Racism: Keep Talking

The killing spree in Bratislava is a reminder that it can happen here, and worst of all, there’s no one left to blame but ourselves

Opinion | Margaret Childs | September 2010

Who’s to say whether the gunman on the outskirts of Bratislava was after his neighbors for being Roma? The police deny that the incident in which seven people were killed and 15 wounded had any racist motives; neighbors are certain that it did: He was known for his hate of the Roma, they say.

No matter what, it has gotten all of Europe talking.

Witnesses and neighbors are in shock, saying that they have always felt safe, and that "things like this don’t happen here." Those words remind many of the refrains after school-shootings in Columbine or tragedies like the Fritzl family.

However this time it has a social and political wake. Lubomir Harman was not just some sicko with a gun, he was a racist sicko with a gun, and since this wasn’t a school shooting, we can’t blame the gory video games.

The controversy arising from this ruthless display of hatred is bound to have to do with gun laws in the EU and, above all, with racism. In either case this tragic incident has brought back the reality that a gun license combined with bigotry can lead to a killing spree like this, and there’s no one left to blame.

Is this just a crazy, letting out his anger on a neighboring family? Was he trying to make a statement, and if so, is this a problem that needs to be addressed politically; a call for tolerance and honesty?

Slovakia would not be the first place in Central and Eastern Europe where hate crimes against Roma make the front page. In recent years, so-called "racist" acts against Roma in Hungary have been all over the news. Since the incident involving a father (27) and son (5), who were shot dead in 2009 as they ran from their burning house in Tatárszentgyörgy, south of Budapest, there have been many calls for dialogue. The number of Roma in Hungary has multiplied sevenfold in the last century, according to Romaniworld.com. "Today every fifth or sixth newborn is Roma," the site reports. Based on current demographic trends, they project that in 2050, 20.9% of the population (2.9 million people) will be Roma.

The history of Roma in Europe has been similar to other itinerant societies. Like the Jews in Midieval Europe, they were denied the right to own property and became tinkers or were "forced" into a culture of stealing. This is what the general public knows of the Romani culture.

The reality today is that many descendants of the original Roma travelers are part of normal life, integrated into the societies they live in, going to school, holding jobs and paying taxes. Apparently, though, there is a relatively small, die-hard community that sees no reason to conform to the laws of the country in which they live. At the same time, especially in Romania (where 2.5% of the population are Roma) wealthy Roma build elaborate houses, making it hard for neighbors not to protest their isolation.

However the question of racism against this minority is not uniform across the countries affected. A 2009 report of the European Union’s Fundamental Rights Agency reports that the level of perceived discrimination among the Romani community is 64% in the Czech Republic, 62% in Hungary, 59% in Poland, 55% in Greece 41% in Slovakia 26% in Bulgaria and 25% in Romania.

While it’s hard to imagine how statistics like this can be accurate, the idea that the majority of any minority population should experience racism at these levels recalls a not too distant and dark part of European history. This incident is perhaps another wake-up call that something needs to be done to establish peaceful co-existence, at the very least.

This horrific display of hatred in which seven people were killed and 15 wounded probably had more motives that just racism, but what the gunman did achieve was dialogue: YouTube video postings, blogs and newspapers are full of discussion, not always constructive, but out there.  Many delve into the historic arguments on what was done to Roma at certain times in the past and others jibe back about "dirty, primitive Gypsies."

Ugly, perhaps, but at least the issues are visible, and maybe that is just what politicians and civil rights activists need to get the policy conversation off the ground.

Other articles from this issue

  • Heldenplatz, The Hero’s Square

    Here the weight of history hangs overhead: the last grand gesture of the Habsburgs, the call to arms of Adolf Hitler, and today a serene place of citizens and ceremony
    On The Town | Bojana Simeunovic, Dardis McNamee
  • How Much Transparancy is Too Much?

    There is a clear parallel between Afghanistan leaks and Daniel Ellsberg’s 1971 release of the Pentagon Papers: yet even some supporters of open government think Wikileaks goes too far.
    News | Peter Singer
  • Fools on Parade

    In Zurich, for this annual street fest, the weird become the norm, as lines blur in the cross-breeding of urban life
    On The Town | David Reali
  • AIDS: Rights Now

    The 2010 International AIDS Conference in Vienna: a lot of stress and frustration, but also new hope for a promising future
    News | Baiqu Gonkar
  • All articles from this issue

    the vienna review September 2010