Thugs Aplenty Everywhere

By Becky O’Malley
Thursday June 25, 2009 - 06:37:00 PM

News from Iran this week prompts reflections on the utility of violence as a solution to problems and questions about the ability of humans to govern themselves. On the first topic, it’s been all too easy to contemplate a simple solution to perceived potential threats if Iran ever managed to develop nuclear weapons: a pre-emptive attack. But after the world has seen a large percentage of Iranian citizens take to the street to protest what looked to them like a rigged election which their side might actually have won, it’s going to be hard to view Iran as a monolith which can be ethically stopped by broad military action. It seems that many Iranians are prisoners of their government and therefore can’t be held collectively responsible for, e.g., President Ahmadinejad’s intemperate statements about the Holocaust.  

Their situation is not too different from that of Americans after the 2004 election, when the majority of citizens voted no on G.W. Bush but he got to run the country anyway. We didn’t even take to the streets to protest that election’s being stolen. 

Not, of course, that the principle of collective responsibility has ever been a good one. It is grossly unfair to punish a population for being dominated by a bad leader, even though that’s what we’ve essentially done to Iraqis who suffered under Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship. According to iraqbodycount.org, more than 100,000 Iraqi civilians have died in the current war, non-combatant victims of the chaos we’ve created there. And ironically there’s no guarantee that whenever the Americans leave Iraq there will be “a freely elected democratic government”—whatever that might mean. 

Californians do have one of those, we’re told. That would be the chumps in Sacramento who seem to be hell bent on proving that democracy doesn’t work and can’t work. Or perhaps the New York legislature or the governor of South Carolina would be better examples of what’s just not functioning right any more.  

Is this why we fought our revolution in 1776? Queen Elizabeth II might be able to do a better job than any of these idiots. 

A cynical friend who was one of the regulars at the old Caffe Mediterraneum used to sit at the front table there every morning toward the end of the Vietnam War and make fun of what he read in the New York Times that people he referred to as “the Americans” were doing, implicitly absolving himself of responsibility for actions taken in his name. It’s tempting.  

Now the actions of our government in Afghanistan are causing thoughtful Americans to cringe. If there were in real life such a thing as a surgical strike, a quick and clean technology which would make it possible to grab Osama bin Laden and run, very few would oppose it. Instead, of course, we get news from reliable sources of unmanned American drone aircraft decimating innocent village wedding celebrations. Not in our name, many of us say. 

As do many Israelis these days about their latest government, a leading candidate for their all-time worst yet. Where do they get these dreadful people, worthy peers of our own lately-departed Cheney and Rumsfeld—the thuggish Russian-born foreign minister Lieberman, who’s recently proposed loyalty oaths for Israelis, as a prime example? Unfortunately, it seems that many if not most of the governments on the world scene today, including both factions of Palestinians, are over-achieving on their thug quota. 

Unless, that is, they’re instead simply dominated by fools. See, e.g., the British parliament’s expense account scandals and, again, the New York state legislature. 

We all grew up believing that democratic self-government was a real option. But it’s an experiment not even a quarter-millennium old yet, and recent trials are suggesting that the experiment might fail. Many of us used to believe that the northern European countries were particularly good at social democracy—until Icelanders turned their whole country into a massive Ponzi scheme. 

All of the alternative gods of the left which many Berkeleyans had high hopes for in the late twentieth century also seem to have feet of clay. Cuba does indeed have interestingly good medical care and an excellent literacy record, but then there are the problems gay people and others have had there with civil liberties. Let’s not even talk about Russia—several forms of socialism met an ignominious end there, and now western-style democracy seems to be going down for the count. 

And while we earthlings continue our quarrelsome ways, the big-time gods who actually decide these matters (Zeus, Thor, Quetzalcoatl) are preparing some nasty surprises for us if we don’t mend our ways. Our climate is changing for the worse, details to be supplied sooner or later. If we don’t find a way to get along without war and to make the necessary decisions amicably, there’s sure to be bad news ahead.