Tue 23 Aug 2011
Watching the media coverage of the “rebel” pick-up entry into the outskirts of Tripoli is a chilling reminder that we continue to be a culture of spectator pornography. I can imagine my ancient Roman ancestors quaffing goblets of wine as they reveled in the blood flowing from indentured swordsmen and Christian martyrs fed to the lions. How little is changed when fans break out in fights at a pre-season American football game and soccer hooliganism remains a curse on civility in Britain. On our screens we see the sanitized version of war, of course, not the sun-scorched corpses, the unrecognizable twisted body parts, the agony at the receiving end of grenade blast. The number of casualties, invariably inflated by some and deflated by others, is duly noted as though it could be the up and down daily tick of the stock market. Ah yes, the “mad dog” of Libya, ruthless dictator as he clearly has been, is about to disappear from the scene. Hooray for the good guys…
One can celebrate the overturn of a dictatorial regime, but is it ever worth celebrating individual deaths? Martyrs are always those who die on your own side; the other bodies might as well be animal dung. This was the fate of Mussolini at the end of World War II. History will be rewritten by those who assume power, but the memories of widespread destruction will continue to haunt a generation or two or three or more. The pain continues because old wounds are continually reopened and the scars never really go away. If you live through a war, that war will not die with you as an individual; often, not even with a generation.
There is nothing new going on in Libya; it is the age-old toppling of one regime and ascendancy of another. The Phoenicians had their turn; then the Romans; then the barbarians that swept through Rome, the Ottomans and then again the Italians in 1911. There is always this sense that this time around it may be permanent, a road to future progress. Clearly, almost any kind of regime in Libya after Qaddafi will be better for most people, but in the broad historical perspective it may only be one pendulum swing in the sad history of humanity’s intolerance. No, the problem is not Islam, not the West, not the monetary policies of the World Bank, not even fascism, communism or any specific ideology. We have evolved as a species dependent on cooperation because we also have the propensity of a will to power over others. Those who fight for peace, often by refusing to fight in the mode of a Gandhi, only highlight the fact that peace is not the normal state of affairs for our species over the long haul. The hope that one day a Messiah, a Jesus, or any dreamed up deliverer, will come and set things straight is as old as the need for such a hope.
There is an old Arabic proverb, ba’d kharab Basra (after the destruction of Basra), one that gained new resonance during the regime of Saddam Hussein in his disastrous war with Iran and then the two Gulf Wars that eventually brought about his end. So now is it to be ba’d kharab Tripoli? Almost a third of Libyans live in Tripoli, so its pacification will not be easy, despite the widespread hatred of the Qaddafi regime. It seems the fighting will go on until Qaddafi himself is found or killed, probably in the very near future. Rumors are flying through both the formal and social media, as Twitter becomes the digital Hermes competing with the foreign journalists holed up in a hotel still under government control.
We are watching an unscripted movie of liberation. We know what the liberation is from but not yet what it is to. If Qaddafi is captured and not killed, something that seems unlikely given the lack of central command with the rebels, would he be tried in a court like Mubarak of Egypt or shipped off to the Hague. More likely, the jubilant mobs would hack him to pieces in the example of Mussolini, who once thought himself master of this North African enclave. I seriously doubt Qaddafi would seek asylum in Saudi Arabia, even though Idi Amin found refuge there after his brutal reign of terror. But there are other dictators with as bad a track record who might offer a place to end his days, as long as he can cart off enough gold bars to pay for the privilege.
News is breaking as I write this and it is tempting to keep eyes glued to the latest reports. I almost wish we could go back to the slow delivery of the American Civil War, where the telegraph broke stories after battles and not during them. And why is it we “need” to know, since all we here can do is watch the events on the screen and hear the bombast alongside the bomb blast on all sides? If we actually saw the blood and disfigured bodies, would it make a difference? Or is it just another escape until the blood spills somewhere else. In Syria, Yemen, Iraq and Afghanistan lives are lost everyday. Indeed, it is pouring out of bodies all over the place and not just in the Arab World. Two tribes in southern Sudan were involved in a cow rustling that dents the euphoria over the creation of a separate state in the south.
If only we could think a different way and rally around a new version of the proverb, qabl kharab Basra or Tripoli or any place where fellow human beings live. “Before the destruction” would make us participants desiring to prevent war rather than voyeurs mopping up the sights until we get bored and then getting back to our own secure lives. As long as “it won’t happen here,” the fact that it happens elsewhere carries little meaning apart from the smug feeling that it is “their” problem alone.
Daniel Martin Varisco
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