BRATISLAVA – In April 1999, when two American teens mowed down 12 classmates and a teacher at Columbine High School, it was a watershed moment for the country. It spawned all sorts of soul-searching and debate, on everything from gun-control laws and teen bullying to vicious video games and use of anti-depressants. It also inspired Michael Moore’s Oscar-winning documentary on gun violence in the U.S.
In other words, a healthy response to trauma may be to look in the mirror and ask: “Does this say something about our society? Does it say something about us? Does it say something about me?”
Yet most Slovaks, it seems, want no such introspection.
Bratislava was the scene Monday of the worst massacre in Slovakia’s 17-year history, in which a lone gunman killed seven people, including six members of the same family, and injured another 15. In a flash, tiny Slovakia made global headlines. Yet the bigger story here for me – journalistically speaking – is not the bloodbath itself, but overall reaction to it: blame the victim.
You see, the family hailed from the Roma minority – a.k.a. the reviled “Gypsies.” And from the look of media reports, the thinking is that this Roma family must’ve done something to push their 48-year-old neighbor, described as moody loner Ľubomír Harman, over the edge into a murderous frenzy.
When word first spread Monday morning about the shooting – a British friend helpfully called me after hearing it on the news – the initial speculation was of drug-dealing turned deadly. Then came word they may have been Roma. Ah-hah. Later that night, I offered my friend a conspiratorial take: “I can imagine someone would want to float the idea of drugs, so society can wash its hands of Roma being murdered.”
Today, Slovakia announced a day of national mourning, with flags flying at half-mast. But by now the story has taken an uglier turn. The drug narrative has evaporated. Instead, reporting now seems to focus on what a noisy nuisance this family was – exploiting a common stereotype of the Roma. (One TV station may even have blundered by mis-identifying the trouble-making woman who was allegedly the real target of the massacre. It’s unclear whether this misstep was unintentional or not.)
Even wire-service reports on Yahoo are drawing stomach-turning comments from some of this region’s better English-speakers, along the lines of “the Gypies have it coming to them.”
Hogwash, according to neighbors of both the Bratislava family and the shooter, who say nothing they did deserved a bullet. Especially, their 12-year-old boy who was also gunned down.
All this is doubly upsetting to my go-to contact on local Romani issues, Slovak Roma activist Stano Daniel. It’s not just the massacre of a Roma family, but this rush to blame the Roma for everything that befalls them. It also follows a pattern, says Daniel, of the European Roma Rights Center in Budapest.
In Spring 2009, for example, Slovak police officials tried to deflect attention from a handful of cops in the eastern city of Kosice accused of roughing up six Romani adolescents – then forcing them to strip naked and kiss each other – by focusing on the petty crimes of the kids.
Or last spring in the Czech Republic, when neo-Nazis firebombed a Roma family’s home – severely burning a 2-year-old girl now known as “Little Natalka” – certain media preferred to highlight the charge the adults had stolen electronic equipment.
“What the media and general public do here is insanely sick,” Daniel tells me this morning. “Again there is this ‘Gypsy exception to the rule’: they know they all can do it and no one is going to stop them … My feelings now are mostly about how racist a society must be to find justification for murder.”
Not every Slovak fits into this category, of course.
Later this afternoon, a young Slovak waitress in the Old Town explains to me that she does indeed have the killings on her mind.
“It’s horrible what this man did to the family, and I’m not thinking about them like they’re Gypsies,” says Viktoria, 19. “I feel sorry for their relatives, that somebody kills all your family.”
However, Viktoria goes on to describe that there are “some good Gypsies and some bad Gypsies.” And her grandmother, she says, contends with the latter kind in her Bratislava apartment building. Indeed, Granny doesn’t sound like the kind who’d be mourning on this day.
“She’s told me would shoot Gypsies in the street like pigeons, if she could.”