March 26, 2008

Enabling Evil

Chris Floyd has yet another post in his extraordinarily alarming series which describes the increasingly belligerent and aggressive moves the Bush administration is making against Iran. If the Bush administration is not planning an attack on Iran in the next several months, it is offering a master class in acting -- and the character being portrayed is a homicidal maniac of the first order.

At the end of his entry, Chris mentions my latest essay in my long series of essays about Iran, and about certain practical steps that could be taken to try to mobilize public opposition to such an attack. I first offered my detailed suggestions in February of last year. Obviously, we all had much more time then; I sometimes think of how today's discussion might be very different, had there been a series of newspaper and television ads, if more and more people had become aware of the grave immorality and practical insanity of an attack on Iran, and if growing public protest had become harder to ignore. The Bush administration's days are now numbered -- but that is not necessarily good news, especially on this question: it means our days, and Iran's, may well be numbered too.

But as the saying goes: it's not over until it's over. And while it is certainly true that the possibility for public opposition to affect government action may be very slim, that does not mean it is non-existent. Moreover, we can never be completely certain what the effects of our actions might be. I firmly believe that as long as the possibility for action exists, we must do what we can. I have endlessly challenged my own conviction on this question, from every possible perspective. I always come back to the same point: if we understand what is at stake -- and here, everything may be at stake -- as long as we can act, then we must act, on the broadest range available to us.

There is some discussion about these issues in the comments to Chris's post, and various thoughts are offered concerning my pieces on this subject. About certain of the issues that have been raised (and see his post and the comments for the fuller context), I wrote to Chris as follows:
Yes, obviously you're right that my criticisms are directed primarily at those with large audiences and "connections," who could use their influence if they chose to. However, as recent pieces like "The Honor of Being Human: Why Do You Support?" indicate, the problem is broader and does ultimately include everyone.

I am always enormously suspicious of these "ordinary," "average" people who reject the criticism, insisting: "But what can someone like me do? How could I possibly affect anything at all?" Many of these people will be the "Good Germans" (or are already)...and when the National Guard or other troops arrive at their door at 2 AM and tell them that they and their children will be "relocated" immediately unless they "cooperate," will say: "Well, I think the troublemakers you're looking for are in the basement in that house over there."

But after all, what effect can such "ordinary" people really have? Why, none at all.
You may think this is an unduly severe criticism. If so, I refer you to "The Honor Being Human: Why Do You Support?" and "Thus the World Was Lost" for the reasons I do not think it is.

I want to mention a closely related issue, albeit briefly. I will discuss these admittedly complex questions in further detail in the future. Over the years, I have read the political commentaries of many learned writers about the questions of moral responsibility that arise under dictatorship. As I discuss in "The Honor of Being Human" and other pieces, these are questions we all need to think about now, since we presently exist in a surreal world that I have described with this phrase: "The Imminent, but Not-Yet, Not-Quite" dictatorship. In addition to reading many political commentaries, I have sometimes heard those who have lived under dictatorships speak about these issues, and I have known a few such individuals personally.

In their discussions, all these people raise the same issue at some point. They may express the idea in somewhat different terms and come at it from varying perspectives, but the basic argument is identical. Under a dictatorship, they all say, if everyone did exactly as he was told -- and volunteered nothing more -- the dictatorship would collapse overnight. The observation merits serious further reflection, and a great deal of it.

In any society made up of tens of millions of people or more, it is impossible for any government, no matter how authoritarian, to directly control the actions of everyone, or even of a significant number of people. Of necessity, orders issued by any authoritarian government must be somewhat general, just as laws are in any society: those orders cannot possibly specify everything that the rulers actually want to see happen. In addition, there can never be enough enforcers to ensure that people do exactly what those in power want all the time, or even most of the time. As a result, those in power depend on the cooperation of those they rule -- and not only their cooperation, but their willing cooperation. (I touched on this issue in another way in a post yesterday, concerning challenges to the legitimacy of the ruling class.) If you study history, you will find that a critical number of people under any dictatorship did not simply do as they were told: they offered a little bit more. Perhaps they informed on a few people; possibly they answered questions about that neighbor who was behaving suspiciously with more detail than was required. We can easily understand why people act in this way: they wish to protect themselves and their families, or perhaps they hope for a few more ration cards. There is always a reason -- but that does not make it right. Only a few rare heroes, those people who are incapable of being untrue to what they know in their souls to be decent, civilized and right, will say, "No," -- even when they well understand that the "No" may mean their own deaths.

Willing cooperation, the eager obedience to authority, is the necessary key to the continued rule of any dictatorship. If the great majority of people did only exactly what they were ordered to do -- and if they volunteered nothing at all -- the apparent power of the ruling authority would dissipate, and it would do so with remarkable speed.

Tragically, history offers many demonstrations of the truth of this idea -- yet we never learn the lesson. We are never prepared. That is why I insist people think about these questions now. Given the direction in which the United States is headed -- and an attack on Iran would greatly speed us on our path, and perhaps make certain that our direction cannot be changed -- you do not want to wait until you hear the knock on the door in the middle of the night. You do not want to wait until your own personal moment of truth arrives, to decide what you will do. You will undoubtedly be terrified at that moment, and with very good reason. You want to be ready.

Will you say, "No"? Or will you, like too many others, name names, and point to the house on the corner where the resisters are hiding?

What will you do? You want to think about that now, not after the nightmare and the terror have already descended.