November 08 2008
As a new film about the Baader Meinhof Gang, the anarchist group who
plagued Germany in the 1970s, aims to strip away the supposed romance
and glamour of urban guerrilla violence, SUSAN DALY asks...
What do Carla Bruni, David Beckham, Barack Obama, actress Rose
McGowan and rapper M.I.A. have in common? They have all been on the
receiving end of criticism recently for -- in total ignorance or not
-- supporting terror groups or their members.
Famous names have a habit of making gaffes when they attach
themselves to causes or issues in a bid to be 'on-trend'. (Remember
Sharon Stone and her brilliant deduction that the earthquake in China
might be a result of bad 'karma' for its handling of Tibet?)
Similarly, youngsters the world over have a habit of latching onto
eternally 'cool' icons without looking beyond the legend. So a
million teenagers have owned a Che Guevara T-shirt. The personality
cult that has built up around him ignores the fact that he presided
over the infamous Havana fortress La Cabana, where thousands of Cuban
'enemies of the state' were summarily executed.
Guevara wasn't afraid to get his hands dirty: he was often the one to
administer the bullet to the back of the head and paraded prisoners
past El Paredon, the blood-spattered wall against which so many were
executed. He is also credited with the establishment of forced-labour
camps in which many Castro dissidents, intellectuals and artists died.
Nonetheless, it is difficult -- after 40 years of Che as a global
brand -- to persuade disenfranchised, disillusioned youth to let go
of him as a hipster icon. Ditto Mao Tse-Tung (the people's
revolutionary or mass murderer?), Patty Hearst (cool, brainwashed
babe or spoilt rich heiress?), the Weather Underground (idealistic
intellectuals or bomb-toting thugs?), and even FARC (freedom fighters
or ruthless terrorists?)
There has been a backlash of late against jumping on the terrorist
chic bandwagon. The most recent example is The Baader-Meinhof
Complex, released in Irish cinemas this weekend. It concerns urban
terror group the Red Army Faction (RAF) which plagued 1970s Germany
with a bombing campaign that killed 30 people and carried out armed
robberies to raise funds.
Because the group had its origins in 1960s student protests against
capitalism, the Vietnam War and the concealment of the Nazi past of
the country's elite, some left-wingers in Germany continued for years
to see the RAF as well-intentioned. Two years ago, Berlin hipsters
took to wearing 'Prada Meinhof' T-shirts as a style statement. The
new film, however, has been praised for exposing the group as the
bunch of murderous nihilists they were.
Similarly, the iconic image of American newspaper heiress Patty
Hearst in a jaunty beret and sexy tight combat shirt in a publicity
photo of the Symbionese Liberation Army is now widely known to show a
girl less caught up in a Bonnie and Clyde moment, than one suffering
from Stockholm Syndrome.
Barack Obama found himself embroiled in controversy towards the end
of his US presidential campaign over another American leftist group
of radicals. He was 'outed' as an acquaintance of Bill Ayers, a
former Weatherman. The Weathermen, later the Weather Underground
Association, were involved in bombings, riots and a jailbreak,
ostensibly in protest at the Vietnam War. Although Ayers, now a
college professor, and other Weathermen reintegrated into American
society, it shows how sensitive the US has become to glamourising
terrorism in any way that a mere link to Ayers threatened to derail
French President Nicolas Sarkozy also felt the brunt of public fury
last month when, asked by wife Carla Bruni, he overrode a French
court's decision to extradite Marina Petrella. She is a former
commander with the Red Brigades group in Italy who was found guilty
of armed robbery, kidnapping and murder.
Bruni's obsession with Petrella is especially disturbing because the
Red Brigade urban terrorists were the very reason Bruni's rich family
moved to Paris in the 1970s, with the threat of kidnapping and ransom
demands hanging over them.
Another deluded beauty, actress Rose McGowan, got a slap on the wrist
this summer when she appeared to romanticise the IRA bombing
campaigns of the 1970s. Publicising her role in Fifty Dead Men
Walking, a movie adaptation of an IRA informer's autobiography,
McGowan blithely announced: "I imagine, had I grown up in Belfast, I
would 100pc have been in the IRA."
The producers of her film took the unprecedented step of publicly
distancing themselves from her comments. This was something of a move
forward for Hollywood from 1989 when Mickey Rourke, who has a tattoo
of the IRA on his left arm, quite openly and cheerfully donated part
of his earnings from the film Francesco to the IRA.
McGowan is not the only pretty young thing warned against shooting
her mouth off. Sri Lankan rapper M.I.A. (real name Maya Arulpragasm)
has been forced in interviews to deny she supports violence, because
her lyrics are rife with violence and revolution. Artwork, which
appears on her CD covers and website, features tanks, guns, Molotov
cocktails and tigers: the symbol of the 30-year-old guerrilla group,
the Tamil Tigers, which her father helped co-found.
While the Tigers emerged from the discrimination against the Tamil
minority in the north of Sri Lanka, the group has been widely
condemned for its suicide bombings and conscription of child soldiers.
Then there are the poor dumb celebrities who have been rightly
slapped down for just not having a clue.
When David Beckham stepped out of his house one morning last year
wearing the Palestinian black-and-white checked kaffiyeh scarf, he
was probably just following fashion. (We are taking it for granted
here that Becks is not an avid student of the intricacies of the
Middle Eastern situation). Marketed as a 'peace scarf', it had been
featured on the catwalks of Galliano and Balenciega, and draped
around everyone from Kirsten Dunst to Mary-Kate Olsen to Colin Farrell.
Some see the scarf as a historical symbol of Palestinian nationalism.
But to many, it is a flag-waving reference to suicide bombings and
jihad. Those who insisted that it was just another piece of clothing
were derided by commentators.
Clothing chain Urban Outfitters took the scarf off their shelves.
What had happened over time is that the keffiyeh had become a brand
in its own right, just like Che's portrait, Mao's little red book or
Maybe for this reason, terrorist chic will survive the latest
backlash. Or as one online retailer puts it in a slogan emblazoned on
a T-shirt with Che's image: "I don't know who this guy is but he sure
sells a lot of T-shirts!"