Garlasco’s Way
Padraig Reidy on Human Rights Watch and the limits of private life
16 Sep 09

Marc Garlasco is a military analyst for Human Rights Watch. He is also the author of The Flak Badges of the Luftwaffe and Heer, a niche interest book on the design of World War 2 German air force regalia. He is also, on internet message boards, flak88 (a reference to a German anti-aircraft gun, and not, as some mistakenly suggested, a Hitlerian code — “88” is often used by neo-Nazis to symbolise “Heil Hitler”), a commenter who has, among other things, called SS uniforms “cool”.

None of this is massively out there: lots of people work for NGOs, many more chat oj the Internet, and western male fascination with the Nazis and wartime Germany is pretty much what keeps the History Channel going.

Garlasco was the author of a 2006 HRW report into Israel’s use of cluster bombs in the Second Lebanon War, and was later critical of Israeli military tactics in Gaza in January 2009.

Some pro-Israel bloggers spotted their target, and in what in the past would have been regarded as a pretty good piece of investigative journalism, dug up Garlasco’s web chatter, and a picture of him wearing a sweatshirt emblazoned with an Iron Cross.

After initially defending Garlasco’s extracurricular interests, his employers at HRW have now suspended him on full pay, pending an investigation. But people at HRW already knew of Garlasco’s interests: if he had sought, and been granted permission from his employers before he published his book, then the charge is theirs, not Garlasco’s, to answer. Either way, the situation is damaging to HRW’s ability to speak to, and be heard by, Israel.

The story yet again highlights the simple fact that there really is no privacy on the Internet, but also a much more fundamental question about the divide between the professional and the personal: does an interest in the Hitler era mean that someone cannot comment impartially on modern Israel? Does a curiosity about fascism, indeed, undermine one’s ability to discuss and defend human rights? More broadly, to what extent do personal peccadilloes affect professional practice, and can the two ever be cleanly separated?

By Padraig Reidy

Padraig Reidy is the editor of Little Atoms and a columnist for Index on Censorship. He has also written for The Observer, The Guardian, and The Irish Times.