Pink Floyd’s Toxic Waters
As a 16-year-old Israeli, I loved The Wall. At Yankee Stadium last week, I saw its moral failure.
And then comes the moment that turned the whole thing from a bombastic exercise in bad taste to a beacon of moral turpitude. The song ends, and the wall is taken over by an animated subway train. Suddenly, the excellent surround sound system booms with seven gunshots, and the screen is filled with the portrait of a young man. Waters introduces him as Jean Charles de Menezes; this portion of the show, he says, is dedicated to him. De Menezes, Waters explains, was a young Brazilian engineer who was on vacation in England in 2005 when the British police attacked him in a tube station, shooting him seven times in the head. No one, Waters howls, was ever held accountable for his death, despite repeated attempts by his parents to pursue justice. Waters urges us to remember de Menezes, together with “all other victims of state terror all over the world.” If we give our police too much power, the rock star thunders, “it’s a very steep and slippery slope to tyranny. On a happier note, what about those kids?”
Everyone applauded the kids, but I was still thinking about de Menezes. Because facts matter, here’s a brief description of what happened to him: He was not an engineer but an electrician, not on vacation but overstaying his visa and eager to find work in London. When the police approached him that day in the tube, he was jittery. Why was he jittery? Because he had no papers. Why had the police approached him? Because two weeks before de Menezes was killed, terrorists had detonated three bombs on subway trains and one on a bus, killing 52 people and wounding more than 700 more, and because the day before de Menezes was killed, another four bombs were set off and the bombers were believed to reside in the same housing project as the unlucky Brazilian. Against protocol and human decency, the police opened fire almost immediately, killing de Menezes. Several days later, Scotland Yard announced its investigation. It also said that it would break with usual procedure in cases of fatalities resulting from police shootings and refuse to hand over its report to the Independent Police Complaints Commission, citing national security. Regardless, the IPCC, working with lawyers representing the de Menezes family, started its own investigation. Awhile later, ITV ran a story with leaked details from the IPCC’s investigation, casting the police in an unflattering light. Several suits ensued, and all found the evidence inconclusive and no reason to take further action against any of the officers or their superiors. The de Menezes family appealed to the High Court and lost.
None of it mattered to the dude sitting in front of me. “Fucking pigs!” he muttered as Waters concluded his story. “I’m telling you, fucking police just fuck up whoever they want. It’s no fucking democracy, it’s a fucking joke.” I was tempted to tap him on the shoulder and tell him about the terrorism that put the case into context and about how, contrary to Waters’ claims, the de Menezes case is actually a prime example of how, in a democracy, everyone is held accountable—in this case by two separate police commissions, alert news media, and a host of judicial circuits. But Waters had already moved on to the next song, and it was too loud to attempt serious conversation.
Now, I suspect, is the point in which many of you may press forth some version of the following argument: Lighten up. It’s a rock show. He’s an entertainer. You can’t take it too seriously. At least his heart is in the right place, no?
When you’re Roger Waters, a former member of an iconic rock band, Pink Floyd, whose show plays sold-out houses each night and has grossed $350 million to date, what you say matters. You’re perfectly welcome to choose to say political things. But if you choose to say political things, you should remember that talking about abuses of power and tyranny and police brutality isn’t the same as shouting “Hello, New York!” If you choose to talk about de Menezes, you have to get your facts straight. If you don’t, you are just as much of a corrosive asshole as those journalists and politicians and clergymen who lie to sell their narrow agendas. You’re not an alternative to corrupt institutions; you are one.
I hoped that the de Menezes incident would be a temporary lapse of judgment. It wasn’t. Waters played “Run Like Hell” against the backdrop of Wikileaks’ “Collateral Murder” video, which shows the killing of two unarmed Iraqi reporters by an American Apache helicopter crew that mistook them for combatants. An on-screen text displayed the names of the assault’s victims and assured them that they are remembered. Again, no context was provided; if you need some, just ask a furious Stephen Colbert.
By the time the intermission—yep, intermission, like in a play or an opera—came around, I was ready for a respite. But the wall was slowly covered by the faces and stories of victims of violence, and I, miserable wretch, had to read them all. Some were American soldiers who had died in World War II and Vietnam and Iraq. Others were Iraqis killed by Americans, Iranians killed by Iraqis, Jews killed by Nazis, and Nazis killed by the Soviets. A handful were political leaders who were assassinated—Gandhi, Salvador Allende, Olaf Palme. And two were Rachel Corrie, the American activist killed by the IDF when she tried to stop a bulldozer from razing a Palestinian home, and Bassem Abu Rahmah, a Palestinian who was killed when an IDF soldier shot him in the head with a teargas canister. Here’s the text that accompanied Abu Rahmah’s snapshot: “On Friday, April 18, 2009, after noon’s prayers, while at the front of the demonstration against the building of the Israeli apartheid wall, Israeli occupation soldiers shot a gas canister directly at Bassem’s head and he was killed on the spot. Bassem is one of many faceless and nameless Palestinian Arab victims of the Israeli apartheid and occupation machine.”
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