Friday, April 8, 2011

Emulating Barbarians

In the global struggle between populations demanding justice and elites defending privilege, it is important to note how the forces of conservatism efficiently share tactics. We must look both over time and across societies to see the pattern of new precedents for oppressing the people being established by virtue of the impunity with which most elites operate and their facility for adopting the worst practices of their peers in other societies.

The world is watching regime after regime engage in forms of behavior completely outside the norms of civilized behavior. Two increasingly common examples are manning security forces with foreigners so they can be "trusted" to kill the people to protect the elite and attacking hospitals to punish the broader population for its political activities, but these are only two of a wide range of poisonous practices by out-of-control politicians. The pattern is simple and insidious: a precedent is established by the failure of the world to criticize (if not punish) the first offender, and then any other regime that chooses force over reason follows that precedent. The more often the crime is committed, the easier becomes the subsequent violation of civilized norms. One day it is an enemy, the next an ally, and the third...your own government.

Foreign Police and Army.    One example is the ominous tactic of hiring foreigners with (naturally) no loyalty to the local population as oppressors (security forces not to provide security for the people but to provide security for the elite against the people). The U.S. reportedly included former Latin American death squad members in its mercenary army in Iraq. Gaddafi got mercenaries from elsewhere in Africa and perhaps Israel to battle against Libyan democracy advocates. Bahrain's police and military are primarily composed of foreigners. Now Riyadh is considering Pakistanis to repress its people. It is hard to imagine a practice more inimical to democracy than giving internal security to foreigners, but there is another example of elite adoption of repressive tactical innovations to put citizens "in their place" even more shocking: attacking hospitals.

Attacking Hospitals.    For those interested in civilization, the spreading practice over the past decade of attacking hospitals is a particularly barbaric example of militarism run wild. Just to cite one previous example (hardly the first in the past decade), when Israel invaded Gaza in Dec. 2008, it committed the dual war crimes of attacking both a U.N. relief post and a hospital, for which it was condemned by Ban Ki Moon to no avail in the face of protection by Washington. Since Israeli leaders were not punished by the so-called civilized world, others have now drawn the obvious lesson that it is OK in the 21st "century of state terrorism" to slaughter helpless hospital patients to punish populations demanding civil liberties. This time it is tiny Bahrain, a "state" not formerly on anyone's list of rogue states.

Failing to hold leaders of regimes personally responsible for their crimes in office turns those crimes into precedents that other opportunistic politicians (please pardon my redundancy) will quickly follow. Every time a politician in office commits a crime-- particularly a war crime such as attacking hospitals, using outlawed weapons such as phosphorus bombs, or attacking peaceful demonstrators--with impunity, we are all endangered. What matters is not where the crime is committed but whether or not the officials in charge are condemned by name. Bringing them to trial and punishing them would of course be preferable, but what is truly inexcusable is silence. Criticism is what establishes cultural norms. When we look the other way, when we shrug it off, we only put ourselves in danger because silence equals acquiescence. All who prefer living in a democracy or indeed simply under civilized conditions rather than barbarism should be concerned about the rapidity with which common human standards of behavior decline when major states commit war crimes with impunity. And in the last decade, we have seen an astonishing list of new precedents--preventive war in the absence of a compelling danger, the advocacy of nuclear war, collective punishment, the hiring of foreign mercenaries as domestic security forces to oppress the local population, and military attacks by states on hospitals (first in enemy states, then domestically)--become increasingly common practice on the part of regimes that choose force over reason.

A Positive Step by Obama Administration
The Obama Administration took a small step in the right direction when spokesman Jay Carney held Yemeni president Saleh personally responsible for his behavior but missed an opportunity to make clear that it would hold all the leaders of all countries responsible for their behavior.

In a statement Tuesday night, the White House press secretary, Jay Carney, said the United States “strongly condemns the use of violence by Yemeni government forces against demonstrators” in Yemeni cities in the past several days. Mr. Carney “reminded” Mr. Saleh “of his responsibility to ensure the safety and security of Yemenis who are exercising their universal right to engage in political expression.” -- Laura Kasinif and J. David Goodman, "Government Forces Fire On Protesters in Yemen," New York Times 4/5/11

The Solution.    Washington should identify practices considered unacceptable, publicly condemn all examples of such behavior, name the guilty officials, state that it supports the principle of holding officials personally responsible for the actions they take as well as for actions taken by their subordinates, and state that it will support efforts to bring these officials to trial.

Such steps would involve at least two fundamental shifts in conventional  behavior:

  1. Putting Principles First: the focus would shift from arbitrarily criticizing people we happen to dislike for behavior others are allowed to engage in with impunity to articulating a principle (e.g., "thou shalt not bomb hospitals");
  2. Holding Leaders Responsible: the specific and crucial principle of personal responsibility for official action taken as head or part of an organization would be established, refuting the corrupting practice of pretending that the leaders of an organization are magically "innocent" of the behavior of that organization, as though the "organization" were distinct from the individuals composing it.
To the degree that we enunciate principles and hold leaders personally responsible for violating those principles, we strengthen civilization's defenses against barbarism and thus protect ourselves.

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