It’s been 28 years since the start of the Revolution, which ended the half-a-century long communist dictatorship in Romania. A total of TWO torturers have been sentenced to jail so far. Ion Ficior, the former chief of Periprava jail, was responsible for the deaths of 103 political prisoners. Alexandru Visinescu was in charge of the Ramnicu Sarat prison between 1956 and 1963; 12 out of the 138 political prisoners held there at the time died. In both cases, the prosecution showed how prisoners were physically and mentally tortured, denied food and medicines, and kept in conditions below the minimum threshold required to ensure a person’s survival. Both were convicted and received 20-year jail sentences.
Two torturers convicted, out of the thousands active over a 45-year period. Their home was the Securitate – short from Department of State Security, the Romanian secret police agency set up in the 40’s, which became the most notorious of all the secret police forces in the former Soviet bloc.
Two convictions. Is this how we speak truth to a long-defunct power? How we honour the memory of those who died at its hands? Or do we live with some ghosts of that power still?
Isn’t it strange how one’s sense of identity and belonging takes shape – never at once and never fully formed? Neither is it an incremental progress, as we might think. It doesn’t come in equal installments, spread across time and space. Nor does it grow, like an onion with multiple layers, as in Gunter Grass’ famous metaphor. Instead, it seems to come in waves – ebb and flow without a clear timetable. The self as a pseudo-scientific mechanism of revolving doors, somewhat similar to Borges’ system of mirrors, ad infinitum.
There is metaphysical pain associated with such an irregular tide, and there are social implications too. In ancient times, the Greeks had something called a “resident alien” (metic) in Athens: someone who lived in the polis, even on a permanent basis, without ever becoming its citizen, and who could not own property there. Aristotle was a metic in Athens. In his ethics, he talks about moral virtues (of character) and intellectual virtues (of the intellect). Of these, he considers the latter supreme – especially wisdom, understood as contemplative reason. And yet, ethics to him is something related to character, which can be learnt and trained; children would start learning morality from a young age, in the hope that they can get better at it by the time they reach the age when it matters; so how can the supreme ethical virtue be an intellectual one? I wonder if Aristotle’s view of morality may have been influenced by his status as a metic. There is something uncertain in his views, a continuous to and fro between practice and contemplation – sophrosyne and theoria.
Sometimes, you can see something better from a distance.
The head office of the local secret police was based in this building in the early years of the communist regime. In the cellar and what used to be the cells behind these walls, dissidents and members of the opposition were tortured, killed, or convicted to long years of suffering. Unlike them, the building survived.
1. Can we forgive on somebody else’s behalf? If they died for us and our freedom, should we forgive those who killed them, either with guns or with their silent mechanisms of persistent oppression?
2. Which is more important – to forgive, or to keep the memory of what happened alive?
“Remembering is an ethical act, has ethical value in and of itself” (Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others).
3. How else can we respond to such earth-shattering historical events, as a revolution? Forgive but not forget? Honor that hard-won freedom – how? Can we respond to anything without listening first? And is this that kind of ‘clinical’ type of listening that Nietzsche spoke of, aimed at identifying symptoms of hidden illnesses?