Sunday, September 30, 2012

Theater of the dangerously absurd

Friday was a national holiday in the Czech Republic, the day they commemorate the murder of Duke Václav, by his brother, Boleslav, who didn’t like his policy (and who also wanted to be duke). This happened in 935, or maybe in 929. Boleslav went on to rule for decades and helped build up what was becoming the Czech state. Václav went on to become St. Wenceslaus—the patron saint of the Czech nation and the namesake of a beloved English Christmas carol about a king bringing food and wine to a poor man.

Friday was also the day of an assassination attempt on Czech president Václav Klaus.
No wait, that’s not right. The president was in the town of Chrastava, making his way through a crowd after participating in the local celebrations, and it’s true that a man stepped from the crowd, held a pistol to Klaus’s side and fired seven times.

But it was a (realistic looking) plastic pistol used for games and the president merely received medical attention for bruises, so … no harm, no foul?

But that’s just the beginning of the weirdness. On this video, Klaus’s security detail watches the whole thing happen, and once the man’s done, they … do nothing. Well, that’s not entirely clear either.

The “assassin” backs away, hesitantly. We see him from behind, but his body language looks like he’s unsure of what to do now, or as if he were trying to melt inconspicuously into the crowd—dressed in a camouflage shirt amidst a crowd dressed for the holiday. Klaus scowls at him, but then sort of smiles. The nearest security agent looks at the attacker, looks at Klaus’s side, looks at the attacker, and the whole party keeps making their way through the crowd.

But just before the camera footage cuts away, another young fellow in a suit moves in the direction of the attacker. Maybe he's a security guy, and maybe he's tracking down the ... attacker, though he certainly doesn't seem to be doing it with any sense of urgency.

The man walked away, gave an interview to TV news, lit up a cigarette, and was finally apprehended by a policeman—who let him finish his cigarette before searching him and finding a can of pepper spray. In his interview, he says he did it because politicians are deaf to the calls of the people.

According to Lidové noviny, Klaus turned to his detail and said, “You really messed that up.” Or maybe it would be better translated as, “That really didn’t work out for you.” Right.

From the same source, “According to security expert Andor Šándor the security detail totally failed. ‘If the man had had a real weapon and had fired live ammunition, we would now be without a president and would be dealing with constitutional problems.’” [This suggests that there are no rules for automatic succession, as with the U.S. vice president becoming president. I don’t know whether that’s true.]

On the other hand, the head of the presidential security service thinks his men did just fine. “[The security chief explains that] when they saw that the man didn’t have a firearm, they also didn’t shoot. According to him, they thus saved the life of the attacker.” True enough, though it seems like there’s a middle ground between, say, pulling out your guns, firing wildly and killing 20 innocent bystanders, or just watching the guy go. You can see why Obama travels with his own Secret Service people. Though they do have their own failings

Perhaps the most charming part was the worry that nobody would notice: “People are writing about the attack on Klaus elsewhere in the world. From Slovakia to New Zealand.” But not in the U.S. On Saturday when I first read of the incident on the website of the Czech newspaper Lidové noviny, I Googled “Vaclav Klaus”, and the only thing in English that came up about the attack was from a website in Angola. By now the BBC is on the case, though as of Sunday morning the New York Times still hadn’t gotten around to it (when you search their website, their most recent coverage of Klaus is from when the Czech Republic took over the presidency of the European Union—in 2008!).

In contrast, commentator Daniel Kaiser is worried about the death of charm. “At first glance, the incident in Chrastava played out in ‘Czech’ style: a man approaches the president and empties into him the contents of a plastic air pistol. In the footage, you can hardly pick out the members of his security detail. They don’t come off as sharp or determined, but like everyone else around: sweetly immobilized. In the background you can hear the Radecký March, the hymn of Biedermeir. The police only pick up the man after he’s given an interview.

“A discrepancy between radicalism in words and moderation in deeds is typical of Czech culture, and it gives it a certain charm. We can argue over whether to call this an assassination attempt on the president. But it certainly was an assassination attempt on that charm. Next time, the security detail will have an un-Czech tendency to shoot.”

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