What Hone could have said instead

Hone Harawira's comments on Bin Laden's death were dumb. But they could have been smart.

On the scale of dumb things to say if you want to be taken seriously as a politician, praising Osama Bin Laden as "a man who fought for the rights, the land and the freedom of his people" ranks slightly above "I don't think it is necessary for private individuals to own automobiles" and only just below "over the last few months, my pet goat and I have been enjoying a mutually loving sexual relationship."

Now, I know this isn't actually what Hone Harawira said. Viewing the full clip of his comments, it is obvious he is claiming that Osama Bin Laden's "family, tribe and people" hold this view of the man, and that he is acknowledging it as part of the Maori custom of "honour[ing] and mourn[ing] the deceased."

Not that this makes the view, whether held by Harawira personally or anyone else, any less wrong. Bin Laden wasn't fighting for "the rights, the land and the freedom of his people" - or, at least, not directly. For one thing, while he wanted to see a "true" Islamic caliphate in his home Saudi Arabia (as well as pretty much everywhere else), he spent his time fighting and plotting in places like Somalia and Afghanistan. For another, "rights" and "freedom" didn't exactly rank high on Bin Laden's list of things that would be "nice to have". Plus Harawira probably is wrong about what Bin Laden's family actually think about him and his death, given that they disowned him back in 1994 (when the Saudi Arabian Government also revoked his passport).

And whether it really is the case within Maoritanga that even the death of a despised enemy should lead to nothing but respectful remembrances and pious salutations is, it seems to me as an admitted outsider, questionable. I mean, if Tainui had managed to knock off Te Rauparaha in battle after he conducted his raids on Te Wai Ponamu, is it really the case that Ngai Tahu would have responded to this news by gathering on Marae to solemnly shake their heads and "not damn [him] in death, but acknowledge the positive aspects of life."? Well - maybe ... but I'd need a bit of convincing on that point.

Now, I know the counter to this last point - Te Rauparaha was a direct enemy of Ngai Tahu in a way Osama Bin Laden isn't to Hone Harawira or other Maori. Or, to paraphrase Muhammad Ali's apocryphal quip, no al-Qaeda ever stole my lands. All Bin Laden did was stick it to first the Russians and then the Americans, who are the greatest force for oppression on the globe. So, while his methods may have been ... unorthodox ... the underlying passion can at least be recognised.

To which the only reply is: bullshit. This sort of "the enemy of my enemy is, if not exactly my friend, at least not completely terrible" thinking is lazy and fails to recognise that the opposite of a bad can be an even worse. Just to make it clear, I'll write this in bold and italics: the inspirational leader of a religio-political movement that views cutting off peoples' faces with piano wire as an acceptable tactic for advancing its goals is a bad person and ought to be viewed as the enemy of all right-thinking persons everywhere.

That's not to say that all America's foreign policies are wonderful, or that anyone who opposes the USA's drive to remake the world in its image is bad. It's just a basic recognition that Bin Laden was an awful human being with a worldview that would be a terrible, terrible disaster if ever put into widespread practice. And while it is possible to have reservations about the extra-judicial execution of even awful human beings ... well, actually, I'm not entirely sure I do have such reservations.

All of which is to say, Hone Harawira's comments were without any saving grace whatsoever. Which is a shame, because there's actually a pretty good point he could have made.

You see, the US operation to execute Bin Laden was given the code name "Geronimo". This also happens to be the popularised name of Goyaałé, a Native American leader of the Chiricahua Apache people who resisted the Mexican and American invasion of his people's lands for some thirty years in the nineteenth century. Such was his success in doing so that he was described by American settlers as "the worst Indian that ever lived".

Understandably, the decision to name the operation to kill America's number one enemy after a heroic Native American defender of his people's independence has upset members of the Apache tribe on the grounds that "after all this time, Americans are still equating Native Americans with savages and enemies." It's even going to be the subject of hearings by the US Congress.

Now, given the Mana Party's commitment to indigenous people's rights, you might have though Hone Harawira could have seized on this issue to make a comment that went beyond the banal "the world is a better place without Bin Laden", without tripping into territory that invites headlines such as "Harawira thinks Bin Laden is a freedom fighter". Comment along the lines of, "the fact the USA chose to attach the name of a great Native American fighter to Bin Laden shows how far indigenous peoples everywhere must travel to win respect". Or, "while Bin Laden was a terrorist that no-one will mourn, the fact the USA equates him with a warrior for indigenous self-determination like Geronimo is deeply insulting."

Taking this line could have made Harawira's point - "I'm not going out and cheering on the USA while they do whatever they want" - and reinforced his brand - "In these world events, it's what it means for indigenous peoples that really matters to me". It's just a shame he wasn't smart enough, or well enough clued up on what actually happened in Pakistan, to follow it.