Thursday, May 29, 2008

May 29

On 29 May 1985, a football riot claimed the lives of 39 spectators when a concrete retaining wall collapsed at Heysel Stadium in Brussels, Belgium, where supporters of Liverpool FC and the Italian club Juventus had gathered for the finals of the European Cup. The episode took place shortly before kick-off, when Liverpool fans rushed a section of Italians -- most of whom were guest workers living in Belgium -- and drove them backward against the wall, which gave way in the panic. Victims as young as 11 and as old as 58 were crushed or suffocated in one of the worst episodes of football violence in the history of the sport.

Hostilities between Italian football fans and supporters of Liverpool stretched back to at least the previous year, when the latter were assaulted following their team’s European Cup victory over A.S. Roma. At that time, the Roma club’s most violent enthusiasts clubbed their English rivals with tire irons and other weapons after the match concluded; some English fans had to take refuge at their nation’s embassy. When the 1985 final brought Liverpool back to face another Italian club, the drunken yobs chose to overlook the fact that the followers of Juventus -- a club from northern Italy -- had nothing to do with the 1984 attacks. Italians were Italians. So when a handful of Italian fans began lobbing chunks of the stadium at the English hooligans in the adjacent section, further violence was inevitable.

Otello Lorentini, one of the many attendees who lost a family member that evening, described the night two decades later for the British newspaper The Observer.
[An English hooligan] jumped over a small fence and came charging towards us. Then, many more followed. They had lumps of terrace concrete, Coke bottles, beer bottles, rocks and even knifes. Everyone panicked. There were seven or eight policemen standing on the pitch side of the fencing. We pleaded with them to call for reinforcements. But none came.

I thought we would die. Everyone moved away from the charging Liverpool fans and, in the crush, the wall collapsed. This was actually lucky because otherwise thousands may have been killed . . . . I escaped through a small door at the top of the terracing and eventually found myself on the field where people lay on the ground dead. There were still no police around. Many people were trapped and dying and there is one man I cannot forget -- his face was covered in blood and over these past 20 years I have dreamt about him many times. I waved [my son] Roberto’s black-and-white Juventus scarf so that he could see it and then I decided to return to look for my son among the corpses in Sector Z. It was then I met my nephew. He said: ‘Come quickly, Roberto is not so good.’ I put my ear to my son’s ears and listened. I deluded myself that I could hear his pulse. But no, he was dead. The TV cameras had been filming me and later, I watched myself find my son.
Sharing blame for the 39 deaths, organizers of the European Cup tournament had selected one of the worst stadia in Europe to host the final match. The facilities at Heysel were feeble and unsuited for the 50,000 people who were expected to attend the event. Several clubs, including Liverpool FC, raised complaints over the site -- which some critics described as more of horse barn than athletic stadium -- but event officials refused to relocate the match to a newer complex better suited to handle the security problems that were inherent in a contest like the Euro Cup final. Officials in Brussels failed as well by not assigning enough police to the event.

After a two-hour delay, the match continued, with Juventus winning, 1-0 -- the only goal of the match coming on a penalty kick, the result of an objectively incorrect call on the part of the officials.

Unaware that more than three dozens of their supporters had actually died that evening, Juventus players enjoyed a post-game victory lap, hoisting the European Cup trophy as they circled the stadium.



Thursday, May 22, 2008

May 22

Preston Brooks, a US Representative from South Carolina, attacked Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner with a gold-tipped cane on this date in 1856, beating him so severely that Sumner would be unable to resume his full duties until nearly four years had passed. Brooks was outraged by a speech delivered by Sumner two days earlier on the Senate floor, where he denounced the “crime against Kansas” being perpetrated by pro-slavery forces who were determined to extend the “peculiar institution” into the Midwest. Sumner singled out 89-year-old South Carolina Senator Andrew Pickens Butler -- Brooks’ uncle -- for special ridicule, accusing him of being smitten with “the harlot, Slavery,” for whom he had nothing but kind and chivalrous words.

During the course of the speech, Sumner dismissed Butler as a slobbering ignoramus, observing that
the Senator touches nothing which he does not disfigure with error, sometimes of principle, sometimes of fact. He shows an incapacity [for] accuracy, whether in stating the Constitution, or in stating the law, whether in the details of statistics or the diversions of scholarship. He cannot open his mouth, but out there flies a blunder . . .
Butler, believing “my State and my blood” had been libeled by the Senator from Massachusetts, vowed to avenge Sumner’s words. After consulting South Carolina Rep. Laurence Keitt on the proper reply to Sumner’s “libel,” Brooks carried out his plan on 22 May 1856.

Brooks chose not to challenge Sumner to a duel, in part because he knew the Senator would refuse the challenge, but also because dueling was a conventional means of settling disputes among social equals; Brooks regarded Sumner as an inferior man and chose to assault him in a manner reserved for “correcting” slaves or accosting drunkards. After approaching Sumner in the nearly vacant Senate chamber, Brooks shattered his cane -- a gift from a friend in Baltimore -- over the Senator’s head, surprising him as he was writing letters. Brooks delivered at least thirty blows before leaving the floor; he was assisted by his Keitt, who displayed a pistol and warned Sumner’s colleagues not to intervene. By the end of the assault, Sumner was nearly unconscious and was blinded by his own blood. For years, he suffered headaches and nightmares as a result of the incident.

For his part, Brooks received a $300 fine for the attack and was celebrated across his home state and throughout the South, where newspapers lined up to issue their praise. The House of Representatives voted to expel Brooks but fell short of the required two-thirds majority. Embittered, Brooks resigned his seat to seek re-election. Less than two months before he was to resume his place in Congress, Brooks died of croup in January 1857; a few days past the one-year anniversary of the beating of Charles Sumner, Andrew Butler joined his nephew in death.



Wednesday, May 21, 2008

May 21

On this date in 1924, two exceptionally gifted college graduates smothered 14-year-old Bobby Franks in the back seat of a rental car in Chicago. The two young men, Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, killed Franks in order to bear out their hypothesis that they could get away with committing the “perfect crime.” After luring Franks into their car and beating him with a chisel, Leopold and Loeb suffocated the boy with a coat and abandoned his body at Wolf Lake, which straddled the Illinois-Indiana border, fifteen miles southeast of the city.

Nathan Leopold, writing in his autobiography (Life Plus Ninety-Nine Years), explained how he and Loeb disposed of Franks’ body:
We had previously removed the shoes, trousers and stockings of the boy, leaving the shoes and the belt by the side of the road concealed in the grass. Having arrived at our destination we placed the body in the robe, carried it to the culvert where it was found. Here we completed the disrobing, then in an attempt to render identification more difficult we poured hydrochloric acid over the face and body. Then we placed the body into the drain pipe and pushed it as far as we could.
While they were attempting to conceal Franks’ remains, however, a pair of glasses slipped from Leopold’s coat pocket. The glasses were traced back to their owner, who confessed and pinned blame for the murder on his companion. Loeb, for his part, blamed Leopold for the crime.

The case of Leopold and Loeb became one of the enduring historical contributions of the 1920s. After initially entering pleas of ‘not guilty” by reason of insanity, the two young men -- following the advice of their attorney Clarence Darrow -- pled guilty and watched for an entire month as Judge John R. Caverly determined their fate. More than one hundred witnesses appeared during the sentencing hearing, which concluded with a twelve-hour summation from Darrow, who spent much of his time attacking the very use of capital punishment in a “civilized” society.

During his address to the judge, Darrow argued that the Great War had numbed the sensitivities of the entire nation, including the accused.
We read of killing one hundred thousand men in a day. We read about it and rejoiced in it -- if it was the other fellows who were killed. We were fed on flesh and drank blood. Even down to the prattling babe. I need not tell your honor this, because you know; I need not tell you how many upright, honorable young boys have come into this court charged with murder, some saved and some sent to their death, boys who fought in this war and learned to place a cheap value on human life. You know it and I know it. These boys were brought up in it. The tales of death were in their homes, their playgrounds, their schools; they were in the newspapers that they read; it was a part of the common frenzy -- what was a life? It was nothing. It was the least sacred thing in existence and these boys were trained to this cruelty.
Judge Caverly spared the lives of Leopold and Loeb, sentencing them each to life in prison for the murder of Bobby Franks and 99 years each for Franks’ kidnapping.

Richard Loeb died twelve years later in prison, his throat slashed in the shower by a fellow inmate. Nathan Leopold was paroled in 1958 and spent the rest of his life in Puerto Rico, where he died of a heart attack in 1971.



Monday, May 19, 2008

May 19

A Cambodian infant by the name of Prek Sbauv was born on this date in 1925. A month short of his 50th birthday, Prek Sbauv -- now known to the world as Pol Pot, leader of the Khmer Rouge movement -- concluded nearly a decade of armed struggle by taking full control of his nation, which he renamed Democratic Kampuchea.

Espousing his own regressive version of Maoist doctrine, Pol Pot insisted that Kampuchea return to the condition of a purely agrarian society in order to purify the Cambodian people and prepare them for collective progress; cities like Phnom Pehn were therefore to be evacuated, and all modern technology was forbidden throughout the country unless approved by the central committee. The Khmer Rouge divided the Cambodian population into three classes -- “full-rights,” “candidates,” and “depositees” (or “New People”). The later category included intellectuals, journalists, Buddhists monks, anyone who had contact with the West, people with glasses, people with disabilities, and ethnic Lao, Chinese and Vietnamese people. It also included everyone living in the regions of the country not controlled by the Khmer Rouge before 1975.

The “New People,” who numbered in the millions, were deemed enemies of Pol Pot’s revolution and were rounded up into camps, separated from their families, subjected to torture and forced labor, deliberately starved and then killed by the hundreds of thousands in mass graves they had dug with their own hands. As the Khmer Rouge explained, “To keep you is no benefit, to destroy you is no loss.” Teeda Mutt Mam, one of the “New People” to survive of the killing fields, has written that
we were not allowed to cry or show any grief when they took away our loved ones. A man would be killed if he lost an ox he was assigned to tend. A woman would be killed if she was too tired to work. Human life wasn’t even worth a bullet. They clubbed us in the back of our necks and pushed us down to smother us and let us die in a deep hole with hundreds of other bodies.

They told us we were void. We were less than a grain of rice in a large pile.
After presiding over well over a million deaths, Pol Pot was dislocated from power when the Vietnamese army invaded in 1979, scattering the Khmer Rouge government. Pol Pot fled to Thailand and then to China, where he lived until the Vietnamese army withdrew from Cambodia in 1989. After returning to his native land, Pol Pot and the remnants of the Khmer Rouge managed to keep government forces at bay until 1997, when he was at last captured and sentenced to lifetime house arrest. On 15 April 1998, after learning that he was to be delivered to an international tribunal and tried for crimes against humanity, Pol Pot died. His body was cremated, however, and not cast into a ditch -- which would certainly have been no less than what he deserved.



Thursday, May 15, 2008

May 15

On the morning of 15 May 1974 -- the 26th anniversary of Israel's founding -- three guerillas from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PDFLP) crossed into Israel from Lebanon, then shot and killed five people in Ma’alot before taking over Netiv Meir elementary school, where about a hundred teens from a nearby village had spent the night after a hiking trip.

During the negotiations that followed over the course of the afternoon, the PDFLP insisted that the Israeli government release more than two dozen political prisoners, in exchange for which the captive youths would not be killed. The militants set a deadline for 6:00 p.m. Although the government of Golda Meir indicated that it would be willing to meet the demands, it also asked for more time to continue negotiations; the request was refused. Shortly before the deadline, soldiers from the Sayeret Matkal special forces unit stormed the school and killed the three hostage-takers -- though not before 21 children died and scores were injured by gunfire and grenade shrapnel.

The next day, Israeli Defense Force planes pounded seven Palestinian refugee camps in southern Lebanon, killing 26 and injuring well over a hundred people.

Nineteen years after the Ma'alot massacre, a two-day crisis at a Parisian nursery school ended when French police commandos shot Eric Schmitt in the head three times while he was sleeping. Schmitt, an unemplyed engineer and failed businessman, had taken 21 girls and their teacher hostage, demanding nearly $20 million in exchange for their safe release. The teacher, a young woman named Laurence Dreyfus, kept the children calm by telling them that Schmitt was "hunting wolves."



Wednesday, May 14, 2008

May 14

On this date in 1961 -- Mothers’ Day -- civil rights activists affiliated with the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) were attacked by white mobs in Anniston and Birmingham, Alabama, when they attempted to ride through the state on Greyhound and Trailways buses. Following the US Supreme Court’s decision in Boynton v. Virginia -- which ruled segregation on interstate bus lines unconstitutional -- black and white “Freedom Riders” decided to test the willingness of white Southerners to adhere to the law. Fewer than two dozen set out from the nation’s capital on May 4. They had dutifully sent their itinerary to the Justice Department. J. Edgar Hoover promptly forwarded it to state officials in Alabama, many of whom were known to have Klan affiliations.

The rides began in early May. Defying custom, white riders sat in the back while black passengers occupied the front seats. When the buses stopped, the CORE riders refused to observe the segregated conditions that were still observed in southern bus terminals; whites used “colored” restrooms and waiting areas, while blacks used facilities reserved for whites.

The rides encountered minor violence in Rock Hill, South Carolina, but everyone knew the worst was yet to come. As Martin Luther king, Jr., had warned the riders, “You won’t make it through Alabama.” Indeed, when the CORE buses crossed the Georgia state line on their way to Birmingham, they encountered ferocious resistance. At a rest stop in Anniston, the Greyhound passengers were attacked by local members of the Ku Klux Klan and nearly 200 of their closest friends. One of the riders, James Peck, wrote about the incident in his book Freedom Rider (1962):
They set about the vehicle, denting the sides, breaking windows, and slashing tires. Finally, the police arrived and the bus managed to depart. But the mob pursued in cars. Within minutes, the pursuing mob was hitting the bus with iron bars. The rear window was broken and a bomb was hurled inside. All the passengers managed to escape before the bus burst into flames and was totally destroyed. Policemen, who had been standing by, belatedly came on the scene. A couple of them fired into the air. The mob dispersed and the injured were taken to a local hospital.
By this point, Walter Bergman had been kicked until his brain hemorrhaged. He remained in a wheelchair for the rest of his life. The reception in Anniston was not entirely unhelpful, though. A 12-year-old white girl named Jamie Miller brought a bucket of water to the riders, who were choking from smoke inhalation. Facing constant taunts and threats from other whites in the community, she and her family soon moved from Anniston.

When the Trailways bus arrived two hours later, Klansmen boarded as well, beat the Freedom Riders and forced them to the back of the bus for the two-hour ride to Birmingham. As they drew nearer to the city, Klansmen taunted and threatened the passengers. When the group arrived in Birmingham, the violence resumed with the complicity of the local police, who allowed the racist mob fifteen minutes of unimpeded access to the riders. Gary Thomas Rowe was among those who awaited the arrival of the civil rights activists. Years later, he described the event:
We made an astounding sight . . . men running and walking down the streets of Birmingham on Sunday afternoon carrying chains, sticks, and clubs. Everything was deserted; no police officers were to be seen except one on a street corner. He stepped off and let us go by, and we barged into the bus station and took it over like an army of occupation. There were Klansmen in the waiting room, in the rest rooms, in the parking area.
When the bus arrived in Birmingham, the seven Freedom Riders were dragged from the vehicle, chased into the streets, punched and kicked into semi-consciousness. After 20 minutes, the mob dispersed.

Photographs of the assaults in Anniston and Birmingham were published nationwide and even overseas. When activists from the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee joined the Freedom Riders to help them complete the journey, they were attacked as well in Montgomery, where one man was doused in gasoline and set on fire. The Kennedy administration, embarrassed and shocked by the violence, quietly negotiated with the racist governor of Mississippi, James Eastland, to have the riders arrested for their own protection when they crossed into his jurisdiction. As more riders entered Mississippi and as the arrests mounted, some of the activists were shipped off to Parchman Farm, a former slave plantation than had become one of the most notorious facilities in American history.

The Freedom Rides -- scores of them -- continued throughout the summer and into the fall of 1961. The Kennedy administration did as little as possible, blaming the activists themselves for causing international embarrassment to the US. In September, the Interstate Commerce Commission issued a long-overdue order that put the Supreme Court's desegregation rulings into effect.



Friday, May 09, 2008

May 9

On this date in 1980, a freighter -- blown off course in the perilous shipping lane of Tampa Bay -- struck the Sunshine Skyway Bridge just after 7:30 a.m. On impact, the Summit Venture, empty and riding high in the water, destroyed nearly 1300 feet of roadway and sent three dozen people plunging into the channel. The captain of the freighter, John Lerro, was attempting to guide his ship through one of the longest and most dangerous shipping channels in the world; his mission was complicated by a sudden and unexpected blast of horrendous weather, which left him as well as everyone on the bridge shrouded in zero-visibility conditions, with rain and fog and winds that approached 60 miles per hour. The ship’s radar failed as well.

A minute before impact, conditions cleared enough for Lerro to see that his ship was off course and heading toward the bridge. Last-second emergency maneuvers were ineffective. Most of the 35 people who died that morning were traveling on a Greyhound bus, which tumbled into the bay and -- in the words of one observer -- “split open like a ripe tomato.” Seven other cars joined the bus in the water. Only one man survived.


Nineteen years later, a Custom Charters bus veered off Highway 610 in Louisiana and crashed into an embankment, killing 22 people who were headed to a Biloxi, Mississippi casino to celebrate Mothers’ Day. The driver of the bus, Frank Bedell, had passed out just before the accident. According to one witness, the bus "closed up like an accordion," ejecting passengers in all directions.

By any measure, Bedell should not have been driving that morning. His employers were evidently unaware that Bedell had been hospitalized 20 times in the previous two years for kidney and heart ailments that eventually took his life three months after the Mothers’ Day catastrophe. Investigators later discovered that Bedell had received dialysis treatement the day before the crash and checked himself out of the hospital against his doctor’s advice; desperate to earn a living, he was given fluids and sent home 10 hours before taking the wheel. It likely didn’t help matters that Bedell was taking Benadryl and had apparently smoked marijuana sometime before taking the wheel.

It was also not insignificant that Custom Charters routinely broke federal law by insisting that its drivers work without the mandatory eight hours of rest between trips. In 1998, federal investigators slapped the company on the wrist after learning that its drivers -- at the insistence of their supervisors -- were submitting falsified logs to conceal their illegally long shifts. Custom was also cited for failing to do criminal background and medical checks on their employees, and for instituting a drug and alcohol screening program that was apparently non-functional. Any of these precautions would have saved nearly two dozen lives.

Frank Bedell died of a heart attack three months after the Mothers' Day catastrophe.



Tuesday, May 06, 2008

May 6

On this date in 1882, the Congress of the United States passed a bill insisting that “the coming of Chinese laborers to this country endangers the good order of certain localities within the territory thereof.”

For decades, whites along the west coast had been agitating for greater regulation of Chinese labor. States like California passed openly discriminatory legislation against the Chinese from the early 1850s onward, while Chinese miners and railroad workers faced wage disparities and violence throughout the country. Meantime, anti-Chinese ideologues insisted in the press and from the pulpit that “Asiatics” represented an economic, political and moral hazard to the white republic. During the presidential campaign of 1880, the Democratic and Republican parties committed themselves to an exclusionary policy

To remedy this presumed affliction, this new law -- the so-called “Chinese Exclusion Act” -- effectively ended Chinese immigration for the next six decades by prohibiting the entry of all Chinese laborers into the US. Under the terms of the act, those who were not common “laborers” -- merchants, diplomats or teachers -- were permitted to come to the US provided that they received certification from the Chinese government assuring that they were not, in fact, common workers. Those Chinese workers already living in the US were allowed to stay but faced greater bureaucratic obstacles if they wished to travel abroad and return; the act also clarified that resident Chinese were ineligible for naturalized citizenship.

Opponents of the Chinese Exclusion Act were hardly silent throughout this period. In Congress, various Senators and Representatives argued that the proposed bill would violate America’s treaty obligations to the Chinese while needlessly alienating other Asian peoples; others insisted that the law would run contrary to the nation’s pluralistic values and that it would capitulate to racists and demagogues. Harper’s Weekly stated the latter case against the bill a month before its passage:
The coming of 230,000 or 240,000 Chinese in a quarter of a century, and the presence of 100,000 in the country at the end of that time, are not the precursor of an overwhelming invasion. The bill is founded on race hatred and panic. These are both familiar facts even in this country. It is not a very long time since one of the most familiar objections to the antislavery movement was that the fanatics wanted to free the "nay-gurs," who would immediately overrun the North and supplant the Irish. It was mere panic. We have always invited everybody to come and settle among us, because the chance of bettering his condition was fairer here than anywhere else in the world. If we now exercise our right to select new-comers, not upon great public considerations the truth of which is demonstrated, but because of race hatred, or of honest labor competition, or fear of local disorder, the movement will not stop there.
These predictions proved accurate. By World War I, the United States had passed an array of restrictive laws barring a variety of classes from immigration: people with certain diseases or handicaps, paupers, contract laborers, prostitutes or other “immoral” women, illiterates, anarchists, and convicted felons. No other law, however, targeted a single national group for exclusion. Meantime, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 had been reauthorized several times until it became permanent in 1902. It was not repealed until 1943, when Congress graciously permitted 105 Chinese immigrants to enter the United States each year.

In 1965 -- nearly a century after the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act -- racial quotas were at last removed from American immigration law.



Monday, May 05, 2008

May 5

On 5 May 1886 -- mere hours after the infamous Haymarket bombing in Chicago -- Wisconsin state militiamen fired on a group of striking mill workers in Bay View, just outside Milwaukee. Four died on the spot, with three more succumbing to their wounds over the next few days.

Earlier that week, at least 14,000 Polish and German laborers had struck against the city’s industrial base, and by May 3 had managed to shut down every factory in Milwaukee with the exception of the North Chicago Rolling Mills Steel Foundry. In doing so, they joined hundreds of thousands of workers across the nation in calling for a shorter workday without reductions in pay. At the time, the mill workers in Milwaukee endured 12-hour shifts for wages that hovered around $1.25 per day; while the city had an eight-hour law on the books, it was weak and carried no provisions for enforcement.

As the strike gathered strength, several industries conceded to the workers’ demands. Bricklayers and masons received 20 percent wage increases; one of the city’s breweries offered its workers an eight hour day along with better pay. The city’s leaders feared their world was being turned upside down.

Wisconsin’s governor, “Uncle” Jeremiah Rusk, had already put the state guard on alert in preparation for the week’s events, and on May 3 he issued a formal order mobilizing them in defense of private property. The Kosciuko Militia -- made up of Polish businessmen -- was among the units that were assigned to guard the Bay View complex. The next day, a mass of strikers was turned back by several hundred militiamen, who fired over their heads as they gathered at St. Stanislaus Church. When news of the Chicago bombing reached Milwaukee late in the evening of May 4, Gov. Rusk issued “shoot to kill” orders, which the militia put to use the next morning against a wall of unarmed protestors as they approached the gates of the foundry.

No one was ever prosecuted for the seven deaths, and Governor Rusk was deluged with congratulatory telegrams from appreciative business owners and Wisconsinites who believed the labor radicals had received their due. Polish workers in particular were assigned the role of scapegoat for the entire strike; employers fired them by the thousands in subsequent weeks. As for the Polish businessmen who comprised the Kosciuko militia, they were rewarded by the mill’s owners, who offered them cash bonuses for their role in defending the Bay View mill.

Later that year, socialists and labor advocates -- mobilized by the Bay View Massacre -- swept the municipal elections in Milwaukee.



Friday, May 02, 2008

May 2

Leopold II of Belgium formalized his rule over the "Congo Free State" -- surely one of the great misnomers in the history of imperialism -- on this date in 1885. During the previous six years, Sir Henry Morton Stanley had concluded a series of advantageous treaty negotiations with the tribal chiefs of central Africa, whose lands were given over to the king for his personal enrichment. Stanley, quite famously, observed that "the savage only respects force, power, boldness, and decision," advice that Leopold surely took to heart as he spent the next 20 years administering the destruction of millions of people whose homelands he would never visit.

The history of the Congo Free State amounts to one of the great mass murders in human history, as a familiar nexus of racism and economic exploitation was condensed into two decades of systematic atrocity carried out with only the barest pretesnse of "White Man's Burden." Leopold opened parts of the Congo to European entrepreneurs, who purchased the rights to exploit the land for rubber and ivory; in exchange for granting monopoly rights, the Belgian ruler asked only for a 50 percent share in the profits. In the regions of the "Free State" that the king ruled directly, he borrowed from 16th century Spanish conduct in the West Indies and demanded annual production and labor quotas from the locals. The quotas were more than mere recommendations. White deputies of the king, known as the Force Publique, brutalized the various Congolese tribes, enforcing the king's authority over nearly a million square miles of land; the FP also punished interference from Congolese or Arab traders who competed with European merchants. During the "rubber terror," recalcitrant or non-productive tribes were tortured, mutilated and shot. FP conscripts were allowed to submit baskets of severed hands to their commanding officers, "tributes" of a different sort than relieved them of responsibility for failing to extract the quotas from the subject peoples.

Villages were depopulated and burnt to the ground. One member of the FP later testified that in one episode,
[w]e fell upon them all and killed them without mercy ... [Our leader] ordered us to cut off the heads of the men and hang them on the village palisades, also their sexual members, and to hang the women and children on the palisades in the form of a cross.
Between five and fifteen million Congolese died during the 23 years of Leopold's rule, while the king himself absconded with 220 million francs in personal profit, an amount totalling more than a billion dollars in contemporary terms.

By the early years of the new century, word of Leopold's savagery leaked to the European public, who reacted in horror at the revelations of journalists like Edmund Morel or novelists like Joseph Conrad, whose Heart of Darkness was based on his observations as captain of a steamer on the Congo River. Writing about a decade before the king's death, Mark Twain declared that
Leopold has deliberately destroyed more lives than have suffered death on all the battlefields of this planet for the past thousand years. In this vast statement I am well within the mark, several millions of lives with the mark. It is curious that the most advanced and most enlightened century of all the centuries the sun has looked upon should have the ghastly distinction of having produced this moldy and piety-mouthing hypocrite, this bloody monster whose mate is not findable in human history anywhere, and whose personality will surely shame hell itself when he arrives there--which will be soon, let us hope and trust.
Investigations by European governments eventually persuaded the Belgian parliament to wrest control from Leopold in 1908. The damage, however, had already been done. Not only had Leopold destroyed tens of millions of lives while depleting the wealth of a continent, but his entrepreneurial imperialism accelerated the European quest for African lands -- a competitive cycle that would bring devastating consequences for hundreds of millions more, including Europeans themselves. By 1914, the bearers of "civilization" -- driven mad by nationalism and imperial competition -- paused for a moment and began slaughtering one another for a change.

Leopold II, sadly, was not around to witness the fruits of his effort to subdue the Congo. By the time the Germans occupied most of his country, Leopold had been dead for five years.

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