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Weblog :: Ethics
The Killing Fields 23.IV.2012 07:25
It is written in the book of Isaiah that to all God would give 'within mine house and with my walls a place and...an everlasting name.' This was the inspiration for the name of the Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem, for those who meet their ends in mass graves often die twice: once when their lives are taken from them, and again when their identities rot away until their bones cannot be separated from those who met their ends beside them. At the memorial stupa in Choeung Ek, the best-known of Cambodia's infamous Killing Fields, these bones are piled 17 levels high, the skulls of thousands of these victims staring out at you at eye level, testifying wordlessly to Man's inhumanity to Man.

And though they can never return to their families, their survivors work tirelessly to prevent this second death - to preserve, as in Jerusalem, at least a shred of the identity of each person, so that the very last of them does not disappear from this earth. For it is all but impossible not to be dwarfed by the enormity of the crimes committed during the disastrous Khmer Rouge regime of 1975-79, and thus to reduce its victims, as in Stalin's famous dictum, to a mere statistic. One cannot conceive of even the 17,000 victims of Choeung Ek, yet that was but one of many execution sites, which together claimed more than one and a half million sacrifices to the cause of 'revolution'. Even here, the remains of only 9,000 have been recovered, and each rainy season the ground, endlessly churning, swells and casts up yet more skulls, teeth and bones: no rest for these men, women and children, even decades on.

The only consolation that, like so many totalitarian regimes, the Khmer Rouge kept meticulous records, preserving the name of each man trucked here to meet his end. As in the case of Hitler's Germany, the bureaucratic process belies an institutional awareness of the enormous moral outrage being committed, so full of small lies ostensibly to deceive the victims, but partly to allow the criminals to deceive themselves. As people were hacked to death in Choeung Ek - bullets too precious to be wasted on such tasks - the sounds of revolutionary songs and diesel motors played to drown out the screams of the dying, to keep up the pretence that this was, perhaps, merely a military base. To allow all but those present to keep up a denial, willing or subconscious, of what was truly happening. And even if it happened here, perhaps it was just one - not one of hundreds of such sites that destroyed almost a third of the country's entire population.

And, as one looks upon the empty pits, and at the bones and shreds of cloth, and the undisturbed ground that has yet to reveal its victims to the light, the most disturbing thought occurs: that the perpetrators of these crimes against humanity, not the guards but the ones who gave the orders, thought of themselves as on the side of good. How can you separate out the lust for power in the mind of a man who believes he is assisting in the birth of an ideal society? And, conversely, how many of those we know personally that think of themselves as 'moral' are simply following a system of rules that happens to lead to the fulfilment their own desires? It is not evil to think this way - merely human - and the greatest achievement of civilisation is to take us away from this bloody patrimony. Its extreme, the terrible utopian visions of men like Pol Pot, claim to encompass humanity but deny the human - and the Khmer Rouge slogan expressed this perfectly in its attitude to each of its victims: 'to keep you is no gain; to kill you is no loss.'

Louis XIV famously said "l'état, c'est moi" - I am the state. But the utopian dictator claims an even larger authority - he does not rule over the people, he is the people. His interests, or the Party's, are the people's, and if one of the people should oppose them, well he was really opposing his very self, like a cancerous cell destroying its own body. And so, such a polity fights constantly against the very human beings it claims to be saving; every revolution devours its young. And this remains true of every power that tries to shape a society: the Americans trying to remake Vietnam in their own image said 'we must burn the village to save the village' - that if their lives did not confirm to the ideal vision, they were meaningless, and therefore forfeit.

And speaking of the same Americans, thanks to them, China, the UK and others, Pol Pot and his murderous regime held a United Nations until 1993, for 14 years after Cambodia itself was free of them. Why? Because Cambodia had been liberated by the Vietnamese, in alliance with the Soviet Union, and put "People's Republic" in its name. The Cold War and the Sino-Soviet split are far more important than the lives of some insignificant peasants. How can one mere life compare to the glorious society being created by the Khmer Rouge? How can one mere life compare to the struggle against global Communism which threatens to engulf us all? And Pol Pot died comfortably under house arrest, and only now are some of his associates being prosecuted for their crimes, immune for years from prosecution because we did not like those who might prosecute him. And as for the human beings caught in the middle - well, what could be more human than to deny others their humanity?

Phnom Penh, Cambodia Kh

Israel, apartheid, terrorism, genocide 08.XII.2008 11:06
In Israel and Palestine, terminology is a very difficult area. Are the men of Islamic Jihad terrorists causing chaos in Judea and Samaria, freedom fighters trying to liberate occupied Palestine, or simply militants operating in the West Bank? It's a difficult question, with no label, of course, being exact or even exclusive of the others, but there are three, when applied to Israel, that offer up interesting questions. The first, and most ridiculous, is the charge of genocide - one I include not because it is common but because it is part of a larger trend abusing a word that needs to be reserved for the most heinous of crimes against humanity. The second is the invocation of apartheid in South Africa, a parallel with some basis, but one that I believe is overstated and incorrect. The charge, however - does Israel engage in terrorism - must be answered with an unequivocal 'yes.'

First, genocide, a word invented only in the 20th century whose birth is very well described by Samantha Power's excellent book on the subject. Nowadays, this word is tossed about quite casually - I have heard the AIDS epidemic be described as a genocide for example, done to arouse a steadfastly indifferent public into shock at the magnitude of the tragedy. I'm not going to deny that AIDS, especially in Africa, is one of the great human catastrophes of our times - but to equate it to the deliberate extermination of a people is offensive. The word 'genocide' needed to be invented precisely because it is a crime and not a tragedy - and because it is a crime of action, not of indifference. No one can be a passive genocidaire, and because this crime is one that recurs in human history - in Armenia, in Europe, in Rwanda, in Darfur - we must be able to describe and confront it. The restrained use of this label is of paramount importance because our use of it imposes a responsibility to act - to stop the slaughter or be complicit in it - which is why the Clinton administration, in an act of appalling cowardice, would say that 'genocidal acts' had occurred in Rwanda, but not a genocide. One wonders how many 'genocidal acts' a genocide make.

Israel's colonisation and conquest of the Palestinian areas has seen its share of atrocities, from both sides of course, and it suffices to compare the ethnic makeup of the region before and after its creation to assert that ethnic cleansing has taken place, though not of quite the brutal kind that we saw in, say, Kosovo. Moreover, current Israeli settlement policies, including the use of bureaucracy to demolish Palestinian homes in the knowledge that they can never rebuild them, the aim being to make them completely Jewish, is a continuation of such a policy - Silwan and the Mount of Olives are being cleansed thus as we speak. Nevertheless, this cannot in any way be likened to a genocide, and it rarely evinces the kind of cruelty that is typical of other such efforts, such as the largely successful ethnic cleansing of Baghdad's neighbourhoods. To call this a genocide, to compare to the Holocaust or to Rwanda, is simply immoral and unreservedly to be condemned.

The second accusation, that Israel enforces a policy of apartheid on Arabs within the lands under its control, is particularly relevant now that a respected Israeli human rights organisation has itself used the term. Nevertheless, the comparison is misleading, and I believe ultimately incorrect. The Arabs in Israel proper, while forming an economic underclass shut out from much of the country's prosperity, do not suffer from anything like the institutionalised cruelty of South Africa's black population. Even in East Jerusalem, which is behind Israel's military barriers and has a separate bus system for Israelis and Arabs, Arabs are free to enter Jewish neighbourhoods and ride on the Jewish Egged bus system - though I imagine they get met with a fair bit of racism when they do, as they would on American airplanes. The most egregious Israeli policy on this front is the selective enforcing of building codes that results in the demolition of Palestinian homes to further the Judaicisation of the area. What these are are Jim Crow laws - laws not technically illegal (of course one needs building permits), but ones which are used in a way that is unrelated to the laws themselves. Just as the Southerners knew African-Americans would be unable to read, so the Israelis know Palestinians will be unable to pay the permit fees or building violations and their homes will be demolished, never to be rebuilt. This is disgusting, and it's discriminatory, but it is not, however, apartheid.

Whether apartheid exists in the West Bank is a thornier question. It is true that the Israelis maintain two separate road systems - a sparkling new one for the Jews, and the old one, lined with military blockades and checkpoints, for all the potential terrorists that form the Palestinian population. Of course, this looks like a classic phenomenon of an apartheid system, but I think the Israeli actions in Palestine need to be viewed from a different perspective - not as the model for a permanent state like South Africa, but rather as preparation for the separation of the Palestinian state that is now widely seen as inevitable. Essentially, what the Israelis are doing is colonising the West Bank and linking it with efficient transport systems so they can claim as much of it as possible as inherently Jewish land - there is even suspicion that the West Bank barrier is designed to keep sources of water largely on the Israeli side. Although one can't describe this as anything but immoral - it is, in fact, an intentional hindering of the peace process in the hopes that the Palestinians settle for anything they can get, as Arafat did at Oslo - it can't be called apartheid. In Israel, policies towards Arabs, while discriminatory, do not constitute a South African state of affairs, and in the West Bank, the situation is not apartheid but colonisation.

The final, and most important accusation, to examine is that of terrorism. This is a word that is used a lot these days, one which has become essentially synonymous with evil in the Western culture - the ultimate identifier of the Other against which We must fight. Let's make one thing clear however: terrorism is a tactic. It's not an ideology and it's not an identity; it's not something you can declare war on and it's not exclusive to any ethnic group or cause. Terrorism is, essentially, an attack on a civilian population in the hopes that it will move out of fear to effect some end desired by the terrorist party. This is what Islamic terrorists do - they bomb cafes in Israel in the hopes that Israeli voters will elect a government willing to give into their demands, or they bomb Madrid trains in the hope, proven fruitful, that it will cause Spain to withdraw from Iraq. It is an assault on non-combatants designed to make them attack the combatants when you cannot; one needs only to look at Israel's actions in the Gaza strip to see that this is exactly what it is doing.

In 2006, the population of the Palestinian Territories, essentially fed up with the corrupt and ineffectual politicians of Fatah, voted in a government led by Hamas, which does not recognise Israel and in fact has the destruction of the Jewish state as its raison d'etre. Israel and the West, for all our talk about promoting democracy in the Islamic world, didn't like the result and decided to change it. The problem is that there is no way to simply disregard the result of an election described as both 'free and fair' by the European Union without losing all credibility as promoters of democracy; the only way to change the results was to make the Palestinians change it themselves. And Israel has decided to do just that.

The strategy is this: to make life in the Gaza Strip so intolerable, and living conditions so inhuman, that the population becomes so desperate that it forces Hamas from power. To achieve this end, Israel has completely isolate the Gaza Strip - with, it must be said, spectacular success, at least when it comes to the intolerability and inhumanity. The economy has collapsed entirely, with the vast majority of private sector businesses destroyed. Hundreds of thousands are in need of food aid, and many are living without water. Electricity is on for roughly eight hours a day, as the power stations have no fuel. Israeli refuses to allow fuel, food and even most medical supplies - for 'security reasons,' of course, and no amount of human misery will change this policy. There is only one thing the Palestinian civilians can do to end the horror, and that is remove Hamas from power at whatever the cost - it moves no one for them to simply suffer and die as they are currently doing. The Israeli government, with the support of much of the West, has a single political go, and anyone living in the Gaza Strip is simply a means to achieving it. This is collective punishment, illegal under the Geneva Conventions. This is terrorism.

Lest we become shocked or appalled, let us remember just how common terrorism is, not just state-sponsored but state-implemented. When an American major declared after razing Ben Tre in Vietnam that 'it became necessary to destroy the village in order to save it,' this was terrorism. American policy was to burn the countryside in which the National Liberation Front found refuge and support, so that its people would be forced to move to the cities where they would be free of communist influence; moreover, it was hoped, ridiculously, that the villagers would blame the Viet Cong for the descruction of their homes and not the country that sent the bombers and their napalm there in the first place. Needless to say, this did not succeed, and I find it amazing that Israel is repeating the exact same mistake with Hamas. When UN sanctions were implemented against Iraq, this was terrorism too, because they also stopped food, medical and other basic supplies being delivered, punishing the citizenry and not Saddam Hussein - this was supported by most Western countries, not just the United States. I think the populations were willing to go along with this because when they heard of 'economic' sanctions, they thought of the privileges our rich economies give us, in which we can take basics like food, water and shelter not as economic assets but as simple facts of life. Nevertheless, in allowing our government to pursue a policy that killed half a million Iraqi children (without removing Saddam Hussein), we were complicit in terrorism.

When someone says 'terrorist,' we think of a lone bearded man on an airplane, but the intentional injury and slaughter of civilians is no more moral for being validated with a parliamentary stamp. It is a tactic, and it is a highly immoral one; moreover, it is a sign of impotence, showing the utter inability to attack one's targets directly. It's obvious why the Palestinians cannot do this - direct attacks on the IDF would be largely doomed to failure - but Israel's immense military power gives it the ability to execute these tactics with much greater devastation. I don't think Israel is genocidal, and I don't think it is a country of apartheid. However, the tactics it currently uses directly target civilians in the knowledge that they will be harmed. The accusation of terrorism is not made for shock value, nor to satisfy a requirement of balance in discussions of the conflict. It is the only word applicable to Israel's current tactics in Gaza.

Wadi Musa, Jordan Jo

On the Holocaust 10.XI.2008 13:30
In my hometown of Łódź, in Poland, there's a park through which I'd always walk to get to my grandparents' house. In this park stands a large sculpture, in the shape of a broken heart; a part of the crack forms the silhouette of a child. I remember that as a boy - I must have been about eight years old - I tried to squeeze through the silhouette, but I couldn't; I couldn't even come close. The park stands at the centre of what, fifty year earlier, had been a detention camp for boy, officially aged ten to eighteen but in reality as young as two. The leader of the Judenrat in the Łódź Ghetto, the second-largest in Poland, was once asked to deport 20,000 Jews; thinking the ability to work would save the remaninder, he voluntarily purged the ghetto of every child under 10; they could not work, and were sure to die anyway. I could not fit through the silhouette because the child it represents had had his body destroyed by famine, experiencing years of what must have been unimaginable hunger. My grandfather explained to me that this was what the Germans had done to children in the Second World War. There was also a flame in front of the monument, and I was told that it would burn forever so that the memory of the victims would never die. A few years later, as I walked through the park again, I noticed it was out.

Today, I stood in a large circular room filled with thousands of file folders, which wound around the room, stretching from a floor far beneath the platform on which we were standing to a ceiling far above. The sheer number was unimaginable, seeming the uniform output a massive cataloguing effort by some unfeeling bureaucracy. They stood there, a monolithic wall of anonymity, arranged alphabetically. In fact, they were anything but anonymous; in each was a set of files, and each of those contained a name. Many contained other documents, photographs, but in every one at least a name, and each name belonged to a person who once walked this earth. These are the victims of the Holocaust, and they are remembered in the Hall of Names at Yad vaShem in Jerusalem, their personal document included in an attempt to disprove Stalin's truism that a million deaths - in this case, six - are a statistic; an attempt to fill, in some small way, the world's largest cenotaph.

Growing up in the West, the Holocaust has always been seen as the archetype of evil, so much so that it is worthy of capitalisation, an Abstraction all its own. But why? It was not the mere fact of genocide - we didn't blink through the Rwandan genocide, which occurred long after we said 'never again', not are we paying attention to the current one in Darfur - I have just had a moment of profound shame with the realisation that the latter has fallen so far out of the news cycle that I don't even know to what extent it still continues. Nor was it the sheer number - the Mongol hordes killed many more millions, and the Jews were not even the most numerous victims of World War II: the Russians suffered 10,000,000 civilian deaths, and the Chinese, who are often considered 'outside' the war from our perspective, a staggering 16,000,000. Nor was it the Holocaust's brutality; nothing that occurred at Auschwitz could compare to the terror of the Mongol hordes, who would push living prisoners ahead of their advancing army so that defenders would hesitate to fire on loved ones; or the bloody horror that was Rwanda; or even to the most brutal of World War II tragedies, the Rape of Nanking. I think what terrifies us, what bears the most reflection, and what must never be forgot, is the mentality of the killers, the form which the killings took; for in the Holocaust, the one thing that's impossible to ignore is the presence of rational thought on the part of the killers.

I think that human beings instinctively understand bloodlust - not on any conscious level, of course, but we know that somewhere deep within our revolutionary lineage lurks something dark, uncompromising and focused only on its own survival and the satisfaction of its basest urges - what Victorians might have called the Savage and seen in the peoples of Africa. Every war has been characterised by this, as the conquering victors, having undergone terrible conditions, terrible fears, their minds and emotions none, were let loose upon the vanquished and the weak to satify whatever urge - for vengeance, for money, for women - that happened to grip them at that moment. The stories of rape, murder and plunder in every conquered city should horrify us, but they rarely do, and I think it's because we simply cannot empathise with the killers; we have never been in a situation where we have given ourselves over entirely to our animalistic instincts. The holocaust perpetrators are different; their highly bureaucratic functions mirror our own, and the meticulous records they kept look just like ours, with the cargo on our bills of lading replaced by human beings. Many people blame our focus on the holocaust on Eurocentric racism, but I think what we really dread is the institutionalisation; in this important way, the Holocaust was different from all the mass murders in recent memory.

In the 'Democratic Republic' of the Congo, a group of soldiers approach a woman; she is pregnant, in the late stages. They stop her, and make a wager: what is the gender of the baby? She's sure not to know, but the bet is quickly settled - a knife cuts the foetus from the woman's uterus, and it falls to the ground, the gender obvious, and the winners collect their spoils, perhaps a round of beer at the bar. In Serbia, a group of Bosniak prisoners are being transported on a bus - they are all women; the men are dead. When the bus stops, some of the women, roughly between the ages of fifteen and thirty-five, get off the bus and are taken into the forest, to return some minutes later - it's estimated a third of women in this demographic suffered such a fate some, no doubt, more than once. In Rwanda, a child is held in front of his parents; first one of his arms is cut off, then the other; then one of his legs, then the other; until finally his throat is lit until he bleeds out slowly on the ground. In Iraq, Marines storm a family's house; one of them rapes the family's fourteen year-old daughter, and they are killed so there is no evidence. In Nanking, a father is forced to rape his daughter, a son his mother. These are the stories of war, not confined to any time or culture but present throught history stretching back, no doubt, to before event were written down - anyone who romanticises the past should remember this, but so should anyone with an idyll of modernity note that such mass killings and rapes were also present in Georgia's August War. These are acts of bloodlust - of a person surrendering to his desires, to what Freud would have called his Id, or Aristotle his sensitive (animal) soul. We can stand horrified, but we can't really grasp, can't understand the mind of the killer for, more often that not, at such a moment it is blank. The Holocaust contains no evidence of this surrender.

The Holocaust isn't the mass murder of a conquering army against its enemies; it's the extension to its absolute extreme of the police state. In an invasion, the victims are, in a sense, irrelevant to the atrocities - the women raped by the conquerors have no identity as particular women, but merely as objects of desire, victims of someone else's indifference to their status as human beings. Similarly, the torturers of Rwanda or the Congo torture merely for sport - there's no higher purpose than their own entertainment, the assuaging of boredom.

The victims of the Holocaust, on the other hand, were the focus - it was the particular Germans who were irrelevant to the deaths. They were part of a system, cogs in the machine - the Reich did not care which bureaucrat passed the final order for a particular day's mass muder, and just as the Germans robbed their victims of identity by means of a tattoo on the arm - precisely the crime the Hall of Names seeks to rectify - the bureaucrat was really just a number to his superiors as well. When his job was done, he went home to his family, not speaking of the glory or the spoils of the battlefield but of his well-finished job as a functionary; of the small duty he had performed for the fatherland. This is typical of the police state - the institutions target particular victims and tell their operatives to carry them out. This is not the will of men lustful for blood set free on a population, but the specific persecution, person by person, of a group of perceived enemies. Its parallel is not in Iraq's gassing of its Kurds but in the Shah of Iran's treatments of dissidents - torture of the most brutal kind by his notorious Savak secret police. We fear it so because its methods - the signed form, in triplicate, the approval from above, the duty well performed as part of a day's work - are so similar to our own. We fear it because even if we have not heard of the Milgram experiment or read The Lottery, a part of us knows their implications might be true of us as well.

One need only compare the vivisection of the Congolese woman above with those of the victims of Dr. Mengele at the concentration camps. No one in the latter was tortured without a stated purpose; Mengele did not do his work for the sheer thrill of it, although there must have been a part of him, a large part, that felt one. There was always a scientific purpose, always a theory to be tested, always a case number to be filed and a conclusion to be reached. The mind was that of a rational scientist - the victims were selected according to specific criteria. Their bones were broken to test how best to reset them. They were frozen to see how best to save Germans on the disastrous Russian front. I don't visualise Mengele standing over one of his victims enjoying the pure thrill of another person's suffering; I see him focused, looking from his clipboard to the thermometer, taking down notes as if the patient were merely a series of input and outputs, behaviourism in it coldest, most distilled scientific form.

Admittedly, the Jews suffered this kind of treatment, but such spontaneous beatings and rapes were usually committed by anti-Semitic elements in the conquered countries - by Ukranians, Lithuanians and Poles, among others - and not by the Germans themselves. The Germans kept accurate tallies of their victims. The guards took everything from the victims of the camp furnaces so it could be put to use and not wasted along with its former owners; the prisoners were similarly worked to death so that the resource of their labour could be exploited to the full. This was not a mad army of violent men rampaging and sewing terror, as were the mongrel hordes; these were bureaucrats and hierarchical offers meeting quotas, claiming expenses, buying and selling. A precious Torah scroll was sold for leather - but only after the Germans confirmed that the writing could be wiped off. The trains that carried prisoners to their deaths were labelled Auschwitz - Warsaw/Warsaw - Auschwitz so that people would believe that a return trip existed, and each train had a detailed bill of lading of its human cargo. Everything was thought through, and everything came down a strict heirarchy. Had it happened 60 years later, the surviving documentation would be a Powerpoint presentation. We fear it because we know that our solutions to problems at the office look a lot like the Final Solution to the Jewish Question.

As I left the memorial, I watched a woman walk out of it as well. She walked a few steps and then paused a moment, letting out a long deep breath. It was a moment of release, and of relief. She had experienced an intense empathy for the victims, had no doubt nearly cried at some of their stories, but after that moment, she was free of it. She could think about what to eat for dinner that night, the annoyingly cramped bus her tour group used to take her back to her hotel. Why are we capable of so easily reverting to the day-to-day minutiae of our lives? Is our only coping mechanism for horror on this scale a kind of indifference? I see a German officer returning to his family in Berlin. He walks towards the step of his house, but before he reaches the steps, he lets out a deep breath. Over dinner, he tells his family how well he has done for the Reich; he has even exceeded his quotas - his wife doesn't ask of what. He reads his daughter a bedtime story, and kisses her good night, perhaps for the first time in weeks. She loves him; his wife does too. The disconnect is profound; we fear it because we know we are capable of it as well.

Jerusalem, Israel Il

The friendliest people in the world 16.X.2008 11:36
Among people who have travelled through the Middle East, and especially through Iran, it's a commonplace that the local people are some of the friendliest they've ever met. It's not hard to see why this is the case - nowhere have I been greeted so frequently or so sincerely, with experiences ranging from full, sincere conversations to a simple 'Welcome to Jordan!' In Iran, this was especially evident, the most striking example being Esfahan, where no one would suffer us to sit on the lawns without offering tea and a blanket, or, one time, hash and daylight food during Ramadan! Before travelling to places like Iran and Syria - state sponsors of terrorism both - you have to deal with a lot of prejudice from friends and family, who pretty seem to think walking down a Tehrani or Damascene street is akin to stepping into a minefield, which could not be further from the truth, and people like my mother, with her paranoia, almost suck the fun out of the whole journey. Nevertheless, I can't help but feel that travellers who have been to these parts are succumbing to an over-generalisation too: that the friendly attitudes displayed to them are representative of the people's characters. I don't think this is true.

There are two factors at work that inform is opinion. The first is that many Westerners equate openness with friendliness, but this isn't always true - Iranians (I'll talk about Iran, since that was my longest experience) are just as open with their negative opinions, like the bile of the man who told me Hafez' tomb was closed because 'the fucking head of the fucking Parliament decided to show up for a visit tonight.' These just don't come up so often in minutes-long conversations. The second factor is the assumption (an extremely human one that we all make) that the way someone acts towards you is the way he acts in general, and I think this is where the misunderstanding arises. In my opinion, it's not that Iranians are more (or less) friendly than people in the West - it's that the guest-host relationship is a special and important one in their culture, and one which carries responsibilites that few people ignore. In the West, where this relationship is essentially non-existent, we consider all behaviour as general behaviour towards strangers, and that's where we misread Iranians' characters.

Basically, while good people and bad people obviously exist in all cultures, the cultures themselves have different codes of behaviour that govern relations with in-group and out-group members. It's the paradox of the SS officer who's a loving husband and father, or of people in the American South - they're the friendliest people in the world if they identify with you, but try being black or gay or driving a foreign car and it all goes out the window; anyone who's seen the American road trip episode of Top Gear will know this is true. In Iran, the situation is reversed; foreigners, i.e. people from the furthest out-group, are treated with respect and favours, a culture that has arisen all along the Silk Road of ancient international trade; responsibilities towards the closest in-group, the family or clan, are also very strong. But it is in the way Iranians treat one another that the other kind of character comes out; our guide in Esfahan, Reza, was spectacularly nice to us, but shockingly rude to the shopkeepers and caretakers from whom we needed to buy things. This is because, as Iranian strangers, they are neither guests nor brothers, but beings to be treated with apathy or even scorn, and to only be communicated with insofar as you need something from them. Obviously, this isn't true of everyone - some people are nice to everyone, some people are rude to everyone, and openness with strangers of any nationality is more common as a rule - but it is a general cultural tendency.

In the West, the situation is rather reversed; family ties are much weaker, as they sense that they are ties of emotion rather than responsibility - you love your parents, but you wouldn't say it's their _duty_ to give you money for your lifestyle; I'm re-reading Jane Eyre at the moment, from a past culture where the reverse is assumed. On the other hand, in the West we have tremendous responsibilities to out-group members, people with whom we have no relationship of any kind. This is why, as a Canadian, I have trouble getting served - I stand by meekly waiting for a restaurant owner to give me a sign he's ready to serve me rather than insist I be served as most Middle Easterners do. Similarly, there's almost no notion of personal space, and it's common to ask bus drivers to let you off where it's easiest for you, rather than asking the question 'where does the bus go?' in the West - a request for the Greyhound to drop you off 'at the turn-off for Woodstock' would be seen, even if granted, as odd. Similarly, while many backpackers have complained that Toronto is rather cold (in any sense), and meeting people on the street is next to impossible (true), this is because they are being treated with the exact same respect we have for Canadian strangers, and one which is based on non-interference; the locals don't feel any additional responsibilities as hosts, as the Iranians generally do.

This Western behaviour is often described as cold or unfeeling, whereas the Mediterraneans are always 'warm', 'open', and 'passionate.' While true, I don't think this necessarily means they are better or friendlier people; they simply have different ideas of which groups need certain behaviour. Moreover, not all out-groups are well treated in Iran - the blacks we saw come from Dubai to Qeshm island were treated with a rudeness we never saw at restaurants (though no worse than they would in Poland), while out-groups with Iran, such as gays or Baha'is, receive the special contempt reserved for 'traitors' within one's borders that has hounded the Jewish diaspora for centuries. I think anyone who tells you that Iranians are the friendliest people in the world, and contrasts them favourably with North Americans or Europeans, is succumbing to the same kind of generalisation that the people who fear all Arabs do.

Damascus, Syria Sy

Bringing the Boys Back Home 27.IV.2007 22:46
Sometimes - a lot of the time, even - I find the anti-war lobby more infuriating than the pro-war lobby, and quotations from the Democratic presidential candidates show exactly why. 'We are one signature away from ending this war,' says Barack Obama, and there are two possible interpretations to such a ludicrous statement. The first, the more charitable, is that he is showing us not so much the audacity of his hope as its folly - he thinks that with the American troops gone, the insurgents will lose the focus of their attacks and Iraq will calm down enough for the government to stabilise it - and while there is an argument to be made that American troops are doing more harm than good, the fact is that the war will rage on irrespective of an American withdrawal. Which leads to the second, and in my opinion correct, interpretation - for a person like Barack Obama, the war is over as soon as American lives stop being lost. The war isn't about ensuring stability for the millions of Iraqis whose lives are embroiled in it - the tragedy for him lies with the coffins draped in the American flag, not the ones buried en masse in Iraqi soil. Morally, this is absolutely abhorrent, but it's the consequence of the 'Support Our Troops' mentality that is shouted so loudly across America, and the 'Protect Our Own' mentality that is a much quieter undercurrent in the remainder of the West.

Each side accuses the other of not supporting the troops, because both have fairly ridiculous notions on what it means. For the pro-war lobby, it means that a man's willing death justifies the thing for which he made the sacrifice - an argument also favoured, no doubt, by the supporters of suicide bombers. If you want to think this is an American phenomenon, it isn't - witness the controversy over the implication by the Canadian War Museum that the firebombing of Dresden which killed tens of thousands of German civilians has an element of moral complexity that warrants a debate. Nothing could be more ridiculous than a blind support of whatever soldiers do - were the young soldiers of the Wehrmacht freezing to death at Stalingrad any less noble in their sacrifice? We can honour the memory of those willing to die for a cause and still pass judgement on the cause itself - or in this case, the way in which it was pursued. It was not the soldiers' to reason why, it was the generals', and the former are in no way diminished by an examination of the methods of the latter.

The anti-war lobby's version, while probably more genuinely supportive of the troops, is even more morally repugnant. When the left supports our troops, they do so in the same way that Belgium did in 1994 when it pulled its forces from Rwanda after the brutal deaths of ten of their peacekeepers. Roméo Dallaire famously wrote that, in Western public opinion, it takes the deaths of 10,000 Africans to counterbalance the death of a single Western soldier, and even the Belgians decided that the deaths of 10 men were far worse than anything that could befall the Rwandans in the aftermath - in short, they supported their troops. This is exactly what Clinton, Obama, Kucinich and the like mean when they say they support the troops - the war is criminal because of the lives of Americans that have been lost in it, and should be ended before any more American mothers have to bury their sons.

In this sense, the Democrats really do have the power to end the war immediately - they cut funding, and the war ends as soon as the last American soldier leaves Iraqi soil. The aftermath will become shrouded in one of those euphemisms we enjoy - 'sectarian strife' in Nigeria, the 'conflict' in Darfur, the 'worsening situation' in Somalia. We don't care nearly as much about those wars, because, on some level, we think that the Savages of the world slaughtering one another is simply the natural order of things, and throwing our civilised men into that pit of viper's is always a mistake. The war ends when we stop caring - when the word stops appearing in 72 point font across the headlines of our newspapers. It ends when it ceases to be 'our responsibility' - although this notion is particularly ludicrous in the case of the Americans in Iraq, as they are responsible for the situation in a very direct way. And it's not just the politicians who behave this way - if it were more efficacious to appeal for the human rights of Iraqis, they'd be doing exactly that, but the fact is that another 60 dead Iraqis makes people think 'oh, how horrible', whereas the plight of Cindy Sheehan genuinely moves them. We are forced to look see her, a weeping mother, but the third world's weeping mothers are out of sight, out of mind.

I'm not here to argue that a withdrawal of American troops is necessarily bad for Iraq - while the civil war won't end soon, there is some evidence that the American presence is exacerbating it, and that a country all of whose citizens feel their homeland is occupied are more likely to tolerate or contribute to the cycle of violence. I don't necessarily believe this is true, but an argument can be made. Nor do I want to argue against Western interventionism - while I always was and continue to be opposed to the Iraq war, I firmly believe that there should be United Nations force with a strong mandate in Darfur right now, with or without the support of the Sudanese government, and it is a sad state of affairs when the most influence in improving the lives of the Darfuris is held by Sinopec. What disgusts me are the terms in which the debate is framed - the appropriate action to take in Iraq right now is the one that does the most to improve the human rights of the people living on the territory of that miserable land. I don't know what that is - it is extraordinarily difficult to choose the least of such terrible evils - but the fact is that those are the people to whom the West has the greatest responsibility - all the people around the world who haven't the means to protect themselves. American opinion has turned against the Iraq war - a majority believe that it was mistake, and I agree. But what changed their minds was not the wretched daily life to which Iraqis are now condemned but the plight of American troops stationed there and the mothers who lost their sons, and I think the relative levels of compassion speak volumes about Western morality; morality of the kind that ignored Rwanda and is ignoring Darfur.