Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Helping Syrians: Followup to 'Wasted Indignation?'


The 'Wasted Indignation' post asked Egyptian activists, some by name, to show more support for the Syrian revolution. Of those named, only Alaa Abd El Fattah responded, as follows:
@intensionality @Ghonim @Gsquare86 @Monasosh and why the suck [sic] we named when we've already announced support for Syrian revolution? WTF
It may be useful to clarify the original post.

First, the appeal was for support, not an announcement of support. Actual support is either slim or terribly discreet. The April 6th movement "demanded that Egypt’s Parliament recognise the opposition Syrian National Council and for Cairo to expel the Syrian Ambassador to Egypt in order to give a strong impetus to the Syrian revolution". Welcome, no doubt, but this was in February 2012. After six months of horrifying slaughter and desperate combat, there are no reports of further pronouncements. Moreover the demand is at least obsolete. The SNC is widely regarded as a weak, even counterproductive institution. As for expelling the ambassador, that falls far short of what Syrian themselves have demanded for many months - active support for the FSA. Indeed the April 6th demand is not noticeably bolder than what, during these months, we've heard from the US.

Alaa Abd El Fattah's and Manal Hassan's blog contains an entry from a year earlier, February 2011, which calls for a march "In Solidarity with revolutions of the world!":
The whole world has been watching, praying, supporting and celebrating with us. It's time we did the same for Bahrain, Algeria, Libya, Jordan, Syria, Yemen & Iran.
Join us Monday 21st Feb in a solidarity march with nations fighting to win back their freedom.
Presumably no one would call this an adequate response to current developments in Syria.

Second, there is a need for something more than a generalized endorsement of the Syrian revolution. Generalized endorsements are like good wishes; they do not inaugurate a political strategy. The request for a strategy is implicit in the suggestion that free Egyptians "question the silence of their new leaders". This is not about having gone on record, at some time or other, as supporting the Syrian resistance. Effective 'questioning' can only mean ongoing, highly visible and vocal pressure by Egyptian activists on their own government. This clearly isn't happening and it seems a very modest request, considering that some Libyan activists are actually fighting and dying in Syria.

Third, leftists, including Egyptian leftists, may well have peculiar responsibilities to the Syrian cause. A large segment of the left has unleashed a stream of verbiage designed to discredit and undermine the Syrian revolution: their incessant attacks are probably far more effective in sapping support for the Syrian revolution than anything Assad himself has mustered. Egyptian leftists could play a valuable role in countering the propaganda. They don't seem to have done so.

Finally, to belabour the obvious, the horrendous crisis in Syria makes a mockery of ordinary gestures of support. That someone has once or twice expressed support for the Syrian revolution in past months is nothing like adequate. It does nothing for the morale of Syrian activists who operate under in the most difficult and dangerous circumstances. The crisis requires public efforts on an almost daily basis.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Wasted Indignation?

Each new atrocity reconfirms what Syrians have known for many months.  Their indignation, except as fuel for even more determined resistance, has been wasted.   The world's 'leaders' have spared no effort to teach this lesson.  Russia and China may regret their support for Assad, but they can gain no credit from changing sides now, so they don't.  The same, to a lesser degree, may hold for Iran.  The US, after Iraq and Afghanistan, has learned cowardice and acts according to its neurotic obsessions.  Blocked in the Security Council, it will not send advanced weapons to the FSA because Israel wouldn't like that, and because it might lead to something oh-so-scary with an airliner, somewhere, somehow.  The UN, a servant of the great powers, confines itself to contemptible posturing.  At the same time, Syria's neighbours and the rest of the Arab world suffer from various obscure forms of paralysis.  All  these powers are determined to offer only cosmetic help.

There are others only now becoming a focus for indignation.  Here speaks a Syrian activist after the largest massacre yet:
The 47th @THE_47th
Where are the free Egyptians? Libyans? Tunisians?? Why aren't they questioning the silence of their new leaders? Not 1 single condemnation!!
Indeed.  Just to speak of Egypt, I can only hope that the free Egyptians I follow - and The 47th follows them too - are unrepresentative.  With few exceptions, they talk a lot about the glory days of the Egyptian revolution.    There is a good deal of commentary on the world, on South Africa, on Sudan, on racism in the US, on the Olympics. But no, not one single word of condemnation, and even that is asking far too little.

What's going on?    Some activists are clearly involved in labour struggles, but this wouldn't this leave thirty seconds to voice some support?   Perhaps there are hidden concerns.  Is the FSA, despite appearances, too sectarian?  Are they tools of the West?  Not communist enough?  Bad for the Palestinians?

Most of these concerns, even where legitimate, are pointless.  The Syrian revolution has already wrought irreversible changes.   Syrians, having been left to their own devices, are not going to be any less sectarian or more communist or less friendly to the West or more friendly to the Palestinians because outsiders might wish these things.   Some of the concerns are just silly.  Hopefully, Egyptian activists do not subscribe to the 'anti-imperialist' version of geopolitics.  The US may be a military colossus, but it is a colossus that has lost most of its recent wars and by now, knows it.    It is a country awash in new energy finds and not interested in the Middle East:  American voters, frankly, couldn't care less about the rest of the world.  Europe will never, ever, do anything without American support.  And no matter how important Hezbollah and Assad may have been to Palestinian resistance, that ship has sailed. Assad, win or lose, will be in no position to support Hezbollah in the style to which it is accustomed.

In any case all these worries pit mere possibilities against gruesome certainties.  In such circumstances it may be worth asking whether theories and prejudices really should prevail over basic decency.  If stopping Assad isn't a priority, what is?  Social justice?  freedom?  democracy? nation-building?  revolutionary graffiti?  Why should these things matter if the torture of children isn't even worthy of remark?

Can we have an answer please?   From you, Wael Ghonim, and you, Yosri Fouda, and you,  Alaa Abd El-Fattahy, and you, Mona Seif, and you, Gigi Ibrahim, and you, Khaled Ali, and you, Hossam el-Hamalawy,  and so many others, even you, Mohamed ElBaradei.   It would not be beneath your dignity to speak against overwhelming atrocity.  If you'd really rather twiddle your thumbs, explain why.

And please, no Hilary-Clinton-style pap about how outraged you are.  No pseudo-thoughtful  evasion about how complicated it is.   Take sides.  Take a risk.  Anything else is nothing at all.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Endangering Civilians in Syria

Some people seem to think the right to criticize the FSA and the right to free speech somehow make every complaint about the FSA justified or well-founded.   That's not so.  Some of the complaints seem to be based on unrealistic expectations.   The FSA endangers civilians?   Have we missed some strategic proposal where the FSA would be able to fight WITHOUT endangering civilians?

Sure, the FSA could tie its hands and go down to defeat.   That's what would happen if it left populated areas.    The fighting units would then be easy targets for the régime and would be wiped out.   Régime forces, on the other hand, would be sitting pretty - guess where?   In civilian areas, where the FSA would not be 'allowed' to attack them.

In addition, of course, the régime army and shabiha would run wild in those very same civilian areas.   So there are two possibilities:  effective resistance or ineffective resistance.   Both will, without doubt, endanger civilians - if only because the régime is apparently eager to murder innocent people - but with at least two differences.   Effective resistance endangers civilians for the duration of the revolution; ineffective resistance, pretty much forever.   And effective resistance offers hope.    Ineffective resistance offers something closer to despair.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Atheism is not about people

The sum total of atheism is:  God does not exist.   You can go on about what is covered by 'God', but let's just suppose it refers to supreme beings in any major world religion that has them.   Atheists are likely to believe that no lesser supernatural entities exist, but that's only a likelihood.

An atheist is someone who believes that God does not exist.   That's all, everything necessary and sufficient to be an atheist.  Perhaps some people are misled by the 'ism' to suppose that more is involved, but it isn't.

The world would be a little less irritating if people got this.  To be clear, from the fact that someone believes God does not exist, it does not follow that he has any particular moral or sociological or psychological beliefs.   In fact it does not follow that he has any other beliefs at all except for trivial logical implications of "God does not exist" like "God does not exist or cats eat tractors."  So there is no such thing an an atheist outlook or ethos, 'humanist' or otherwise.   Atheism is not about people.

Among the beliefs an atheist should not be supposed to have are any about religion, except that it contains a crucial and false premise, that God exists.   It's not just that the claim that God does not exist has no other implications for religion.   It's also that the arguments for the claim have no such implications.   The arguments, typically, have to do with abstract matters like the concept of God, and scientific matters like the structure and causality of nature.  Someone with competence, even expertise in these abstruse matters has no claim to expertise in anything about religion, except its false premise.   It is therefore a mystery why Richard Dawkins apparently thinks that his competence in zoology, a discipline which indeed helps make the case for atheism, should entitle him to hold forth about religion, about which he knows and apparently cares to learn very little indeed.   And then there was Christopher Hitchens, whose competence in....   what, exactly?

Why would anyone even want to tackle the claim that religion is a good thing, or a bad thing?   I'd think the answer is obvious:   sometimes it is, sometimes it isn't, and until history ends, we won't know the balance between the two  - if then.   Besides, 'religion' encompasses such varied phenomena, at so many times and places, that no one is competent to talk about its overall effects.   The whole discussion should go away.

By now I fear and fear the reader will fear this is some plea for understanding between atheists and theists.   There have been many such pleas lately, for mutual respect, for civility, for a more nuanced approach to the whole debate.  What debate?  I'm not sure:  maybe about atheism or religion, or maybe the existence of God.   No, this is a plea for less nuance and understanding.   Atheists need to fuss less and be less open to polite discussion.

Here's what a real and pure atheist, not infected by 'humanism,' sounds like:
 Our problem is not that somehow we have failed to come up with a convincing proof of the existence of God or that the hypothesis of an afterlife remains in serious doubt, it is rather that in our deepest reflections we cannot take such opinions seriously.   When we encounter people who claim to believe such things, we may envy them to comfort and security they claim to derive from these beliefs, but at bottom we remain convinced that either they have not heard the news or they are in the grip of faith.   When I lectured on the mind-body problem in India and was assured by several members of my audience that my views must be mistaken, because they personally had existed in their earlier lives as frogs or elephants, etc., I did not think, "Here is evidence for an alternative world view,"or even "Who knows, perhaps they are right."  And my insensitivity was much more than mere cultural provincialism:  Given what I know about how the world works, I could not regard their views as serious candidates for truth.
-- Jonathan Searle, The Rediscovery of Mind. Cambridge, Mass. (Bradford Books, MIT Press) 1992, 90f.
Of course it's more than the existence of God one should be close-minded about; it's also the ridiculous debate over whether morality or being moral is compatible with atheism.    Keep your eye on the ball.   There are millions of ethical systems, and many very prominent ones, that do not mention God, so there is no question of compatibility.  There is no need have a God serve as the foundation of morality.  You can of course make wild generalizations about whether fear of God is essential to good behavior, but bear in mind that this is a strictly factual question, not an invitation to declaim.    And as a factual question, it is clear that some atheists do behave according to plausible moral codes on some occasions.   Beyond that lies a debate about how likely atheists are to behave well.   This involves many grand sociological and psychological assumptions - it's no more likely get resolved answer than the debate about religion's effects.   Can there really be a well-founded study which (a) considered all the atheists and theists who have ever and will ever live, and (b) determined which group is more likely to behave well?

As for civility, of course there's no need for name-calling or rudeness.   But please, no 'mutual respect' in any relevant sense, at least from the atheist side.    You can respect a religious person but what would it mean, other than polite reticence, to 'respect' one of his presumably key beliefs?   You know, the false one about how God exists?    Why should that get more respect than, say, the belief that Stalin invented the steam engine?    And yes, an atheist can have a faintly patronizing 'respect' for religion.   I greatly admire certain Christian theologians and, to an extent, the institutions within which they worked, because  these were brilliant men.   But Í also hold that their most fundamental beliefs, at least today, are not 'serious candidates for truth'.    So this respect is not, whatever else it may be, some basis for a respectful dialogue between atheists and theists.   Heaven forbid.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Egypt: Fancy Explanations and Safe Exits

Some have offered an ingenious account of what really happened when Morsi 'retired' Tantawi.  Some admire the account and say it explains everything.   I'm not quite sure I understand it, but here goes.   Tantawi, increasingly unpopular, was planning a coup.   His replacements, Sisi and Annan, plotted with Morsi to oust Tantawi, because those officers thought Tantawi's planned coup would fail.   The coup pre-empting a coup sealed the cozy arrangement between SCAF and Morsi, and guaranteed a safe exit for the torturers and murderers within the armed forces.   Or something like that.

The account is worth some attention.

For one thing, we don't want an account that explains everything, we want the best explanation.   Many accounts explain everything:  the reader might enjoy making up such an account using Israeli agents, or space aliens, or  the CIA.    If these were the only alternatives, we might prefer an account which didn't quite explain everything, but which had fewer assumptions.   And more, oh, evidence.   It's not even clear the double-coup account does explain everything:  I don't get how it explains why Morsi tore up all the constitutional revisions that provided a basis for SCAF's authority, including, of course, the authority of Tantawi's replacements.  But suppose it does.

If it does, another matter  needs addressing.   How does this double-coup account change the political significance of the events?  Given the constitutional changes, Tantawi's replacements have just as thoroughly lost the basis of their authority as Tantawi himself.   So the equilibrium between Morsi and SCAF is just a memory.   That this was done with the connivance of some apparently dim-witted generals makes no difference to the outcome.   All it does is tell a story more complicated than the obvious one:  that Morsi got pissed, or saw what he judged was his chance, and at least tried to dump SCAF.  Normally, the simplest explanation is preferred.

Finally, what about the safe-exit component of any explanation offered?   Here we get beyond explanatory shenanigans.   Those who cannot stop demanding justice for the military's disgusting crimes should take heart.   There is no safe exit.   The closest thing to it would be an insecure life in exile, with INTERPOL, international tribunals, or similar bodies going after the culprit's money and freedom.    The recent history of Latin America demonstrates why safe exists are virtually impossible.

In Argentina - only one example - the military criminals left power with every conceivable legal and legislative guarantee of impunity.   After a while, when civilian government was established, all these guarantees were swept away and, contrary to pretty much everyone's expectations, a good many torturers and murderers landed up in jail.   Of course there are still fugitives and of course some many never be brought to justice, just as is the case where ordinary civilian crimes are concerned.   But a safe exit?   It doesn't matter what promises Morsi makes - and it is bizarre that the same people who accuse Morsi and the Moslem Brotherhood of breaking promises even worry about this.    It doesn't matter what pompous assurances are written into the constitution or endorsed by some legislative body.   It cannot matter.

If you have an exit, if the military actually loses or voluntarily surrenders power, someone or some other institution is sovereign.    A sovereign can't be bound by past words, past pieces of paper.   These can always be undone - otherwise the person or institution isn't sovereign after all.   There can certainly be an exit, even an exit in style. but it cannot be safe.   The only way SCAF's criminals can find safety is by remaining in power for the rest of their lives.

Monday, August 13, 2012

A Moment of Truth in Egypt

Much of the Egyptian left reacted to Morsi's election and his presidency with a mixture of snark, disgust, and conspiracy-theorizing.   Morsi is a buffon; Morsi is hand and glove with SCAF; Morsi is a rather sweet incompetent.   The reaction to his moves against SCAF has been anaemic.   Few seemed prepared to accept him as a lesser evil.   Fewer still seemed prepared to offer strong support.

Well, sorry, folks, politics is ALWAYS about lesser evils, because it's a bad world with only bad alternatives.   With Morsi there is hope.   With SCAF there is none.   Which will it be?

It does not matter if Morsi's moves were prearranged with the military; it does not matter if they were ok with Tantawi; it does not matter if  - which I'll argue seems unlikely - the change is not fundamental.   None of these things matter because they mean only that Morsi did not dare to go further.    With popular support, clearly manifested on the streets and not just in tepid 'statements', he can take additional steps and seal the defeat of SCAF.

Those who complain that SCAF's criminals have gone unpunished don't seem to get this.   OF COURSE they have.  Given Morsi's tepid support, he couldn't possibly have arrested anyone.  Only if he is stronger do the chances of bringing the torturers and murderers to justice improve.   This too explains why Morsi has praised the military and given Tantawi's bunch a garland of honours as well as meaningless 'advisor' posts.   It at least helps explain why he appointed General Sisi, the virginity tests creep, as commander of the armed forces.  He's making nice because he has to, and if anything it's surprising his concessions have not been more extensive.   That's no indication of what he'll do if SCAF really loses power.

Could Morsi's failure to go harder on SCAF indicate some cozy cosmetic arrangement?  It could not.  As everyone's saying, it comes right after the military's humiliation in Sinai.   Indeed it comes after more than that:  the trigger seems to have been Tantawi's hiring of those dismissed for their failures.   Nor can Morsi's move be written off as a mere personal spat with Tantawi.  It involves breaking the military's stranglehold on legislation - a crucial revision of the constitution in direct defiance of the judiciary.  This can only increase the exposure of the military to future prosecution.  Does that smell like a piece of theatre rather than a bid for fundamental change?   If fundamental change were not the goal, why all the drama in the first place?   This is a flat-out disgrace for a bunch of officers almost comically preoccupied with their 'honour'.

But what if supporting Morsi leads to an Islamist state?   Still, it is irrational not to support him.

With SCAF in power, resistance is not an option:  there is no chance of popular protests succeeding.   For one thing, this is not the pre-election scenario where the military could be held responsible for anything wrong with the country:  there is the civilian government to take blame for conditions in Egypt.   More important, with SCAF in control, the whole repressive apparatus, greatly reinforced by extensive feloul support, is intact.   No one has come within miles of defeating this power. 

With Morsi truly in power, necessarily, that apparatus is weakened or dissolved:   it loses its probably extensive hard core of anti-Brotherhood old régime partisans.   So Morsi's state is weaker than SCAF's state.   However little the chances of success are under his rule, they are substantially greater than under SCAF's.   The resistance becomes all the more plausible given that now, an Islamist will be responsible for all that is wrong with Egypt.   That means it's not just the prospects of resisting repression that improve.  It's also the prospects of weaning people away from their allegiance to Islamist parties, indeed from Islamist tendencies altogether.    Unlikely as this may be, it's the best chance the left can expect in the foreseeable future.

Some on the left may feel they should maintain their integrity, and not associate themselves with a basically conservative religious and political tendency.   Well, no one cares about your integrity, and no one ever will.    People care about things like jobs and adequate services.   If you want real change, the first step is to weaken the obstacles to change.   Moving from SCAF to Morsi weakens the obstacles because it weakens the repressive apparatus and exposes the Islamists to blame.   Recently its seems pretty clear that the public is very willing the blame the government even for problems it couldn't possibly have had the time or means to fix, so this exposure is very significant.  What more do you want?

It's not impossible that SCAF will just crumble and no action is necessary.   But since its position can only weaken if it accepts Morsi's changes, a swift and decisive reaction can be expected, a coup.   To guard against this possibility it's already late; instant support actions are essential.   Is this really the time to curate exhibits of revolutionary graffiti?

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Syria, Palestine, and the Future

For all I know, the portrayal of Asad as no friend of the Palestinians is accurate.  Maybe he never gave a shit about them, maybe he and/or his father deserted them at crucial moments, maybe he has always obstructed Palestinians-in-exile movements, maybe he persecutes Palestinians on an impressive scale.   And maybe his alliance with Hezbollah has proved to be a torture-murder pact.

None of this contradicts the claims of many 'anti-imperalists' (I can't help enjoying how this has become a term of derision).  The following is also accurate.   First, Hezbollah without Syria is a spent force; Iran can never maintain the organization without Syrian help.   Second, if and when Asad goes, there's not the slightest chance that this help will continue.  Third, and most important here, Hezbollah is presently not only the best but also the only hope the Palestinians have.

I'll leave discussion of that ludicrous bit of wishful thinking, the One-State Solution, for another post.  (Or see    For now I'll just say that, if you think Israel, more secure than ever, will give up its existence as a Jewish state rather than abandon the West Bank, you probably think that Kofi Annan's peace plan is gonna work Real Soon Now.    Israel has become so powerful that, just when it has lost the battle of public opinion even in the West, it no longer cares what the world thinks.   Europe is far too timid to do anything about it.   The US government, though it realizes that Israel is now a huge liability, cares far more about nut-case US Christian fundamentalists than about the Middle East, and will never do anything either.    The only thing that worries Israel, that gives Israel an incentive to make peace, is Hezbollah, the only entity ready, willing and able to confront Israeli armies.   In short, without Hezbollah, the Palestinians have no chance of stopping Israel's drive to deprive them of the very ground on which they stand.

So a hard choice between the Palestinians and the Syrian revolution seems unavoidable, right?   Wrong.   The anti-imperialists are disgracing themselves to no purpose.    Asad, even if he continues to preside over a smouldering slaughterhouse, is finished.   He will be under constant assault of one sort of another and unable to maintain Hezbollah in the style to which it is accustomed.   Hezbollah is, therefore, also finished as a real threat to Israel.   For now, the Palestinian cause is in truly dire straits, but supporting Asad won't improve things even in the short run.   In the long run, it will weaken the Palestinians even further.

This bleak situation doesn't have to end in despair, but only if its larger lesson is appreciated.   The Palestinians are screwed for the same reason the Syrian revolution is in such agony:   the Western powers now count for nothing in the Middle East.    Europe is terminally dependent on the US mothership, and the US is nothing like the Behemoth leftists love to hate.   Its 'military might' failed miserably in Afghanistan and Iraq, just as it failed on a massive scale in Vietnam.   The defeats have broken its nerve.   Neoconservative megalomania has given way to incurable timidity:  that, in the end, is why US aid to the Syrian revolution is so contemptibly insignificant.

It seems that the governments and peoples of the Middle East, unlike their Western counterparts, have come to realize this.  If so, there is hope for the Palestinians and for the region.   All that is required is for Middle Eastern governments to accept that they alone must manage the transition from client states to real powers.   This may mean many nice things having to do with social and economic development, but don't fool yourself:  it also means developing real military power.   It means acting like realistic sovereign states, not school-children anxious to conform to the paternalistic expectations of Western powers.  Want to know how to help the Palestinians and gain real respect in the world?  Middle Eastern nations should very politely announce that, after all, they think they should - just to restore the balance of power in the region -  develop nuclear weapons.   Even if this remains a merely verbal undertaking, Israel and the West will stop treating the region's concerns as a fifth-rate annoyance.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Immoral Moralizing

Sometimes preaching morality is, as you'd expect, the moral thing to do.   The English 19th anti-slavery movement affords an example.  There is a clear and direct link from Josiah Wedgwood's moralising to England's abolition of slavery.

There's also useless moralizing.   Many find it in the pronouncements of the UN, the West, or for  that matter Russia on Syria.    Condemning this or that, expressing outrage, is widely understood to have done no good at all.   Some go further.  They say the moralizing has actually made things worse, for instance by buying time for Assad.   But I have yet to hear an explicit claim that, if the facts are as alleged, this moralizing is actually immoral.   Why not?  If a voluntary action makes things worse, what else can be said?  Moralizing can indeed be immoral.

What then of moralizing about the FSA - I don't mean face-to-face criticism of wrong-doing, but a public dressing-down?  Some of the most bitter opponents of Assad almost jump at the chance to condemn the only  people who have any chance of stopping his atrocities.   The FSA violates human rights!  it executes people!  it's brutal!  it's 'dangerous'!

If the FSA were behaving like Assad - torturing the wounded in their hospital beds, mutilating and raping children, gouging out eyes, setting fire to living flesh - these condemnations would be welcome.   Many resistance movements have matched the brutality of their enemies.   Maybe moralizing about such atrocities would make things better, and could hardly make them worse.   But that's not the current situation, and that's not what drives moralizing about the FSA.

Some people, of course, moralize about the FSA because they support Assad.   But what about the opponents of Asad who moralize in the same vein?  These people, in many cases, don't know what it is to make a choice in terrible times.  Their moralizing isn't just some salutary moment of neutrality that shines a light on wrongdoing.   It's a real choice with real effects.  It can do more harm than good.  If so, the choice to moralize is immoral.

There are abstract cases where neutrality is really neutral in its effects.  I don't chose to support any Olympic team.   So what?  it would make no difference if I did.  If I don't join in a game, it makes no difference as long as there are equally effective or ineffective people willing to play.    But where Syria is concerned, any choice, if effective, helps one side or another.   This includes the choice to express outrage over FSA human rights violations, and even more, to condemn or denigrate the FSA for these acts.

The FSA certainly does 'violate' human rights, and it certainly will continue to do so.   Such violations are not necessarily even wrong, because the rights are not absolute.   There is, contrary to popular belief, no great moral dilemma here.   If I ' violate' your human right to free speech because failure to do so will in fact lead to a pogrom, that is not a Great Problem.   It is right for me to do so, and actually wrong for me not to.   Your right was never, in fact, violated; it simply did not extend to the situation.

The FSA is in desperate circumstances and in some cases, 'respecting' others' rights would actually be wrong, because the consequences would be as catastrophic as in the pogrom example.   But there are also cases where the FSA could well afford to respect rights, and fails to do so, and an acts wrongly.   Is it right to moralize about these cases?

No, not about the cases we know of, because that sort of thing will happen anyway.   We know this from all past experience of desperate warfare.   Only in some limited, gentlemanly conflicts such as occurred in 18th and 19th Century Europe were prisoners  never shot out of hand, and all the niceties of  human rights observed.   In total war, in civil war, in virtually every other kind of war, you will get some out-of-hand killing.   To say so is not to condone it, but to recognize the pointlessness of condemning it.

Highlighting the moral errors of the FSA isn't like preaching against slavery in 19th Century England.   It can do no good but quite a bit of harm.  A lot of fevered-hand-to-brow agonizing is circulating in newspapers and social media.  "Oh, what a terrible choice, Asad or the brutal FSA.  How our hopes have been betrayed!"   Or a milder version:   "The FSA is seriously fucking up.   They don't realize what a terrible effect their excesses have on their image.   They are losing their moral compass."   These pronouncements are sometimes explicit, sometimes insinuated.   Perhaps worst of all are the pseudo-calm, pseudo-balanced pronouncements on how 'both sides' have committed human rights violations and war crimes.

None of this can be proven to matter, but consider the effect it might have.  Syrians, at home and abroad, as well as activists of other nationalities, experience stress, exhaustion, disappointment.  They are bound to experience doubt - "are we doing the right thing?   is this worth it after all?   Are we blinding ourselves to the fact that both sides are, objectively speaking, pretty bad?"   Add to this the decisions of those on the brink of choosing a side, or staying out of the conflict, and it's no stretch to suppose that the FSA is seriously weakened by the moralizing.   The moral fastidiousness of those too naïve to realize what war is like would then be anything but moral.   It would strengthen a really unusually evil régime against a resistance guilty of no more than ordinary military sins.

The damage done by moralizing about the FSA is an outcome that reasonable people, considering the consequences of their action, should expect.   If they are high-minded, this isn't admirable.  It is destructive of the desperate hopes of thousand so innocent people.   Therefore, it is wrong.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Killing Zeino Barri

There is a good deal of outrage at the killing of Zeino Barri and one or two other clan members by opposition forces in Aleppo.

I am in no position to pass moral judgement, favorable or unfavorable, on the event.   It's said that Barri was a notorious shabiha and gangster with much blood on his hands.   It's said he got a brief but fair, impromptu trial.    Suppose these claims false, and that the man was simply taken out and shot, without any legal procedure.   Still it is odd that so many, no better informed than myself, feel so sure they ought to be outraged.   Some of the reasons for this reaction are certainly ill-founded.

It is said that the killing was brutal, shocking, an atrocity.   It was certainly shocking, that is, it was shocking to see helpless half-naked men executed by automatic weapons fire that seemed to go on forever.   But the moral import of this shocking scene is very much open to question.

For one thing, the actual killing was no crueler than any other execution, including judicial ones.   Death must have been nigh-instantaneous.  The extra ammunition pumped into the now-dead bodies is very disturbing and may offend some religious sensibilities, but it adds nothing to the harm done to a living person.   Some have argued, plausibly, that the post-mortem brutality dehumanizes its proponents and generally adds to the barbarism of the conflict.   But these arguments also meet plausible objections.   As for the opposition: better, perhaps, that the fighters release their rage on the dead than on the living.   As for the government forces, I wonder how much difference the killing can make.   They already act with a brutality that runs up against the very limits of the imagination.

But wasn't this an extrajudicial killing?  Yes, in the misleading, overly literal sense that no judiciary was involved.   What even remotely credible judiciary could possibly have been involved?   The execution bears no comparison to extrajudicial killings conducted by, for example, rogue police in a country whose legal institutions are in good shape.  The opposition is a collection of loosely affiliated guerilla units fighting a state whose institutions have lost their legitimacy.   The idea that some reassuring judicial verdict could emerge from this situation is merest fantasy.

Merest fantasy too is any supposition that some moratorium should reign, that accused criminals could be held by a bunch of hard-pressed street fighters, awaiting a merely  possible future where eminently respectable institutions conduct fair trials.   One might reply that, in chaotic circumstances, those who take justice into their own hands must be especially sure of what they're doing.   But the critics, so far as I know, have no reason to suppose otherwise in this case.

Finally there is the question of how badly such executions should reflect on the FSA.   Are they doing any worse than, for instance, the allied armies  of World War II, lionized by so many?   Well, those armies weren't tracked by ubiquitous cell phone footage, so the many 'extrajudicial killings' discovered decades later didn't enter public consciousness.    The point here is not that two wrongs make a right, but that we have grown up in ignorance of how much naked brutality even a 'good army'  perpetrates.    Our unrealistic expectations should not lead to biased views of the FSA.   Their executions may go beyond the minimum we must expect in all-out war, but if so, we have yet to encounter the evidence.