La Zona Fantasma: The Victim Isn’t Always Right

La Zona Fantasma: The Victim Isn’t Always Right

Javier Marías
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One of the best indicators of the increasing audacity of our modern age is the pressing need so many people feel to be a “victim” of something, to enjoy the prestige of victimism. Without a doubt, it has its advantages—after all, its objective is to make other people feel guilty, and to reap benefits from that guilt—financial, material and otherwise. Who cares if the victims—and I mean the real victims, not invented ones—have been dead for centuries, or that the unjust circumstances under which they suffered have long since been outlawed: their “heirs”—in general self-proclaimed—continue asking for settlements from the supposed “heirs” of those who committed the injustice back in the day, and, I am afraid, this will probably go on for the rest of eternity. The more incommensurable the debt, the more likely these modern-day “victims” are nothing but charlatans and opportunists. I need not mention here that this almost universal trend has put an end to certain qualities that were once considered virtues, like dignity, pride, integrity, aversion to receiving handouts. And it has done away with some defects, as well: arrogance, superiority, scorn. People no longer feel the slightest bit of shame about calling themselves “victims,” or “secularly oppressed,” or perpetually subjugated, offended, harassed, and humiliated, and he who does not present himself in one of these categories will have little to say for himself, much less to gain, and doubtless will soon become a member of the other club, that of the “executioners” and the “oppressors.”

But now, what makes the role of the victim so convenient, so attractive? People who truly are victims, without quotation marks, certainly don’t consider their condition either convenient or attractive, and if you have any doubts about that point just ask someone who has suffered at the hands of terrorists—whether the ETA, IRA, or Islamic fundamentalist kind, it doesn’t matter.The people who truly suffer would give almost anything not to be victims—and I am referring to the dead (who can’t speak for themselves) as well as the wounded, the mutilated, the psychologically damaged, and their families. In the aftermath of their grave misfortunes, all they have left is a phrase repeated again and again by politicians, journalists, and even a few historians, which is not only false but terribly misleading:“The victims are always right.” No.The victims of terrorist attacks deserve all the compassion, solidarity, and support, both moral and material, that we can offer them. They also deserve our deepest respect and sympathies. They have been killed or injured not only in the name of everyone else, but instead of everyone else. Taking it a step further, we might even say that they have died or been injured or mutilated so that the rest of us—those of us with better luck—may avoid the same fate. But the simple fact of being victims does not automatically make them necessarily and always right. Being a victim does not make you a good person: Melitón Manzanas may have been ETA’s first victim, but that didn’t change the fact that he was still a well-known torturer and oppressor in the Franco years. The twenty million Soviets who perished in the Second World War did not whitewash the regime that subjugated them; and the tremendous suffering of the German citizens at the end of the same war, with its bombed-out cities and the brutal arrival of the Soviets at Berlin, did not mitigate one iota of the criminal culture that the German people glorified and enshrined.

There is a broadly accepted (and, to me, extremely dangerous) notion that sees suffering as something that has a purifying, ennobling, effect on people, to the point that they are practically rendered innocent as the result of their woes. But this cannot possibly be true: innocence is a quality a person would possess before having suffered, and if you don’t have this quality, you won’t get it from suffering. Not even the truly innocent victim— that is, the person who was innocent before being killed or injured—can claim that he or she is necessarily right, a priori whenever he or she decides, announces or demands. Underlying all of this is a Christian belief that is simply mistaken and trivial (and I do not use these adjectives as synonyms): the idea that through suffering a person is purged, and even acquires a level of impunity after the fact. The unspeakable suffering of the Jews under the Nazis has allowed the State of Israel to commit extremely grave abuses without anyone daring to raise a voice in protest. I understand the victims of ETA all too well, in a personal sense. And though I am not among ETA’s victims, I would never sit down to dialogue with members of such a gang, nor would I sit down to speak with members of Batasuna and their ilk, nor with the leaders of Spain’s PNV of the last fifteen or twenty years, if only for their leniency or tacit collaboration with the murderers. Now, I am not a politician, and as such I am free to choose how I will act. We all know that in the course of their careers, all politicians must often extend bloodstained hands for others to shake— from the bloodstained hand of Bush, Jr. to that of Fidel Castro, perhaps (let’s give them the benefit of the doubt) to prevent them from getting even bloodier than they already are. I would never stretch out that hand, however, but I suppose that is why I am not a politician nor do I pretend to be unequivocally “right” when it comes to a personal decision like this. Certain conversations, if they were ever to take place, would make the victims’ sick to their stomachs, and I wouldn’t blame them, because I would feel the same way. But that feeling, so understandable, would never make us—not them, and not more—categorically right. And that is, it seems, what people today seem most anxious to overlook.

Translated from the Spanish by Kristina Cordero

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