Looking towards an imagined brighter future is a historian’s reverie in dark times, when trying to make sense of the present through the lessons of the past is simply too depressing. When the present day seems unremittingly grim, looking distantly forward provides some glimpse of future sunshine amid the downpour. As any historian knows, all political regimes, and the actors that populate them, inevitably wane with the fullness of time.
The record of the past is unequivocal: brighter times do eventually come along – at least until recent memory is once again overcome by wilful forgetting; a new dawn inevitably follows fitful sleep and intermittent nightmares.
When that day arrives, the messy, arduous task of sweeping up and properly disposing of debris left by the storm is an essential one. This cleansing process must happen if there is to be any hope of renewal. Like honest contemplation of a shattered relationship, understanding what went wrong helps us to heal, move on and avoid making the same mistakes. Whether it be the Nuremberg and Tokyo trials, which permanently disposed of Nazi and Japanese war criminals at the end of a rope, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which confronted the everyday horror and serial injustices of apartheid South Africa through honest testimony on all sides, or the Good Friday Agreement, which began the process of setting aside generations of intercommunal religious strife in politically divided Ireland – the reckoning has to start somewhere.
What might a South Africa-style Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Hong Kong look like in – oh, let’s say 2035 or thereabouts? What account of themselves and their long-ago actions, decisions and policies might the by-then-geriatric surviving cabal of “leaders” from today offer, as they are helped from their walking frames into the witness box? What belated explanations for what happened to Hong Kong, its people, public institutions and civil society, on their watch, from around 2012, could they give? Would they perhaps, realising that their own lives were almost over – Old Father Time, on his own accord, would soon see to them permanently – choose to make excuses for “what happened”, even if only to shield their descendants from the shame of being an ancestor?
Or would they behave like Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann, who on trial in 1962 after being kidnapped in Argentina by Mossad agents and spirited away to Israel, blinked blankly and hid behind the shopworn, fatuous argument that, as a bureaucrat, he had simply followed orders, and thus bore no personal responsibility for the consequences of his actions.
In Arendt’s view – widely supported by contemporary observers – despite being responsible for the deaths of millions, Eichmann was not a sociopath, but an utterly average, mundane little man who relied on cliché explanations, rather than any kind of overarching ideology or independent thought. Followers rather than the leaders that they delude themselves to be, “the Eichmann type” have, as a principal motivation, the prospect of promotion within their own ranks.
Breathtakingly ordinary people readily become powerful actors in totalitarian systems, Arendt noted, and, let’s face it, few personality types are more banal, imitative and conformist than the high-level Hong Kong government functionary. When the time comes, as it one day must, will they simply claim that they were just functionaries following orders? Will the deeply ingrained Hong Kong habit of collusion, corruption, shamelessness and duplicity prove too strong a gravitational pull? Or might these pitiful stooges finally tell the truth? As with all “anticipated” history, only time will tell.