The United States either bows its head in shame for celebrating the murderous exploits of Columbus and the settler colonizers that followed him, or continues to glorify him and the world he represents.
UPPER PENINSULA, MICHIGAN — (Opinion) “There is no doubt this is the most horrible crime ever committed in the whole history of the world,” wrote Winston Churchill while reading the first detailed account of the Auschwitz concentration camps, according to an account about Churchill published on the BBC website’s history page. This is quite a statement coming from a man who for close to half a century was personally responsible for some of the worst acts of mass murder and racism perpetrated by the British Empire.
A site dedicated to the crimes of the British Empire and Winston Churchill’s role in formulating and executing Britain’s policies around the world, illustrates just how cruel and full of contempt he was towards other races and how, from India to Iraq and from Africa to Ireland, Churchill made his violent mark on practically every continent. One might argue that had Hitler’s victims been in Africa or India Churchill would not have been quite so horrified.
So when people claim a certain historical event was “the worst crime in the history” or “the worst crime of the century,” one must ask, how is such horror measured and how does one compare one genocide to another. Every time a child goes to bed hungry it is the worst crime; every time a child is injured or killed it is the worst crime; and every time an army kills civilians it is the worst crime in history.
Indigenous People’s Week
I recently had the honor of speaking at the opening of “Indigenous Peoples Week” at Michigan Tech University in northern Michigan. The event was held in the “Upper Peninsula,” where indigenous people are still present, as are the grave injustices they continue to endure. One can certainly claim that what the United States did and continues to do to the indigenous people of America qualifies as one of the worst and most protracted crimes in the history of the world. Of course, the United States also committed the unforgivable crimes of slavery and systemic racism against Blacks, and the United States dropped not one but two atomic bombs on Japan, killing hundreds of thousands of civilians.
An article in United to End Genocide, the website of an activist organization dedicated to preventing and ending genocide and mass atrocities worldwide, confirms that the countless atrocities against Native Americans span several centuries, from the first arrival of European colonizers through the modern era. According to the article:
Today there are over 500 Native American tribes in the United States, each with a distinct culture, way of life and history. Even today, Native Americans face large challenges to cope with the disadvantages history has left them and ongoing cases of discrimination.”
The article goes on to state that in 1848, before the California gold rush, “California was the most densely and diversely populated area for Native Americans in U.S. territory.” However, gold mining polluted the traditional Native hunting and agricultural grounds, “resulting in starvation for many Natives.”
Further, “in 1850, the California state government passed the Act for the Government and Protection of Indians that addressed the punishment and protection of Native Americans,” a piece of legislation that “legalized slavery and was referenced for the buying and selling of Native children.”
It is known that a great many Native Americans also died as a result of diseases that were spread by the European colonizers. One better-known example the article describes:
In 1763, a particularly serious uprising threatened British garrisons in Pennsylvania. Worried about limited resources, and driven by atrocities committed by some Native Americans, Sir Jeffrey Amherst, commander-in-chief of British forces in North America, wrote to Colonel Henry Bouquet at Fort Pitt: ‘You will do well to try to inoculate the Indians [with smallpox] by means of blankets, as well as to try every other method, that can serve to extirpate this execrable race.’
Consequently, settlers spread smallpox to the Native Americans by distributing blankets previously owned by contagious patients.”
The killing of indigenous people goes on today, though in other ways. A public-policy research paper written by Eitan Peled at UCLA argues that American Indian and Alaska Native populations were violently victimized at a rate 124 percent higher than the next highest demographic in 2013. He goes on to state that “history set the precedent for the current U.S. institutional complacency in cases of sexual violence against Native American women. Consequently, Native communities today continue to suffer from internalized oppression and the normalization of violence” at the hands of the U.S. Government.
These claims are confirmed by Futures Without Violence, a social-justice nonprofit that campaigns against all forms of violence. The nonprofit states on its website:
According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, US Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs at least 70% of the violent victimizations experienced by American Indians are committed by persons not of the same race.”
It is worth noting that the prosecution of U.S. citizens who perpetrate crimes against indigenous people on Native lands is, for reasons that go beyond the scope of this article, practically impossible.
Columbus Day: denying crimes by glorifying the perpetrators
It is not uncommon for states to glorify killers and murderers who act on their behalf. All one needs to do is to look at a list of international airports or highways around the world. The glorification of Christopher Columbus may seem abhorrent to some people today but, in the context of the United States’ history of genocide and what can only be described as crimes against humanity on a massive scale, it makes sense.
Knowing full well that European colonizers committed unforgivable crimes against the indigenous people and against slaves who were brought to America as merchandise, it is appropriate to glorify the man who, at least according to popular belief, initiated these crimes in America.
The following is a small yet telling example of how the intentional killing of civilians on a massive scale is glorified by the perpetrators, in order to cover up their crime by claiming it was an act of great patriotism. In a ceremony in which he presented the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) Gaza Corps with a commendation for their crackdown on Palestinian protesters over the past six months, IDF Chief of Staff, Lieutenant General Gadi Eizenkot, presented the Corps commander with a commendation and praised the troops:
Over the past six months you had dealt with terrorist attacks, attempts to breach our sovereignty and terrorist activities disguised as civilian disturbances that include women, children and the elderly. You demonstrated professionalism, dedication and showed principled action in a complicated reality.”
The “terrorist activity” to which General Eizenkot is referring is none other than the Great Return March that commenced on March 30, 2018. Since the largely peaceful marches began, Palestinians in the Gaza Strip have been protesting each week in an action dedicated to demanding their right to be free of military occupation and to return to their homes and their land.
Thus far — according to independent Palestinian non-governmental human rights organization Al-Haq, based in Ramallah — the Israeli military has killed 154 Palestinians. According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, “since the start of demonstrations on 30 March up to 30 June, a total of 15,501 Palestinians were injured by Israeli forces;” the report continues, “As of 26 June, over 1,400 people with severe injuries are at risk of longer-term physical disability.” All of this was praised by the Israeli Army Chief of Staff.
A piece in the Washington Post characterizes the attempts to replace Columbus Day with Indigenous People’s Day as boredom, saying:
Boredom is an under-esteemed instigator of history. I think the project of changing Columbus Day to Indigenous People’s Day is an example of it.”
This reminds me of comments I heard while in the Upper Peninsula in Michigan — white Americans who are descendants of colonizers complaining that the local indigenous people act as though they are somehow entitled. The commenters were referencing the complicated web of treaties that allow the indigenous Ojibwe people to reserve their right to hunt, fish, and gather on the lands they ceded to the United States. And so they do hunt and fish as they are entitled to do, and this is not contested by non-natives.
A good counter to the arguments supporting Columbus Day can be found in this short video titled, “Christopher Columbus was a Murderous Moron.” The video, and the Washington Post article, represent the choice between commemorating the victims of a genocide or glamorizing the perpetrator. This is not in fact about Columbus, who never actually discovered America; but about European settler colonialism and its consequences. The United States either bows its head in shame for celebrating the murderous exploits of Columbus and the settler colonizers that followed him or continues to glorify him and the world he represents.
Top Photo | A Native American woman marches during an Indigenous Peoples Day event, Oct. 9, 2017, in Seattle. Elaine Thompson | AP
Miko Peled is an author and human rights activist born in Jerusalem. He is the author of “The General’s Son. Journey of an Israeli in Palestine,” and “Injustice, the Story of the Holy Land Foundation Five.”
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect MintPress News editorial policy.