultural association, no less. Until 1994, when reporters from the American television station ABC tracked him down. They approached him in the street, in broad daylight. When they asked him if he was Erich Priebke, he didn’t try to deny it.

The next year he was extradited. Then, the trial. Or rather, a series of trials, as customary in the Italian system, one of which ended in an acquittal followed by the besieging of the Tribunal by protesters. Finally, in 1998, a definitive sentence to life imprisonment. Whatever life he had left.

Somebody always asks, at times such as those, what good could it possible do to put an 85 year old man in jail. The rest of Priebke’s far-too-long existence, as well as the ten days that he has spent dead thus far, offer an exemplary justification.

In life, he never repented. Maybe that’s what makes him a hero to the neofascists and the neonazis, although he hasn’t expressed defiant pride either, just the old, trite justification that he was following orders, and never wished to Jewish people or anyone else any harm. As if – quite aside from anything else – an officer of the SS were a common German soldier, and not an elite member of the paramilitary wing of the Nazi party. Equally ambiguous and strident was his habit of describing his job under Kesserling as that of ‘dealing with terrorists’, and indeed his supporters even now grotesquely blame the reprisal on the partisans’ action.

As a matter of fact, there was never an explicit public warning that the killing of German soldiers would provoke such reaction. Kesserling’s communiqué that contained that edict – ‘10 Italians will be killed for every German’ – was issued the day after the massacre, and ended with the words ‘the order has already been executed’.

That emblematic phrase, which was chosen by Alessandro Portelli as the title of his book on the Fosse Ardeatine, exemplifies the self-serving logic to which Priebke remained faithful until the very end. So now we have a video-testament, of which some excerpts have been released. More excuses, no doubt the casting of a very indulgent light on the atrocities of Nazism and Fascism. Another ‘document’ with to enrich the libraries of Casa Pound and the other far Right organizations across Europe. Another text to be quoted. ‘As Captain Priebke said…’

But there is still a bit of reckoning left for Erich Priebke. No sooner did he die, that the Mayor of Rome ordered that he not be accorded a civil funeral by the city, a prohibition that the prefect extended to the whole province. In a surprise gesture – this new Pope has given us a few of those – the Pontifical Vicar of Rome denied him the right to a Catholic funeral (Priebke had converted in 1946, whilst escaping the country with the help of the Vatican’s Ratline). After days of impasse, the Society of Saint Pius X – the ultra-conservative schismatic fraternity that includes Holocaust denier bishop Richard Williamson, and that Pope Benedict XVI seemed determined for a while to bring back into the fold – offered to celebrate his funeral at their priory in Albano Laziale, a town on the Alban hills which was a centre of partisan resistance during the war. But neither the heavy police escort nor a group of twenty or so neonazis managed to overcome the opposition of the protesters, so the funeral was not held.

Priebke’s remains will likely end up, if not as one of those purposefully, ritually misplaced bodies, as an exile in death, at least for some time. A heart surgeon in the northern city of Brescia offered it sanctuary in his family crypt, only to be swiftly denied by the local Mayor. Now his lawyer and chief supporter, Paolo Giachini, claims that a secret burial place has been found, ‘either in Germany or in Italy’. Perhaps. But it will still have to get there.

Expect more battles over this piece of old flesh. In the meantime, we have to ask why it still matters. Why we won’t let him be.

Bodies and rites are powerful symbols, and it was a surprising show of unity for our chief civic and religious institutions to come together to deny those rites to that particular body. I welcome their stance, and stand in solidarity with the protestors. But it’s a curious thing for the society in which Mussolini memorabilia are sold at every second newsstand, and that just last year was dedicating a monument to the butcher of Ethiopia, Rodolfo Graziani, to be so stark in its condemnation of the foreign villain alone. For that historic, misplaced indulgence towards our own, we are still called upon to account.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Sixteen tales of information technology in education, 1991-2013

A guest post by Megan Clayton

It was not compulsory. My father, a technician and audio engineer, belonged to an Apple Computer Users’ Group and read print publications – magazines – about computing. The resource closet adjacent to his workroom was stocked floor to ceiling with used audiocassettes, loosely classified by course code.

It was not compulsory. Each office of part-time tutors had one networked computer, part of a suite of Macintosh Classics that had been replaced, in the lecturers’ offices, with more recent models. The screen was small enough that a typewriter was the more practical option for word-processing.

The internal mail was still preferred for communication since while technically it was not faster, it was delivered twice a day and regularly checked by all.

It was not compulsory. The technician on the floor brought me a length of cable to connect to the campus Ethernet and I plugged in my laptop. Behind the copy of ClarisWorks in which I was writing my thesis I ran Usenet, checking my groups throughout the day.

It was not compulsory. The new students used it differently; those who came from abroad were willing to spend their home currency on things teachers considered wasteful and expensive, like international mobile phone calls.

One student faced off a test supervisor in mutual bewilderment after he left the room to take a business call and was not allowed back in.

It was obligatory. The hastily-composed rule to switch off phones in the classroom brought distress and rebellion. Without that signal, without that availability to communicants near and far, how could life in this little room, this little town, be tolerated?

The calls into class continued, sometimes from classmates in other lecture theatres, sometimes from family if a phone call to the administrator had proved unsatisfactory, sometimes from creditors, debtors, suitors.

It was obligatory. The students who were tired first thing in the morning had almost invariably been up late at night on instant messaging, keeping the connection that brought the balm of home into the hair-shirt of here. They made pillows on their desks out of coats, scarves and books and slept fitfully through the lecture. Some on arrival unpacked only those accoutrements necessary to make these mini-beds.

It was obligatory. My first class of domestic preparatory students was lively. Many of them belonged to the same surf lifesaving club and brought the camaraderie of the team. All had modest mobile phones that they held just below their desks, to exchange text messages continuously throughout our shared hours.

“But Megan,” they said, in response to one of my chidings, “we’re texting about the lecture! And about you! And we only ever say nice things!”

It was obligatory. A widespread rumour was that a colleague whose role was made redundant had been targeted because of a refusal to use email, or any technology other than the photocopier.

Another colleague brought long handwritten essays to meetings from which to read counterarguments to whatever was under discussion. There was only ever one copy available.

It was fragmentary. The colleagues with responsibility for teaching computing had also the unofficial job of standardising staff practice. All successes were partial. A repeated plea for date footers and page numbering on documents became socially awkward. Who would want to search electronically a document once it had been used? Far simpler to print out, label and file.

It was fragmentary. There was a growing sense that staff should try to learn about some of the communication technologies their students were using. A colleague gave a presentation on how teachers might want to make use of a new site called Twitter.

Why would anyone want to share their life on the Internet, said another, where any stranger could read it? Why not just think one’s own thoughts privately and talk to friends, talk to students, face-to-face?

It was fragmentary. Students in the computer workrooms kept Facebook open under tabbed browsing, scheduled their plans and narrated their weekends at the same time as advancing, line by cold line, through prescribed assignments.

I composed a brief rubric: Thank you for your Friend request, but I will need to wait until the end of the course and the release of results before I accept it.

I searched the site for the names of former students, to keep balance between memory and the present.

It was fragmentary. A student, young and perpetually dazed, came into the office to ask for weeks-old course materials, explanations of content, assignment extensions. Haven’t you read the weekly emails on what you have to do? I asked. Oh, I don’t really check my email, said the student. Too many messages.

It was breaking into bits, even while it was new.

All notices go on the Intranet. Since we know most of you don’t go on the Intranet, here are the week’s most relevant notices by email.

I don’t want to work on this project if it involves so many emails. They are extra work on top of what I am actually here to do.

A few funny cats to brighten your day: email them to everyone who needs a laugh TGIF!

It was breaking into bits, even while it was new.

You can give course notices on your phone.

I only use my phone for emergencies, like in the earthquake.

The hard shell of the open laptop, raised like a drawbridge to deflect, to disconnect.

I don’t want to put a comment in the learning forum because it might be wrong and then I’ll feel dumb.

Is this for homeworks, teacher, on the Internet? Will you give us a grade?

It was breaking into bits, even while it was new.

The research shows that. Here’s a link about what we could be doing here.

Write it out in longhand and give it to the administrator to type.

Can you send that to me again; I can’t open .docx at home.

Remember to say your name in any text you send me or I won’t know how to answer the information you need.

It was breaking into bits, even while it was new.

The contact hours in the classroom and the sporadic access in between, the logs that show who has completed the readings and who is offline.

The copyright notices at the photocopier and the ghost-stacks of extracts that chafe at the ten percent limit.

The professional futurists whose utopias will not be mocked, except through the limits of budget proposals.

The noise, the compliance, the surveillance.

The light in the cracks.

Monday, October 7, 2013

No one knows where you are

‘An ad for drowning.’ This is what Jennifer Mills called the video that Jeff Sparrow posted on Overland last Monday, and that has haunted me ever since. She was right, too: it is an ad for drowning, as opposed to the appeal to beware of people smugglers that it purports to be, for it presents drowning as a consumer choice, albeit catastrophic, which the prospective migrant should refuse to make. In between ‘Where the bloody hell are you’ and ‘No one knows where you are’ takes place, as Jeff alluded to, the construction of two Australias to be marketed to two radically different kinds of foreign audiences: one for the affluent and mobile (sunny, available, sexy); the other for the poor and desperate (dark, inaccessible, deadly).

This week I was going to post about the miners’ strike at Nuraxi Figus, Sardinia – a story that takes place four hundreds metres underground, and involves a group of workers threatening to detonate themselves and their workplace – but now I’m stuck on this one, which concerns thousands of people making another, even more desperate gamble. For all its intolerable fake piety and cruelty, the opening line of the video captures the horror of the migrants who die at sea, undocumented and unseen, often unreported, the water that closes above them already a kind of forgetting.

A great many of these deaths occur a short distance from Nuraxi Figus, in what is alternatively known as the Strait of Sicily, the Kelibia Channel and a few other names. As little as ninety miles separate Europe from Africa in that patch of the Mediterranean, yet it has been calculated that over 2,000 migrants died trying to make the crossing in 2011 alone.

For the last twenty-five years, the question has been the same: how is it even possible to lose so many people in such a small and densely trafficked and patrolled area? Laura Boldrini, spokesperson for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, has recently cited as a significant contributing factor the muddled rules on liability that discourage commercial vessels from responding to distress signals, for fear of repercussions including – unbelievably – being charged with aiding illegal immigration. It is but one of the ways in which this ongoing massacre is backed by the politicians of what journalist Gabriele Del Grande calls ‘Fortress Europe’. And of course, in order for the issue to remain all but invisible, it is essential that the victims be faceless and nameless to the European public, as it is nearly always the case.

But there are some exceptions. This, we think, is one of the dead.

Samia Yusuf Omar ran in the 200 metres at the Beijing Olympics and was featured back then in stories about athletes overcoming great adversity to compete at the games. She then returned to Somalia where, according to a report by Al Jazeera, she faced harassment by Islamist militia goups, before moving first to Sudan, then to Libya and finally trying to reach Europe, possibly in order to train there in the lead-up to the 2012 Olympics. Reports on what happened next aren’t conclusive, but it seems that the boat that carried Omar ran out of petrol and she was amongst the eight passengers who died trying to board an Italian navy ship. The news of her death however didn’t reach the athletics community until five months later, when Somali Olympic great Abdi Bile brought it up at a talk.

The closest source for the exact circumstances of Omar’s death is her sister, Hodan Yusuf Omar, who lives in Finland and spoke from there in Somali via phone to the BBC. This is how news travel before and after these tragedies: across great distances, often in translation and wrapped in uncertainty as to the date of the voyage, whether the loved one was actually on the boat, and most importantly what happened to them. This is not the world of instant communication via social media, of Twitter and Skype: it is a world of broken phone connections and messages that are laboriously passed on; of your family having to wonder for weeks, if not months or years, sometimes never knowing for sure, and rarely if ever with the comfort of a body to bury and care for.

For six years now Del Grande has been keeping a register of the reported drownings over a span of the last twenty-plus years, but it consists of dates and numbers only. There are no names to match those numbers to, let alone faces or histories. It is also, by the author’s own admission, a very partial list. There is so much that we don’t know, and that we barely seek to know.

Between the 1st and the 29th of March of 2011, four boats left Tunisia carrying a total of 250 young men. There is some evidence that all of the boats reached their destination. Some of the men were recognised by relatives from the brief footage in the news media. There were a few phone calls, or reports of phone calls, on the days of each arrival. ‘We got here, they are about to transfer us to Caltanissetta’. Then nothing. Fifteen months later, the whereabouts of all of these migrants are unknown. Some, like Gabriele Del Grande, doubt that the boats ever arrived. How could they have all failed to contact their families this long, he opines. This many people don’t disappear like that. But the mystery remains: did they drown at sea, or drown on land? Did they choose to go missing, taking advantage of the difficulties that the authorities had in the hectic days of the Arab Spring to document all of the arrivals? Italy has a law that makes clandestine immigration a crime punishable with incarceration, should you to try to re-enter the country after the initial expulsion, and so there is something to be gained in slipping through and not letting the police obtain your name and fingerprints. But still no one knows where these men are.

Now some of the families have got together and travelled to Rome to demand to know the truth. They are mothers, in the majority, and so the images of their campaign further fuel the inevitable, near-automatic analogy with the fate of the desaparecidos. They want to know what happened to their sons.

This is the only thing that is unusual about this story, the subject this week of a report by Italian newspaper La Repubblica: not that 250 men may have died trying to scale the wall of the European fortress, but that there are families demanding that it not end there, with the collation of yet another statistic; who want the faces and names of their sons and husbands to be part of the public record, and for there to be answers, a reckoning. All of the things that we don’t demand of ourselves.


The above is a post I wrote for Overland this time last year, offered this week in lieu of writing a new one because I have nothing to add. Last week’s dead are the same people as last year’s disappeared (whose fate is still unknown) and last year's dead. The massacre continues, and I really don’t know how chroniclers like Del Grande do it: how they keep telling the same story; how they keep adding to the macabre roll of the dead or vanished at sea, against the same, unchanging backdrop of criminal indifference.

This is the front page of last Friday’s Il manifesto. The headline reads: Murder Victims.

I see that some campaigners are calling for a European day of mourning for the victims of Lampedusa. It comes with a very tentative list of demands for change, but my first reaction when I was forwarded the petition was that Europe shouldn’t be granted the comfort of mourning. We don’t deserve it.