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Death, Lies and Videotapes

February 26, 2011

Ferdinand Marcos, Jean-Claude Duvalier, Saddam Hussein, Zine Ben Ali, Hosni Mubarak, Muammar Gaddafi, Robert Mugabe.

It’s pretty obvious what these guys have in common. They would do almost anything to stay in power. They would lose no sleep at causing the deaths of their people. They subverted the instruments of state to keep themselves in power. They obscenely enriched themselves and their families. They were prepared to accept the obscenity of poverty in their countries.

Until their misdeeds became embarrassing or inconvenient, most of them were friends of the West. They may have been bastards, but they were our bastards.

In 1946, the so-called Great Powers – the US, the UK, France and the Soviet Union – delivered victor’s justice to the Nazi elite at Nuremberg. Nobody at that time was foolish enough to describe the conflict with Germany and Japan as the war to end all wars. We did that in 1918 after the First World War, and the second followed a generation later.

Our caution was sensible, because in the ensuing sixty-five years numerous nasty little regimes have raped their countries’ resources, robbed their people and enriched themselves. They have been able to do so not because of force of arms, but because in one way or another it suited the strategic interests of one major power or another to let them get away with it. Bulwarks against communism. Buffers against the West. Strategic oil producers. Allies in the “war against terror”.

Last night I watched a movie called The Lives of Others. It was the story of a secret policeman in pre-unification East Germany who undergoes a moral conversion while spying on a couple at the behest of a powerful government official. The official lusts after the wife, and wishes to bring down the husband to get him out of the way. The policeman risks everything in protecting the couple, despite discovering evidence of “activities against the state”. The movie won Best Foreign Film at the 2007 Oscars. It jumped straight into my all-time top five list, up there with Apocalypse Now, Schindler’s List and the Shawshank Redemption.

The Lives of Others portrays moral courage in a police state – the German Democratic Republic – that succeeded another police state, the Third Reich. As in Saddam’s Iraq and Gaddafi’s Libya, the state spied on its people, and spied on its spies. It took more than a few courageous people to bring about its end. The collapse of the GDR’s sponsor, the Soviet Union, finally removed the props that kept its vicious regime in power.

Just as the people of East Germany suspended their moral scruples through fear for their personal well-being, we in the West also accepted a status quo. We feared the consequences of a nuclear war with the Soviet Union. We remembered how close we came to mass annihilation in 1962. We may have protested against the immorality of the communist regimes, but we felt powerless to prevent it.

We rejoiced at the collapse of communism, yet we, and our governments, looked on powerless as Vladimir Putin, in the name of order,  slowly reined in the freedoms that bloomed under Yeltsin. Putin has never been our bastard, but at least he is not someone else’s. And hey, we’re capitalists, right? And there’s money to be made in Russia, right? So let’s get on with making money out of him, and to hell with human rights and the rule of law.

Then came 9/11. And the West, in order to protect itself from the threat of Islamism, moved several steps closer to the behaviours it so despised elsewhere. In the name of freedom and democracy, it imprisoned and tortured, it spied on its people through informers and telephone intercepts. Notice that I don’t say the US. All of the major powers in the West were complicit in what we thought was a necessarily evil – that in order to combat evil we had to be a little evil ourselves.

We took out Saddam when he moved from being a bulwark to what we perceived to be a threat. But other regimes that served our purposes we lambasted from time to time with pious condemnation and ineffective sanctions, but otherwise stood by as they got on with the business of robbing, murdering and otherwise silencing their people.

When I say we, I also mean me. I am one of the millions of people who watched CNN and the BBC, read the papers, and looked on with horror and yes, fascination, as the twin towers came down, as shock and awe struck Baghdad, and as bloodied survivors struggled out of tube stations on 7/7. Yes, I dearly desired the downfall of vicious regimes, but I accepted that the price of maintaining my way of life was the erosion of civil liberties and an unprecedented level of surveillance on my own people.

Since I moved back to the Middle East three years ago, I have found the consequences of bigotry and oppression increasingly soul-destroying. Not because I have personally encountered victims of torture or seen bodies on the street. But because I have seen lovable people moved to hatred – prepared to do evil in order to destroy it, and thus becoming evil themselves.

As an independent writer, I watch the world and try to form my own view on the events I see and read about. I have no editor to tell me what to write, and no commercial imperative to write what people want to hear. That’s the joy of blogging.

I used to think that the single world-changing outcome of the Second World War was that the development of nuclear weapons saved my generation from a third world war. But the nuclear deterrent has not stopped innumerable regional conflicts that have claimed countless lives and caused unimaginable suffering among the living. I also have no confidence that in years to come one city or more will not be wiped out in a regional nuclear confrontation.

Looking at the twenty-first century, if there is a game-changer that we will look back on in times to come, it is that the world can’t keep a secret any more.

Julian Assange may or may not be a grubby character with a questionable agenda. But on the grubbiness scale he doesn’t come close to some of the characters whose innermost thoughts he has revealed to the world.

The videos and testaments coming out of Libya have defied the best efforts of Colonel Gaddafi and his thuggish regime to keep the slaughter of his people his nasty little secret.

If we had chosen to do so, I have no doubt that our media would have been able to document the secret financial life of Hosni Mubarak – the way he and his family has acquired billions of dollars in assets while remaining content that 40% of his population lives on less than two dollars a day.

Although it took the raw courage of those protesters to see things through to the end, satellite TV acted as the deterrent that stopped Hosni Mubarak from violently suppressing the protests.  Facebook and Twitter acted as the meduim that kept the people on the streets.

No doubt other regimes will be coming up with ingenious new strategies to keep their nasty secrets to themselves. China leads the way with the Great Firewall. But the Libyans have shown that where there’s a will there’s a way. Hillary Clinton can spit with fury at the damage that she believes Wikileaks has caused. But other Julian Assanges will pop up and embarrass future governments, and not just in the West.

A new age of fewer secrets will not stop governments in the future from turning a blind eye to the excesses of future regimes. But it will be harder for them to hide their actions and inaction from their own citizens. And the people of Egypt, Tunisia and Libya have shown that they do not need the moral and practical support of the West to deliver their own change.

If the outcome of the African revolutions and the Wikileaks saga turns out to be that Western governments are forced by their electorates to justify the morality of their positions as well as their expedience, then perhaps that will set a healthier tone for politics in this new century. It may even bring about the faster downfall of oppressive regimes, or potentially prevent regimes from becoming oppressive in the first place.

But it still takes individual and collective courage to bring about change against the odds. Those of us whose courage has never been tested in the same way as the fictional policeman in The Lives of Others, or the real protesters in Tripoli, may never know if we have such courage in us. I often ask this question of myself.

But we are the lucky ones who can speak out without fear of a knock on the door at night. And speak out we must.

From → Middle East, Politics, UK, USA

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