Wednesday, June 07, 2017

Remembering Hans Von Themsche - And a Small Victory

Luna Drowart, Oulemata Niangadou & Songul Koc:
 the victims of Hans Von Themsche
"These horrific, cowardly murders are a form of extreme racism. It should be clear to everyone now where extreme right can lead to."

Were those cryptic words of warning uttered by a principled American political leader in response to the violent killings that have taken place in recent weeks across the U.S.?

No, that's actually a quote from the former Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt commenting on the heinous shooting spree of then-19-year-old Hans Von Themsche back in May of 2006.

He was responsible for a senseless and violent racist killing that may have faded from the collective memory of many Americans, but it was an event that shocked Europe and the world when it took place 13 years ago - a killing spree sparked by a disturbed individual's internalized racial hatred.

From my perspective, one of the most troubling aspects of the aftermath of the recent killings in New York, Maryland and Portland are the efforts by conservative and right-wing media outlets and talking heads to attempt to downplay their significance and dismiss them as random acts of violence rather than as intentional acts of racial hatred.

Check out Corey Pein and Nigel Jaquiss' article in Williamette Week on how the alt-right movement in Portland is suddenly trying to distance itself from Jeremy Christian's violent attack two weeks ago - many on the right are trying the same stunt.

I'm talking about the same quasi-delusional conservatives, politicians, pundits and journalists alike, who tried to insist that Dylan Roof killing nine innocent African-Americans at a Bible study at the historic Emanuel AME Church in Charleston in 2015 was not an act of racial hatred.  

Dylan Roof poses with a handgun and Confederate flag
As Jeet Heer reported in an article for New Republic back in June of 2015, the GOP presidential candidate Rick Santorum tried to paint Roof's actions as an attack upon "religious liberty".

Heer noted that during a discussion of Roof during an appearance on Fox and Friends in the wake of the killings, quack fear-meister Rudy Giuliani told host Steve Doocy:

"We have no idea what's in his mind. Maybe he hated Christian churches."

Such thinking suggests to me that perhaps the symbol of the Republican Party should be an ostrich with its head in the sand rather than an elephant.

One of the most puzzling aspects of modern conservatism in America is the willingness of many Republicans to cultivate, capitalize on and openly traffic in the kinds of internalized racial and ethnic prejudices and fears that divide people based on religion and skin color.

Yet at the same time, Republicans peddle a weird kind of unified theory that supports a detached parallel reality where racism doesn't exist - exemplified by Donald Trump's silence about high-profile racist or ethnic hatred killings when the victims are non-white, and their killers are clearly motivated by the same divisive rhetoric he used throughout his campaign.

(Have you noticed how Trump has ruthlessly attacked the Mayor of London Sadiq Kahn, a Muslim, after the terrorist attack that killed seven on Saturday night, but said nothing about the Mayor of Manchester Carl Austin-Behan, who is white, after the Manchester terrorist attack that killed 23?)

It's like Republicans want to harvest the political fruits from the 21st century version of the Southern Strategy (e.g. bigotry and intolerance), but they chafe at acknowledging that they planted the seeds in the first place - knowing full well what would grow.

Sean Urbanski stabbing Richard Collins on the campus of the University of Maryland on May 20th was not a random attack, nor was James Harris Jackson stabbing 68-year-old Timothy Caughman with a sword a couple months earlier in March on a street in New York.

Those killings were part of a distinct and disturbing pattern, not just in this country either.

Hans Von Themsche
That's why I think Hans Von Themsche's unprovoked racist spree killing in Belgium eleven years ago is important to remember.

It offers valuable context on the current global political environment.

Especially given the movement towards the mainstream of once-fringe right-wing political parties steeped in the cloak of nationalist populism - and the more overt extremism that has flared up from Europe to the United States.

Extremism fed, in part, by frustrations from the global austerity of the recession that decimated the poor, working and middle classes around the world.

Frustrations fueled by anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim hysteria whipped up by so-called political leaders like Donald Trump, or the Netherlands' Geert Wilders - individuals who cultivate the hatred of others simply as a means to satisfy their own lust for power.

In fact, it may well have been right-wing Belgian political leaders like Frank Vanhecke or Filip Dewinter, leaders of Vlaams Blok, the now-disbanded extremist political party that embraced Flemish nationalism, that motivated Hans Von Themsche's murderous racist killings in 2006.

Von Themsche was only 17-years-old when the the Belgian High Court ruled that Vlaams Blok was racist and discriminatory in violation of Belgian law and it was eventually disbanded.

It was an opposition party with concentrated support in the northern part of Dutch-speaking Belgium where it's emphasis on Flemish nationalism and anti-immigrant rhetoric fueled it's rise in popularity starting in the 1990's. (Perspective: the Oklahoma City Bombing by Timothy McVeigh took place in 1995.)

After Vlaams Blok was outlawed, the party reformed as Vlaams Belang, and it's important to note that Von Themsche's father helped to found Vlaams Blok, and his aunt served as an MP for Vlaams Belang - a dark influence that would prove deadly.

Nanny Oulemata Niangadou and Luna Drowart
On the morning of May 11, 2006, Von Themsche purchased a hunting rifle and ammunition and dressed in black and with his hair closely shaved (he later told police he was a skinhead) he walked into the city center of Antwerp, located in the northern Flemish region of Belgium where Vlaams Blok was popular.

He took aim and shot Songul Koc, a woman of Turkish descent, in the chest as she was reading a book - wounding her severely.

He then saw Oulemata Niangadou, a 24-year-old nanny from Mali taking care of her charge, a 2-year-old Belgian girl named Luna Drowart.

Von Themsche shot Niangadou in the back, when young Luna began crying, he shot her in the back too - killing them both.

He told friends before the shooting that he was intentionally looking for people who were not white to kill - and he likely would have killed more innocent people if not for a passing Belgian policeman who shot Von Themsche in the stomach and arrested him.

As a Wikipedia article on the killing reported, when police later questioned him about why he decided to shoot the 2-year-old girl who was white, he said her "presence near a black was sufficient reason."

As The Guardian reported, the killings horrified Belgians, having taken place in the wake of a number of violent racist attacks on black people and foreigners around the country.

Thousands march against racism in Belgium on
May 26, 2006 after the killings in Antwerp
Tens of thousands came out to march in silence to protest the killings of Niangadou and Drowart.

Antwerp Mayor Patrick Janssens said:

"It cannot get any worse. It cannot be fathomed that his happens in clear daylight in Antwerp."

17 months later on May 11, 2007 a jury rejected Von Themsche's lawyer's insanity argument and found him guilty.

He was sentenced to life in prison.

It's been just over ten years since that day in a Belgian court, and given the horrific rise in violence associated with racism and ethnic hatred here in America, we would do well to heed the words of former Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt:

"It should be clear to everyone now where extreme right can lead to."

While that's become painfully clear to many of us in this country, I'm not sure how clear it is to members of the Republican leadership in Washington and conservative media - some of whom are pretending it's not even happening.

As the BBC reported, the lawyer who represented young Luna Drowart's parents during the trial of Hans Von Themsche told reporters that after the verdict in the court was read:

"I saw Luna's parents hug a black man from the family of the babysitter. I watched and saw Luna's mother shut her eyes. And when it was over and she came to kiss me...she said it's a small victory. Luna won't come back, but this is justice."

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