by Barry Edelson
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Enemies of Civilization


"The truly historical view … was not a tale of man's progress from barbarism or superstition to modern enlightenment, but a recognition that enlightenment has shown itself in the long story of man in a variety of guises, and that barbarism and superstition were undying elements in the human story."
—Robertson Davies



In Pakistan and Nigeria, people who are vaccinating children against polio are being murdered by Muslim extremists. These crimes are so appalling that it bears repeating: Workers charged with the task of trying to eliminate polio from two of the three countries where it is still prevalent (the third being Afghanistan), and thereby spare many thousands of children from death or a shortened lifetime of misery, are being singled out and murdered for their efforts.

We have become so inured by now to the inhuman acts of extremists of all stripes that we are hardly surprised by them. At one time, such a campaign of violence might have seemed nearly unimaginable. Killing vaccination workers? Who does something like that? It is to the detriment of all humanity that we are no longer even surprised that the death or disfigurement of children is an acceptable sacrifice to the cause of Islamic fascism.

We are supposed to believe, by way of "explanation" for these unthinkable crimes, that the CIA's employment of a Pakistani doctor to mount a fictitious vaccination campaign, as part of the mission to find and kill Osama bin Laden, has led natives of the so-called tribal areas of Pakistan to be naturally suspicious of anyone claiming to be vaccinating children. This is rubbish. First, it does not begin to explain the concurrent campaign of anti-vaccination murder in Nigeria. Second, suspicion of Western aid in general, and vaccines in particular, has been roused for decades by those who stand to benefit most from opposition to America or Europe. Third, nearly all of those killed are native-born people working on behalf of nongovernmental organizations or their own national or provincial governments. Fourth, and more to the point, it beggars belief that a mostly illiterate population would have any way of knowing about the alleged ill effects of vaccines if demagogues among them did not deliberately spread these lies. The prejudice that all activities by Western governments — even emergency relief, food aid and medical care — are "imperialist" and therefore suspect has been trotted around by both ideologues and common thugs for decades. The canard that vaccines are a Western plot to sterilize Muslim children fits neatly into a delusional scenario that has been long in the making. A CIA plot, whether real or imaginary, falls on fertile ground for conspiracy theorists, who ply their trade among the ignorant of all nations.

Despite this disinformation, many if not most parents in these poor countries, when left to their own devices, appear to raise no objection to having their children vaccinated. The lies clearly don't reach everyone, or aren't believed by everyone. People do know that many of their children are killed or disabled every year by illness, and the promise of treatment or prevention drowns out any vicious rumors they may have heard. It should be self-evident that if the propaganda campaign against vaccines were more effective, there would be no need for the zealots to resort to violence.

The doctor who allegedly helped the CIA to find bin Laden, incidentally, is now serving a lengthy prison sentence, courtesy of the Pakistani government. This is as clear an indication as there could be that the country's leadership believes that its bread is buttered on both sides: that demonstrating its fealty either to the United States or to the Taliban would be a fatal move in the very dangerous game it is playing. It should also rid us of any hope that the extremists in their midsts will lose their safe haven any time soon.

What is the civilized world to do in the face of such atrocities?

The depredations of extremism know no bounds, though perhaps since 9/11 we are treated to more frequent accounting of the most vile acts committed in the name of religious purity. However, in all dictatorships, even ones purportedly rooted in scripture, the meting out of "justice" owes more to the psychotic proclivities of particular rulers and their henchmen than to traditions of faith. In the Cultural Revolution, the Chinese Communists murdered countless numbers of educated professionals, reflecting the distrust and resentment of Mao and his inner circle. The Khmer Rouge killed anyone who wore eyeglasses, among other random traits that were offensive to Pol Pot and his minions. Tyrants from the Spanish Inquisitors to Stalin to Saddam Hussein had a penchant for sadistic methods of torture. The more absolute the power, the more insidious are the attempts to impose personal idiosyncrasies upon the population as a whole. The more extensive the grip of the government, the more sanctuary it provides to those whose own mental and sexual deviancy finds a home in the apparatus of state terrorism.

Knowing this is of no consolation to those who find themselves at the sharp end of the knife. As more stories emerge from the months-long ordeal of the residents of Timbuktu, now that their Islamist tormenters have been chased into the bush by the intercession of French military forces, we will no doubt learn even more about how truly vile our enemies are. If we can stomach the truth, we will hear innumerable accounts of the forced amputation of limbs, the brutalization of women and girls, and the widespread murder of innocents.

The ideologically indiscriminate nature of state brutality makes it all the more difficult for civilized nations to confront it. Secular and sectarian ideologues are often interchangeable in their tyrannical tendencies. The compulsory worship of the leader of North Korea, nominally an atheist state, is no less odious than the forced allegiance to the military dictatorship of Iran, which is nominally a religious one. We are certainly no better off with a "secular" state, like the Soviet Union, as our primary enemy. Let the millions who suffered directly at the hands of that particular monster bear witness to its ledger of atrocities, and let us rejoice that it is no longer with us. But the demise of any particular regime, even an unrepentantly evil one, does not spell the end of torment for the peoples of the world. Human history is an uninterrupted narrative of unremitting violence in the quest for domination by one group over another. We who live in pockets of relative tranquility are constantly at risk of succumbing to the illusion that this is the way the whole world lives, or that it could live peaceably as we do if only we dealt effectively with one particular adversary or another.

On the scale of threats to civilization there can be no preference for one variety of fanatic. There are only matters of degree to which regimes are willing to crush the bodies and spirits of their own populations.

Therefore, it is a false and dangerous notion to suppose that the real enemy we face as a civilization is strictly political or ideological. It is also foolish to focus our defense strictly on the tactical methods employed by our enemies in the "asymmetrical" war in which we are currently engaged. It is as pointless and counterproductive to suppose that we are at war with Islam as it is to brand the struggle as a war against "terrorism". As a system of thought, Islamic extremism is in fact a challenge to civilization, if not an existential one as yet. However, it does not pose such a threat because it is Islamic, but because it has decided that civilization is its sworn enemy, and because of the unspeakable methods it employs to subjugate the unfortunates who happen to fall under its domain. Likewise, as a means of carrying out a military campaign against civilian targets, terrorism is in fact a serious threat to the way most people in most nations choose to live. But it is not a threat because it is carried out by thugs masquerading as prophets, or absolutists masquerading as freedom fighters, but because it randomly murders innocent people and disrupts the functioning of ordinary life. To put this in an historical context, we did not go to war against Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan solely because we opposed them ideologically, but because we knew that we and the entire world would be subject to their brutality if we did not. We did not fight the Cold War just because we opposed Communism as a social and political system, but because that system employed barbaric means to achieve its ends and would have been only too happy to employ those means against us had it been able to. Today, we do not oppose the Islamists just because they believe in something that is alien or inimical to us, but because they have set as their target a large swath of the civilized world, and because no level of atrocity has yet proved too distasteful to them in their peculiar quest for domination.

We need to find a way to isolate instances of inhumanity from the ideological sources that give them sustenance. Judicial instruments like the International Criminal Court are a start, but they are not enough. It is certainly better that the Pinochets and Milosevics and Charles Taylors of the world are brought to account before the eyes of the world. They ought not be allowed to enjoy a quiet retirement, their dreams undisturbed by the screams of their victims. Even if the president of Sudan is never brought to trial, it is better to have him under indictment than to permit him to move about the world freely, as though his crimes in Darfur and elsewhere counted for nothing. These solutions, however, have so far failed to represent a consensus on what it is that the community of nations — actually, our common humanity, irrespective of nationality — considers a crime so terrible that it cannot be tolerated under any circumstances. Nations have not even come to universal agreement on the right of such bodies to prosecute anyone. Isolationists and nationalists across the globe, including in the United States, deride these efforts as hopelessly utopian and/or threats to sovereignty. (How they can be both is anyone's guess.) Nation-states have too many conflicting agendas to be in charge of this vital task, but, unfortunately, there is no one else with the authority and the wherewithal to get it done. For the time being, we are stuck with several well-intentioned but highly imperfect, fledgling institutions.

How to Define the World's Worst Crimes

To help these judicial bodies, we would be well-served to create a category of international crimes that is as devoid of politics and ideology as possible: crimes against civilization. The presiding formulation, "crimes against humanity", is both too narrow and too ethereal to be effective against the spectrum of evil that we are discussing. We need a set of principles upon which the vast majority of the world's people can agree, and which encompasses the broad sweep of common human activity. Countries that participate actively in international diplomacy, trade and finance may do so for very different reasons, but for the most part they implicitly embrace a model of civilization that miscreants like the Ayatollah Khamenei, Kim Jong Un and Joseph Kony do not. Given the sorry history of international bodies like the United Nations, it may seem like an impossible task to establish principles of law that would have any real meaning or effect. But there is more common ground that we might suppose. Consider: If countries with cultural and political traditions as divergent as China, Russia and the United States can agree that women deserve equal rights, then that is the basis for a body of law protecting women's rights everywhere. If a large majority of the world's countries agree that children should not be laborers, and that they have the right to an education that includes science and math and not merely the rote learning of scripture — any scripture, religious or political — then that, too, is the basis of law that the entire civilized world can be expected to follow.

Whichever direction the tide of humanity
is moving, it is the same direction in
which the arrow of civilization is pointing.

Another reason why "crimes against humanity" is an insufficient concept is that it overlooks attacks against civilization that do not specifically involve violence against individuals. For example, it is not a crime against humanity to force women to cover every inch of themselves and to live like prisoners in their own homes, as it ostensibly does no physical harm to them, but there is no plausible definition of modern civilization that would tolerate it. It was not a crime against humanity for the Taliban to demolish the giant Buddhist statues at Bamian, but it was a gross and grotesque affront to human civilization. Perhaps this is the beginning of a definition: any state or group that rejects the very idea of the inherent value of cultural artifacts, to whom the statement "They belong to all of humanity" is an alien concept because they do not even recognize the existence of humanity as such, are easy to identify as enemies of human civilization. There is a clear demarcation between nations that participate in international diplomacy, even if they do not do so in the spirit of cooperation but to enlarge their own spheres of influence, and those who consider international peacekeeping forces to be legitimate military targets. There is an obvious difference between those who willingly send their athletes to the Olympic games, even if they do not do so in a spirit of brotherhood, and those who fulminate against the appearance of women in tight clothing and presume to have the right to deliver justice for this and any other impiety of which they disapprove.

There are those who will argue that there were many great civilizations in antiquity in which the subjugation of women, capture of slaves, torture of prisoners and many other human indignities were commonplace. There are others who will say this is just another kind of victor's justice, because the very definition of civilization will be written by those with the power to enforce it. Pedagogues of the ilk of Fidel Castro or the late Hugo Chavez would surely label the United States as the primary offender against civilized humanity, notwithstanding the common cause they routinely made with the most despicable despots on the planet. The only proper response to arguments like these is very simple: what sort of civilization do you wish to live in? Where would you rather confront a police officer or face a judge: in ancient Egypt or Rome, Spain under the Inquisition, Stalinist Russia — or in a modern American or European state? We consider some ancient societies as "great" only because they were great advancements on the absolute barbarism that preceded them. As protectors of the rights of man and the advancement of civilization for the benefit of all humanity, they were abysmal failures, each and every one. Are the many and ugly imperfections of even our most advanced contemporary civilizations an argument in favor of state terror, blood vengeance and sadism? Who, fully understanding the difference between civilization and barbarism, would choose the latter? No boat people ever risked their lives to get into Cuba or Vietnam, no refugees are pouring into Syria or Congo, no defectors are sneaking into North Korea. In whichever direction the tide of humanity is moving, you can be sure that it is the same direction in which the arrow of civilization is pointing.

Creating this kind of law will be difficult, but what is the alternative? Living in a fortress? Good luck finding one. Waging endless wars that cannot be won? Our will must surely waver, as it has after a wearisome decade in Afghanistan.

We all know who our enemies are. What we have had trouble with is defining them the same way we define criminal law domestically: not merely by intent but by actions, not by thoughts alone but by crimes abetted and committed. Whether passersby are blown to oblivion by Islamic terrorists or Marxist ideologues; whether a child is sold into prostitution or drafted into a paramilitary insurgency; whether a woman is raped by invaders or stripped of her identity by the forces of reaction; whether a prisoner is tortured by religious zealots, political fanatics, nationalist thugs or sadistic despots — these are all equally crimes against civilization. We should have the moral courage to start labeling them as such, and shaming allies and rivals alike who acquiesce in their continuation by declining to support their codification. Then we must prosecute the offenders as aggressively as we guard our privileges. If instead we make the fatal mistake of adopting the methods of the enemies of civilization in order to destroy them, we will instead destroy from the inside the very civilization we claim to be defending.


March 23, 2013


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