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Wednesday, May 18, 2011     GET REAL

Excessive responses to a powerful Frenchman’s downfall

By Uwe Siemon-Netto,

We have been treated to degrading images of the unshaved, handcuffed Dominique Strauss-Kahn (“DSK“) after his arrest for an alleged sex offense of a very serious nature. We have seen the head of the International Monetary Fund, gaunt and hollow-cheeked, before Judge Melissa Jackson who sent him to Rikers Island, where he is now incarcerated with 14,000 hardened criminals, mostly drug addicts.


Some of us following the international media reaction to this sad case were horrified by the orgy of schadenfreude and malice in headlines, commentaries and readers’ blogs: “DSK Out,” the leftwing Paris paper “Libération” titled its cover story, and on the next day: “DSK KO.” The New York Daily News, a tabloid with an evident knack for alliterations, described him as a “Frisky Frenchie” and “Le Perv,” and the New York Post labeled him a “Dirty Pol.” Meanwhile in Germany, homeland of “Häme” (malicious glee), a blogger in the reputable Frankfurter Allgemeine newspaper opined inelegantly that by throwing himself naked upon a chambermaid from Guinea Mr. Strauss-Kahn might have been rehearsing for his meeting with Chancellor Angela Merkel scheduled for the following day in Berlin.

Far be it from me to justify the crime of which Dominique Strauss-Kahn has been charged. Still, his weird case begs this question: How much pressure does it take for great men to snap? For a 62-year old trained lawyer with a proven appetite for women it seems nonetheless extraordinary to gamble away his chance of being elected president of France next year by attempting to rape a cleaning woman and forcing her to have oral sex with him at lunchtime in a $3,000 suite in New York’s Sofitel, if this is what really occurred.

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The cue could lie in a fascinating line in a Wall Street Journal article about a previous alleged sex attack by Dominique Strauss-Kahn on French novelist and journalist Tristane Banone, in 2002. The Journal quoted Ms. Banone’s mother as saying about Strauss-Kahn: “He told me he had acted on an impulse, blown a fuse.” Has Dominique Strauss-Kahn, a man on a daunting mission to save Greece, the Euro, and ultimately the European Union, blown a fuse this time, just before negotiating with Merkel and then the EU finance ministers about precisely this undertaking?

A New York judge, a headline writer in Paris and a German blogger can hardly be expected to fathom what is going on in the mind of a statesman and banker dealing with issues affecting the wellbeing of the world. We know from history that important leaders go nuts under such immense stress, often seeking solace in sexual adventures or alcohol or both. This is no excuse, just a recognized phenomenon accompanying major crises. We know this about John F. Kennedy, Bill Clinton and Winston Churchill. I have personally observed Willy Brandt drink himself into a stupor when the Berlin Wall was built exactly 50 years ago, which is why Chancellor Konrad Adenauer nicknamed him Willy Weinbrandt (Billy Brandy).

In addition to booze Brandt found comfort in the arms of women that weren’t his, as did French presidents Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, François Mitterrand and Jacques Chirac, and countless other leaders going back in history to King David. On a less illustrious level we know from times of war that combatants often console themselves with erotic excesses and intoxication in between battles that night cost them their lives.

These analogies might not exonerate Dominique Strauss-Kahn but underline a seemingly insuperable problem: All humans, even the brightest and bravest, are fallible, though not all are laden with pressures comparable to those of the Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund in these singularly troubled times; so how do we create an early warning system telling us that such an official is on the verge of running amuck? How do we prevent him from running amuck? And what do we do if by all indications he might have run amuck?

In today’s parlance, the term, running amuck, describes a loss of self-control. But it originated in the Malay word, amok, meaning uncontrollable rage and ultimately murderous frenzy. In their wisdom, the ancient Malays considered this a state of mind not liable to prosecution. This might or might not apply to Dominique Strauss-Kahn. We will hopefully find out. In the meantime, though, he is still a very significant man who deserves to be treated with dignity, not with scorn. There must be places where this can be done well without jeopardizing the prosecution’s case. Rikers Island is no such place. That Judge Jackson insipidly confined him to this antechamber of hell before the eyes of the whole world I find repugnant.

Uwe Siemon-Netto, the former religious affairs editor of United Press International, has been an international journalist for 54 years, covering North America, Vietnam, the Middle East and Europe for German publications. Dr. Siemon-Netto currently directs the League of Faithful Masks and Center for Lutheran Theology and Public Life in Irvine, California.

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