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.

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