Why hard-line measures fall short

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Why hard-line measures fall short


In “The Unbearable Lightness of Being,” Milan Kundera wrote, “Necessity knows no magic formulae - they are all left to chance.

“Once chance can speak to us. We read its message much as gypsies read the images made by coffee grounds at the bottom of a cup.”

Not so long ago, such a magical chance happened. The Paris terror attacks that killed 130 people earlier this month and the protests in Gwanghwamun ran on the same page of the newspaper. These two unrelated events were mixed up like coffee grounds and some people tried to take meaning from it.

That’s exactly what President Park Geun-hye did. She likened masked Korean protesters to Islamic State (ISIS) terrorists. She raised her voice to say that masks and face coverings should be banned in rallies and called an impromptu Cabinet meeting while she was presumably sick. The minister of Justice supported her claim, too, and ruling party lawmakers came forward to initiate a revision to the Assembly and Demonstration Act to ban masks and other face coverings.

This is the eighth attempt since 2004, which means the Saenuri Party has tried almost every year. But each time, the proposal was scrapped due to negative public sentiment. The Constitutional Court is also skeptical, but this time, the ruling party is pushing hard, juxtaposing the demonstrations in Seoul with the terrorism in Paris.

It’s evident that the anonymity afforded by masks enables people to be more violent. Face paint and camouflage also have similar effects. It’s true that protesters wearing masks are more likely to become violent. Perhaps, some wielded masks in preparation for this.

Needless to say, violent demonstrations shouldn’t be tolerated, and violent acts by those wearing masks should be strictly punished. But it’s hard to agree with the logic of banning face coverings altogether. We don’t even need to mention the usual “freedom of expression and dress” argument. It’s natural and fair to seek to protect lawful protesters wishing to advocate their beliefs, rather than preventing 10 who may turn violent.

I also suspect the effectiveness of the law. With or without masks, violent protests are clearly unlawful and illegal activities must be put to a stop. But public authorities are neglecting their duty by not preventing or controlling unlawful protests on site, and instead resorting to tracking down protesters after the fact, based on evidence. They’re practically abetting unlawful protests and enabling rallies to become more heated.

There is also another more important reason to oppose the mask ban. Koreans fear backtracking in democracy. It is an authoritarian idea to associate masks with violence and ban all masks because masked protesters could become more violent. The emergency measures implemented by the Park Chung Hee regime resulted from that mindset. It was state-orchestrated violence meant to restrict the liberty and rights of the country’s citizens.

This is why we are so grateful to the late Kim Young-sam. He lifted the burden of this tragic time from our shoulders and we don’t want to go back. We don’t want to be under the thumb of a far more fearful state just to rid a handful of violent protesters.

Banning masks doesn’t mean protesters won’t become violent. Democracy can’t be earned so simply. Here, those who support the ban argue that similar laws are in place in the United States, France and Germany. But their legislation is based on original sins.

Germany is wary of Nazi-supporters and totalitarian groups. The United States wants to prevent activities by racist supremacists like those in the Ku Klux Klan. In France, the hijab and burqas are not allowed in public spaces, in accordance with conspicuous religious symbols being banned by law.

These measures are not models for us to follow.

Instead, we need to learn from the citizens who participated peacefully in the rally alongside those who turned violent. We need to understand why tens of thousands of citizens are out in the streets. We reject the authoritarian mindset of implementing state-authored history textbooks because the government isn’t happy with current materials. Nothing can be resolved with authoritarian measures. And violence carried out by the state is far more deadly than masked protesters with pipes.

JoongAng Ilbo, Nov. 28, Page 34

*The author is the editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

BY Lee Hoon-beom


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