Back in 1983 in Sri Lanka, a group of Tamil separatists were conducting a low-level guerilla war against the government that the government was, typically, trying to quell militarily without addressing the political issues. Since almost all members of the military belonged the majority Sinhala community, this conflict took on an overtly ethnic coloration. In July of that year, the guerillas pulled off their biggest attack, blowing up a convoy of army trucks and killing over twenty soldiers.
Usually, the bodies of soldiers were sent back to their individual villages for burial but in this case the government decided to hold a massive state funeral in the capital Colombo and used it to make inflammatory speeches against the separatists and the state-friendly media gave huge publicity to the deaths and the inciting statements. The large crowds of Sinhala people attending the funeral turned into mobs that then rampaged across the country attacking any Tamils they found on the streets and killing them and going street by street to Tamil homes and setting them on fire, while the government did nothing to stop them or even condemn the violence. The jailers in a prison even let Sinhala prisoners murder the Tamil inmates. The police and security forces stood by while Tamils were murdered and their homes destroyed all over the country. Those events marked the beginning of a civil war that lasted nearly three decades and caused an immense amount of death and suffering.
It was clear that the mobs felt that they had the support, sometimes tacit, sometimes overt, of the government and that they had immunity for their actions and they simply went berserk. I was living in Colombo at that time, the capital city that was in a Sinhala-dominated area but had a sizable Tamil population. I am a Tamil and we had a three-month old daughter and it was a surreal experience to watch from our upstairs apartment window at mobs roaming the streets with impunity looking for Tamils to attack and to see smoke billowing across the city skyline from houses of Tamils set on fire and wondering when they would come for us. Some of the mob members had bags containing items looted from the homes of Tamil people before they had been set fire. When the police, security forces, and the government seem to be on the side of the mobs, you realize how defenseless you are.
We took advantage of a lull in the mob activity to take shelter in the homes of Sinhala friends, while my mother and sister hid in the homes of some other Sinhala friends. These friends took a great risk in hiding us because the mobs were also attacking the homes of Sinhala people who had the temerity to protect Tamils.
It took about a week for the government to decide to rein in the mobs, call for calm, and restore order and we were able to return to our homes which had fortunately escaped the attention of the mobs. But I had many friends who were not so lucky and lived through horrifying experiences where they escaped with their lives by the skin of their teeth but lost all their possessions except the clothes on their backs.
I try not to think about those times when I dreaded the sound of a knock on the door that would be the precursor to a mob entering our home and killing us and our infant daughter and burning down our home. These memories lie dormant in my mind but are not forgotten and they came flooding back when I read Uri Avnery’s report of how the Israeli government and its media handled the recent murder of the three Israeli teenagers.
The public uproar was surely justified. But it soon degenerated into an orgy of racist incitement, which intensified from day to day. Newspapers, radio stations and TV networks competed with each other in unabashed racist diatribes, repeating the official line ad nauseam and adding their own nauseous commentary – every day, around the clock.
Israel’s leading politicians let loose a salvo of utterances which would be seen anywhere else as outright fascist. A short selection:
Danny Danon, deputy Minister of Defense: “If a Russian boy had been kidnapped, Putin would have flattened village after village!”
“Jewish Home” faction leader Ayala Shaked: “With a people whose heroes are child murderers we must deal accordingly.” (“Jewish Home” is a part of the government coalition.)
Noam Perl, world chairman of Bnei Akiva, the youth movement of the settlers: “An entire nation and thousands of years of history demand: Revenge!”
Uri Bank, former secretary of Uri Ariel, Housing Minister and builder of the settlements: “This is the right moment. When our children are hurt, we go berserk, no limits, dismantling of the Palestinian Authority, annexation of Judea and Samaria (the West Bank), execution of all prisoners who have been condemned for murder, exile of family members of terrorists!”
And Binyamin Netanyahu himself, speaking about the entire Palestinian people: “They are not like us. We sanctify life, they sanctify death!”
When the bodies of the three were found by tourist guides, the chorus of hatred reached a new crescendo. Soldiers posted tens of thousands of messages on the internet calling for “revenge”, politicians egged them on, the media added fuel, lynch mobs gathered in many places in Jerusalem to hunt Arab workers and rough them up.
Except for a few lonely voices, it seemed that all Israel had turned into a soccer mob, shouting “Death to the Arabs!”
The reaction was predictable, as I could have told them from my own experience. When mobs sense that they have the support of a government, the worst elements take over. As a result, mobs of Jews roamed the streets shouting “Death to Arabs!” and looking for people to assault or even kill, with the police seeming to do little to stop them. The kidnapping and burning alive of a Palestinian teenager and the brutal beating of his American cousin by Israeli security forces were two outcomes.
Mob passions based on tribalism are easy to arouse and there are always people eager to go on rampages and loot if they feel they can get away with it. It is tempting for governments to use some atrocity to whip up mob support for its actions. Rather than try and downplay an atrocity like the murder of the three teenagers and appeal for calm and to allow the legal system to do its work, they whip up their supporters’ passions in order to provide cover for their own agenda. Just as the events of 9/11 were used by the Bush-Cheney regime and its neoconservative supporters to unleash wars of aggression based on anti-Muslim sentiment, the Netanyahu government used these events to further pursue its hardline policies against the Palestinians.
But the danger with governments exploiting mob passions to achieve their political goals is that the mobs can turn on them. Once such ugly mob passions are ignited by the government, it is hard to quell them and in this case the mobs turned on fellow Jews who, like my Sinhala friends, tried to stop the madness. The only government minister who visited the family of the dead Palestinian boy and condemned that murder found himself at the receiving end of all manner of vile abuse and threats.
A government that inflames ethnic hatred is sowing the wind and will have no one but itself to blame when the whirlwind strikes back.