[Viewpoint] Who dares throw the first stone?

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[Viewpoint] Who dares throw the first stone?

The French authors Francois Mauriac (“Therese Desqueyroux”) and Albert Camus (“The Stranger”) won the Noble Prize in Literature in the 1950s after the Second World War. The two writers, veterans of the resistance movement, epitomized France’s national pride after being liberated from four humiliating years of occupation by Nazi Germany.

But the two thinkers were poles apart in postwar ideologies. Camus, a passionate purist with a vehement hostility toward totalitarianism, argued that newly liberated France punish and purge all collaborator elements in the name of justice. While Mauriac, a devout Roman Catholic, called for tolerance and humanity in the interest of national reconciliation.

Mauriac, in particular, wrote of human vulnerability and the predicament of the degradation of moral behavior under extreme circumstances, stressing that this was normal human weakness. But he was largely rebuffed as a Christian humbug by his contemporaries.

Amid a euphoric mood and many cries for revenge, France aggressively apprehended and persecuted Nazi collaborators, executing thousands. Some historians believe if you include executions without trials, the figure could be around 10,000.

People were falsely charged in the emotional turmoil and irrationality of the times. Women who were suspected of having had romantic relations with Germans were forced to parade through the streets with their heads shaved.

Camus had campaigned for the restoration of truth and purity by punishing dishonest and opportunist collaborators. But he failed to foresee the absurdities and loss of reason that arise in group movements. Mauriac recognized the lunacy of collective catharsis and emotional vendettas.

But it was Camus who stood up when the madness went out of control, publicly disavowing capital punishment. He cried out that Mauriac was right when he objected to author Robert Brasillach’s execution for the “intellectual crime” of collaborating with Nazis. Camus experienced and resisted the absurd contradictions of purity and revenge twice during the postwar period.

The government recently decided to strip Jang Ji-yeon, a journalist who publicly criticized Japan’s plot to annex Joseon, of a decoration awarded to the independence activist, saying his later articles had a “pro-Japanese” tone.

He is not alone. Artist Kim Gi-chang drew a couple of illustrations on Japanese military recruitment posters for Korean soldiers. Korean national anthem composer Ahn Eak-tai conducted a Japanese orchestra. Poet Chung Ji-yong contributed one poem to a pro-Japanese journal. Many famous artists have been later stigmatized for their so-called “pro-Japanese” activities.

They have all been disgraced in their tombs by descendants living in comfortable and secure times in the name of justice - all for trying to get through the tough days of living as an artist in times of duress.

These scholars, journalists and artists weren’t standard-bearers for the Japanese, nor did they benefit in any way from the Japanese regime. They were poor, suffocating intellectuals surviving through dismal years when names and our national identities had to be forsaken.

Like ordinary people, many of whom were forced to secretly trade in national pride and morality for food to live on and the barest of comforts, they, too, undoubtedly wept as they walked through the moral dilemma of a world full of contradictions and profound injustices.

As we dare not condemn the Korean-born Olympic gold medal marathoner with a Japanese flag on his chest who silently wept on the podium during the award ceremony in Berlin in Nazi Germany, I can neither join the public pillorying of these figures nor scorn the crucifix they had to carry because of a few irrefutably humane mistakes they made in their lives.

I bear no such purity and uprightness in me to throw stones at individuals forced to live with the disgrace and humiliation of colonialism because of a few of their actions. I didn’t live a single day in such captivity.

An irrepressible sadness overwhelmed me upon hearing the news of the journalist who publicly cried on behalf of his contemporaries. I can hear the old French authors lamenting the lack of tolerance and humanity in today’s judgements on what was right, just and inexcusable in this country a long, long time ago.

*The writer is a partner at Hwang Mok Park, P.C., and former head of the Seoul Central District Court.


By Lee Woo-keun
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