Bernard-Henri Lévy Headshot

Europe Begins at Lampedusa

Posted: Updated:

The most striking and, in a sense, the most terrible aspect of the interminable tragedy of which Lampedusa has become the symbol is the indifference with which we, the citizens of affluent Europe, are handling it.

Yes, our heads of state last week put it on the agenda of their Brussels summit.

But one gets the feeling that the subject ranked lower than the banking union, the telecoms package, and the uncivilized -- indeed, thoroughly outrageous -- eavesdropping that their American allies have inflicted on them.

Public opinion, meanwhile, is equally tepid. The public seems to be looking on distractedly, as if Lampedusa were just another natural disaster, not really seeing the bodies being fished out of what threatens to become the largest cemetery in Europe. Some of us dismiss the matter by saying that we need to help the sending countries do a better job of patrolling their coastlines. Others chime in that we need to militarize the seas and declare total war on the smugglers and traffickers who make a business out of the misery of men and women willing to risk life and limb to escape the hell that their native lands have become. And still others are holding out for a more benign, less skewed form of globalization that would encourage migrants to say home and settle down (hey, that costs nothing and has the added advantage of postponing indefinitely the search for possible responses). But what is most striking in all these responses is the indifference, the casual blandness, the numbing of minds and senses induced by a tragedy unprecedented if not in form then in scale. The height of stupidity was reached by the French senator who declared a fortnight ago that at least Muammar Gaddafi, the former Libyan dictator, could be counted on to patrol his country's coastline, appearing to forget that Gaddafi was first of all a master extortionist who opened and closed the migration tap depending on whether Europe agreed to pay him the billions of euros in annual ransom he demanded for his coastguard services.

I must admit that I have no better notion than anyone else of what, concretely, it might be possible to do.

But allow me to summarize a few of the simple ideas that we should all keep in mind when the day comes -- and I hope it comes soon -- that we decide to tackle this problem head on.

Simple idea number 1. What happens at sea off Lampedusa is a matter not only of humanitarianism but also of law, in this case the law of the sea, which imposes an obligation to rescue men and women who, above and beyond their status as "migrants" or future "illegals," are beneficiaries of law for whom we have, whether we like it or not, an inescapable responsibility. (Not to mention the law of asylum, under which claims must be accepted and examined case by case, formally and deliberately, to determine whether each asylum seeker meets the terms of the law. We are certainly far from that standard!)

Simple idea number 2. Lampedusa is, of course, a humanitarian drama, and it is vital that the organizations that for decades have done such good work in Eritrea, Tigray, and other deprived regions of Africa from which most of the exodus flows find a way to deploy off the new Devil's Island that Lampedusa represents (I've been wondering for weeks how it is that the same staunch defenders of human rights, myself included, who found it normal 30 years ago to rescue the boat people from the South China Sea seem to be incapable of the slightest gesture of solidarity now that the boat people are in the Mediterranean, at our doorstep.

And, finally, the third idea, maybe not simple, but so clear and obvious. Because Europe, as conceived without exception by all of its founding fathers from Husserl to Jean Monnet, is a continent open to the world, a continent that would shrink if it were to become a fortress, because it is the homeland of the Universal -- that is, of the promise made to one and all to rise above the conjoined claims of nation, birth, and land to attain a higher form of freedom anchored not in the soil but in an idea, and because, finally, the migrants of Lampedusa are following an itinerary that is not unlike that of the little princess Europa who, in the founding myth of our Europe, left the shores of the Near East and arrived not on Lampedusa but in Crete on a winged bull no more trustworthy than the rickety craft in which the despairing souls of today set sail -- for all these reasons it is the fate of Europe itself that is at stake here; it is the definition of Europe that is being put to the test; it is the soul of Europe that, in the form of those small bodies laid out grotesquely in rows, many without name, is being tortured and mortified.

We can't have it both ways.

Either a European state of emergency is immediately declared on the island -- I say European because the search for solutions obviously cannot be heaped on the shoulders of Italy alone.

Or we get used to the idea of a two-track humanity -- one in which our fate depends on which side of the citadel gates we were born on -- and we turn our back forever on the Europe we say we are building, a Europe that may be headed for a shipwreck right before our eyes.

Translated by Steven B. Kennedy