guilt by association

By 1990 the apartheid regime of South Africa, which had institutionalized racism, neared collapse. Internal strife, together with international economic and political pressure, forced the government's hand. F.

By 1990 the apartheid regime of South Africa, which had institutionalized racism, neared collapse. Internal strife, together with international economic and political pressure, forced the government’s hand. F.W. de Klerk, then president, began the negotiations to end the ruinous racial policies that had crippled his land.

The country released Nelson Mandela, head of the leading opposition body, the African National Congress, from prison after more than 27 years of incarceration on February 11th that year as a sign of intent.

The international solidarity movement responded to the call from partners in South Africa to maintain pressure on the de Klerk regime as a way to ensure that the course towards fundamental reform maintained its momentum. Father Michael Lapsley, an Anglican priest from New Zealand who had dedicated his missionary service to this liberation struggle in South Africa travelled across Canada in March of that year as part of that effort. My family hosted him during his visit to Prince Albert, Sask.

There, as in other Canadian communities, opposition to the anti-apartheid movement and the need for change in South Africa, voiced its concern. They often framed their argument not on unpopular racist grounds but rather chose a ‘guilt by association’ line of attack. Communists and others of their ilk, they charged, held positions of authority in the African National Congress, therefore the whole liberation struggle and all its proponents, including people like Archbishop Desmond Tutu or Father Lapsley, could not and should not be trusted.

Three weeks later, after Michael Lapsley, an African National Congress member, left our home and returned to Harare, Zimbabwe where he lived in exile, opponents of the struggle for freedom in South Africa used terrorist tactics in an attempt to silence him in a supposed defence of their distorted idea of democracy. Father Lapsley opened a packet of religious material which contained a hidden letter bomb. He lost both his hands and an eye in the blast but lived.

On a recent trip from Capetown, South Africa to Canada, Lapsley, who now heads the Institute for Healing of Memories, which “seeks to contribute to the healing journey of individuals, communities and nations”, spoke to a meeting of the national Anglican House of Bishops. A recent Anglican Journal edition quotes Lapsley on his struggle “from victim to survivor to victor,”: “Journeys of forgiveness are costly, painful and difficult. At the same time, they often involve grace. Journeys of forgiveness require generosity of spirit, and this to me, is what is often meant by grace.”

That same generosity of spirit certainly is not evident in the latest version of the National Defence Authorization Act signed by President Obama Dec. 31. Embedded in the act is a section on the ‘Authorization for Use of Military Force’. As Chris Hedges, author and war correspondent, wrote in his Truthdig column last Monday: “With this bill, which will take effect March 3, the military can indefinitely detain without trial any U.S. citizen deemed to be a terrorist or an accessory to terrorism.” Guilt by association can turn protestors into terrorists in Syria or concerned citizens into radical environmentalists here, as one federal minister would have us believe.

Hedges sees this as underpinned by fear which is “the psychological weapon of choice for totalitarian systems of power. Make the people afraid. Get them to surrender their rights in the name of national security. Enemies supposedly lurk in every organization that does not chant the patriotic mantras provided to it by the state. And this bill feeds a mounting state paranoia. It expands our permanent war to every spot on the globe. It erases fundamental constitutional liberties.”

We should never be afraid to speak out. We may risk being labeled as guilty by association with proponents of uncomfortable causes but I certainly don’t mind being associated however briefly with the likes of Michael Lapsley.

Michael Dougherty is co-chair of the social justice committee of Sacred Heart Cathedral of Whitehorse. Contact