core course week ended a month ago and i’m still writing about it, or, core course week reflections

In honor of it being a month since Core Course Week (also, how did that happen?) and leaving for my long study tour tomorrow, here’s a blog post…about Core Course Week!

This blog post has been in the back of my mind, on my to-do list, and in the bottom of my drafts folder for the month since I returned from Hamburg.  I’ve tried to write it about a hundred times, but always got stuck.  But I leave for my long study tour tomorrow, so I figured if I didn’t write it now I probably never would.

Core Course Week was far more emotionally draining than I had originally anticipated—but in all the right ways.  Studying terrorism in a classroom and from an academic perspective is one thing, but seeing it come to life through our visits impacted us far more deeply.  And that’s the point of Core Course Week: to get you out of the classroom, into the field, learning about your subject in a way that you couldn’t before.

After reflecting on the week upon our return to Copenhagen, here’s some of the most salient takeaways I found:

#1 | The importance of the past and its relevance to the present

One of our academic visits in Hamburg was with a former member of the Red Army Faction, or the RAF.  He spent much of his lecture discussing the politics of the past and the brokenness he felt in his society that drove him to become politically active.  It was interesting to hear about the political strife and anachronisms of the 1960s—something I’ve studied since 8th grade—from someone who lived through them in such a central way.

#2 | The strength, bravery, and resilience of concentration camp prisoners

Another academic visit in Hamburg took us to Neuengamme Concentration Camp just outside the city center.  A work camp from the Second World War, the camp was originally placed in that location because of a brick factory onsite.  We toured the premises, which included a museum dedicated to the prisoners in one of the former buildings.  While Neuengamme was not expressly an extermination camp (like Auschwitz or some of the other, more high-profile camps), it is estimated that between 50-60% of the prisoners died while imprisoned at the camp.  Our tour guide took the time to read some quotations from camp prisoners.  They can speak about their experience for more poignantly than I ever could:

Oh my God, what I had to endure: lice, boils, hunger, beatings, maltreatment, diarrhea.  I was reduced to a mere shadow of my former self.  And maybe I only survived because I was very young.  Or maybe because I prayed with such fervor.

But what am I to do,
André my friend,
now that they’re taking you to the gallows?
How can I ever forget
that your gleaming eyes are lost forever?
[…] He was the conscience of Neuengamme,
like the steady burning flame
of the one noble humanity.
shining even through our darkest times.
Poem by H.C. Meier

Dead people, […] I see the human bodies in this way.  I move a little closer, I go there, touch them, move them.  I pinch myself, I scream, I laugh. […] This is Hell, this must be Purgatory or Hell.  I am dead, but when did I die?

#3 | The growing pressure on freedom of speech & the importance of maintaining it

Once back in Copenhagen, we had a lecture from a DIS faculty member who survived a terrorist attack here in Copenhagen in 2015.  An assailant opened fire on a seminar from a Swedish political cartoonist, who is controversial for his political cartoons and critique of authority.  As our lecturer recounted the events of the evening, he also discussed the wider role that art plays in our political life.  The idea of freedom of speech is one that’s been discussed frequently over the past few years in the United States as we grapple with how to define what kind of speech is protected under the First Amendment.  It was fascinating to hear about the debate here in Denmark and across Scandinavia and to reaffirm the importance of that freedom within our daily narrative.

#4 | The amount that satire has shaped us as a community

Along with discussing the terrorist attack, the professor also discussed the wider role of satire.  Upon deeper reflection, it’s clear how important satire is and how much of a role it has played in the world community.  For him, the role of satire is to take authority off of a pedestal.  In a world of increasingly polarizing leaders, it’s crucial that we have a means of expression that allows us to critique these leaders, rather than obey them in fear.  It’s not healthy for a society to have authorities who are above reproach, satire gives that means.

#5 | The importance of trust between the police and the community

Our last academic visit was to a synagogue and Jewish community center here in Copenhagen that was the target of the second phase of the terrorist attack in 2015 that I mentioned above.  A security guard was killed outside of the synagogue as the assailant attempted to gain access to the building where a bar mitzvah was underway.  These were private, volunteer security guards from the community—a community that didn’t feel as though the police was doing enough to protect them.  We engaged in a presentation and discussion with Jewish Security Denmark, the community’s organization and response to this felt lack of protection from the city and state police organizations.  This debate about police interactions with a historically-marginalized population is certainly one that’s an ongoing struggle in the US, so at a time of such great division and tension, it was interesting to engage in similar conversations from a different lens.

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