NORMAL HUMAN BEINGS would blanch at the thought of staging an athletic event at the site of an infamous massacre. But China's Communist rulers, who are bidding hard to host the Summer Olympics in 2008, are not normal human beings. So it comes as no surprise that they propose, if they are awarded the games, to hold the Olympic marathon, triathlon, and cycling competitions in and around the spot where the People's Liberation Army killed as many as 2,000 student demonstrators in June 1989: Tiananmen Square.
The highest aim of the Olympic Games is set out in the Olympic Charter: "encouraging the establishment of a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity." Would staging races at a place of mass murder demonstrate respect for that goal -- or contempt?
That is one question the International Olympic Committee might want to ponder before July 12, when it is to decide which of five competing cities -- Osaka, Paris, Toronto, Beijing, or Istanbul -- will host the 2008 Games. Each of the five has its drawbacks, of course. But only Beijing is the capital of a totalitarian dictatorship. Does it make sense to confer the prestige and favorable publicity of the Olympics on a regime that routinely strangles freedom of speech and religion and imprisons millions of its citizens in slave labor camps?
That is another question for the IOC to ponder.
Supporters of China's Olympic bid argue that the growing prosperity of recent years has brought about a greater openness in Chinese society, and that ordinary Chinese men and women are increasingly free to live as they like, unhampered by the government. As the members of the IOC consider that claim, perhaps they will take a few minutes to consult Amnesty International's recent report on China. This is how it begins:
"Zhou Jianxiong, a 30-year-old agricultural worker from Chunhua township in Hunan province, died under torture on 15 May 1998. . . . He was tortured by officials from the township birth control office to make him reveal the whereabouts of his wife, suspected of being pregnant without permission. Zhou was hung upside down, repeatedly whipped and beaten with wooden clubs, burned with cigarette butts, branded with soldering irons, and had his genitals ripped off.
"This horrific case of abuse is not an isolated case. . . . Torture and ill-treatment of detainees and prisoners is widespread and systemic in China. . . . They have often been perpetrated by officials in the course of their normal duties in full public view, sometimes as a deliberate public humiliation and warning to others."
There are those who suggest that awarding China the Olympics could help reduce such atrocities. With the eyes of the world on Beijing, they say, the reformers would be empowered and the government would have to be on its best behavior.
But if recent Chinese conduct is any guide, it is likely that giving the nod to Beijing will embolden the Communists to crack down even more savagely on dissenters and minorities. Instead of providing a boost to pro-democracy activists, the Olympics will strengthen the dictators' conviction that they can do as they please, both at home and abroad, without suffering any penalty.
No doubt Chinese officials have studied Olympic history; no doubt they know that the IOC has never pulled the games from a host city because of belligerent or offensive behavior -- not even in 1936 and 1980, the only times the Olympics were held in a totalitarian state.
Berlin was awarded the 1936 Olympics in 1931; two years later Hitler came to power and the Nazi terror began. Among many other outrages, Jewish and Gypsy athletes were expelled from German sports facilities. Yet at no point did the IOC seriously consider moving the games -- not even when German troops occupied the Rhineland, an ominous violation of international law.
For the Nazis, the Berlin Games were a propaganda triumph. They conveyed the impression, The New York Times wrote on August 14, 1936, that Germany "is a nation happy and prosperous almost beyond belief; that Hitler is one of the greatest, if not the greatest, political leaders in the world today; and that Germans themselves are a much maligned, hospitable, wholly peaceful people who deserve the best the world can give them."
In 1974, the IOC chose Moscow to host the 1980 Olympics. Eight months before the torch was lit, the Soviets invaded Afghanistan. It was an act of aggression so naked that even Jimmy Carter -- who had once urged his nation to get over its "inordinate fear of Communism" -- was shocked. Some 60 nations, led by the United States, boycotted the games in protest.
Who knows what China might be tempted to do between now and 2008? Like the USSR in 1980, notes John Derbyshire in National Review, China today is unstable and unpredictable. Who can be sure it won't commit another Tiananmen-caliber horror -- in response to, say, an uprising in Tibet, or a surge of independence sentiment in Taiwan? And is that a chance the Olympic Committee wants to take?
One day -- soon, let us hope -- the Chinese people will be free to speak their minds, to worship in peace, to choose their rulers. When that day dawns, it will be time for Beijing to host the Olympics. But not now. Not while the butchers of Tiananmen remain in power.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe.)