Mandela, “terrorism,” and perspective

I feel I must take a brief break from my navel-gazing travel blogging to say something about Nelson Mandela. I am no student of history, especially recent history. I can’t claim to know much more about Mandela than what I’ve read in the last day or so since learning of his death. But even that is enough to give me pause.

History is, as we all know, written from the winners’ perspective. This places Mandela’s legacy into an odd category. He lived long enough to become one of the “winners,” universally acclaimed as a force for good and a moral person. But as many have pointed out, the US didn’t remove him from our terrorist list until 2008. Why? Among other things, Mandela refused to renounce violence as a method of seeking justice. Therefore, from certain perspectives, he was a terrorist.

The definition of a terrorist is, of course, completely dependent on perspective. One man’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter. The British thought of our founding fathers as terrorists, and with good reason! But no one is the villain of his or her own story. So who else might we be erroneously demonizing? It’s a tough question.

I saw some of this while in Cuba. Growing up in the US, I was of course taught that Fidel Castro was an evil man. In Cuba, he’s a revolutionary. Here he’s a rebel, and a tyrant. Now, a week in Cuba doesn’t make me an expert, but while people there do seem to prefer Raul, I didn’t get the sense that anyone felt crushed under Fidel’s iron fist (as my American education led me to expect). It is possible that there’s so little freedom there that no one felt safe enough to criticize the regime, er, government. But it is also possible that people really do support the country birthed by his revolution. Perspective.

In order to accept Mandela into the pantheon of winners, the other winners are already trying to shape his legacy, erasing the violence and claiming that they were behind him all the way. Let us not forget that the truth is more complex than that.

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