The 18th of March is the anniversary of Iceland’s declaration of support for the 2003 invasion of Iraq. This year, two Icelandic anti-war groups chose to stage events in protest of that decision, and American foreign policy in general. First, there was a noon gathering at Háskólabíó, consisting of a panel debate and the showing of two short films by Ari Alexandersson titled I Am an Arab and 1001 Nights. Immediately following that gathering, there was an outdoor rally at Ingólfstorg. In both cases, those assembled were an eclectic mix of long-time leftists, young activists and students, and various bemused lookers-on. It was hard to gauge what the average age or social status might have been, but bohemians with woolly scarves and left-wing intellectuals in long coats were certainly well-represented.
“Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib are words that have become black stains on humanity’s conscience, like Dachau and Auschwitz.” – these were amongst the opening words of a speech given by Ólafur Hannibalsson, respected lecturer and long-time protestor, at the start of the gathering at Háskólabío.
To be fair, he and the rest of the speakers did not let this startling comparison set the tone for the events that would follow. After Hannibalsson had finished speaking, and the not-so-memorable film I Am an Arab had been screened, it was time for the panel debate to begin.
The assembled panel of experts was fairly impressive, including former Prime Minister Steingrímur Hermannsson, former foreign minister Jón Baldvin Hannibalsson (who is Ólafur Hannibalsson’s brother, incidentally), author Hallgrímur Helgason and several media figures including Halla Gunnarsdóttir from Morgunblaðið. Apart from the general back and forth, Ms. Gunnarsdóttir provided one particularly strongly worded but interesting quote: “You can’t report a murder in an objective way.”
The questions posed to the panel by the reverend Örn Bárður Jónsson were basically speaking points, while those emanating from the audience were for the most part completely incomprehensible diatribes that went on for longer than anyone cared to listen and often didn’t seem to contain any real questions.
“Seeing as how American military hegemony is destroying the world and our government is directly responsible for being a lapdog to war criminals, don’t you think I’m right in saying [insert opinionated conclusion]” – being the typical format. A regrettably painful chapter in what was an otherwise well-executed debate, but to their credit the panelists did not let the inanity of the questions stop them from expounding, at length, on their own views.
One odd aside came as Steingrímur Hermannsson was asked if he would vote for the Progressive Party, and by extension its chairman Halldór Ásgrímsson, in the next elections. It had nothing to do with what was being discussed, but in ducking the question Hermannsson managed to impart some subtle criticism on the foreign policy of his successor in the Progressive Party.
Even Describing This Movie Is Intense
After the panel discussion finished, the audience was treated to one last set of dire warnings about the second film’s content, and a short speech by the filmmaker himself. “This movie is really intense,” he said more than once and more than twice about 1001 Nights. “Please leave if you are under 16 or feel you won’t be able to handle the graphic violence.”
He wasn’t kidding. The short, Alexandersson’s second about the Iraq war, is basically just under seven minutes of what hell would be like if George Romero directed the action and Aphex Twin provided the musical score.
Apart from the lengthy close-up of a screaming man having his head sawn off with a rusty machete, it was probably the dead babies and brutal gang rapes that left the most lasting impression. Þór Eldon’s musical score catapulted the already stupefying material into headfuck territory, something he was no doubt aided in by the eerie low-quality look of the footage. A crying baby somewhere in the audience completed the shocking experience, as it coincided with the aforementioned montage of dead and mutilated children.
Once the horror was over and a few quick words had been spoken, it was off to Ingólfstorg to protest against American hegemony in general, and the military base in Iceland in particular. Rather than marching together in the bleak weather, most of those assembled at Háskólabíó seemed to choose private transportation – something of an irony in light of the famous “no blood for oil” slogan often associated with such events. A few confessed that they weren’t at all interested in going to the outdoor rally anyway, and, at first, there were fewer people at Ingólfstorg than at the earlier event.
As time went on, though, passers-by got curious and the crowd sort of snowballed into a fairly impressive mass of spectators, perhaps 800 or so, which was enough to come close to filling Ingólfstorg. Suddenly, a group of ‘anarchists’, of suspiciously low stature and high pitch, showed up dressed in black and sporting balaclavas. After shouting some slogans, the young revolutionaries struggled to set fire to a NATO flag, but apparently they had managed to procure one made of asbestos and the lighter fluid they began to spray on it in desperation only made it melt away in a decidedly unspectacular fashion.
There are both positive and negative things to be said about the Icelandic peace movement’s overall performance on the 18th. The organisations and the people responsible did in fact do a commendable job. Jón Baldvin and Steingrímur Hermannsson were the stars of the evening, trading some memorable jabs about politics and old times, but everyone who rose to speak did so with dignity and conviction. On the negative side, the rally at Ingólfstorg was predictable and no doubt boring for anyone who had been to such an event in Iceland before. It’s not that the speeches were bad. Stefán Pálsson, for example, spoke with his trademark passionate eloquence, and given the fact that news of the closure of the military base was still fresh, there was certainly more than enough to talk about. It’s just that the depressing weather didn’t help the atmosphere, the familiarity of the faces didn’t serve to excite, and the raggedness of the banners only underscored the fact that this was not the first or last time we would all be gathering in a vain attempt at having our voices heard.