Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Tyranny and Indifference: Vaclav Havel and Kim Jong Il (Wall Street Journal)

As cosmic coincidences go, the deaths of Václav Havel and Kim Jong Il in the same week the U.S. pulled the last of its troops out of Iraq is hard to ignore. Havel made the exposure of tyranny the great task of his life. Kim was tyranny personified. And the war in Iraq was the bruising leap over the wall of global indifference behind which all tyrannies subsist.

The power of indifference is something I first understood from Havel himself after interviewing him, over a beer, in the gardens of Prague's Czernin Palace. The occasion was a June 2007 conference of international dissidents that he co-chaired with Israel's Natan Sharansky. I asked him about his views on the war in Iraq. He had once supported it, but now he was more tentative. The rationale, he said, had not been "well-articulated." The timing of the invasion was "questionable." As in the 1960s, the U.S. risked becoming an emblem of William Fulbright's "arrogance of power."

Then Havel stopped himself and, as he seemed wont to do, put the train of his thought in reverse. "The world," he concluded, "could not be indifferent forever to a murderer like Saddam Hussein."

Here was the nub of the matter when it came to the invasion of Iraq. Never mind the faulty human or technical intelligence concerning weapons of mass destruction: The real WMD, better known as Saddam Hussein, was always hiding in plain sight. Over the course of 25 years he and his henchmen gassed, assassinated, machine-gunned and otherwise murdered somewhere between one million and two million people. That's a big number, the equivalent of a dozen or so Hiroshimas.

Yet because most of the victims were Kurds, Shiites, marsh Arabs, Iranians and Kuwaitis, the question was why it should matter to the West—anymore than, say, the butcheries in the Congo matter. Opponents of the war argued that it should not: that there was no emergency; that no supreme national interest was at stake; that humanitarian interventions needed to be carried out consistently or not at all. Failing those tests, they concluded, guaranteed that the war was folly from the start.

If Havel's now-celebrated career means anything, however, it is to beware that facile conclusion. In his great 1978 essay, "The Power of the Powerless," written just as his career as a dissident had begun in earnest with his signing of the Charter 77 manifesto, he warned against "the attractions of mass indifference" and the "general unwillingness of consumption-oriented people to sacrifice some material certainties for the sake of their own spiritual and moral integrity." Havel feared that one's indifference to the question of the freedom of others would ultimately result in a well-fed indifference to the question of one's own freedom.

"A big danger of our world today is obsession," he told the conference the day of our interview. "An even bigger danger is indifference."

All this was Havel's way of saying that political extremism—whether of the Leonid Brezhnev, Kim Jong Il, Saddam Hussein or Osama bin Laden variety—would flourish if free people did not actively resist the temptation to acquiesce to it in the name of "peace," or some other go-along-to-get-along slogan.

A proper attitude may not have required physical belligerency, he believed, and it could easily incorporate diplomacy. But it did require a constant posture of spiritual belligerency—a refusal to accept that a regime like Saddam's or Kim's was just a normal fact of life, beyond the reach of moral examination. In the context of Cold War Czechoslovakia, Havel called it a matter of "living in truth." In the context of countries like North Korea, Russia or Iran, Havel told me it was also a matter of truth-telling. "We can talk to every ruler," he said, "but first of all it is necessary to tell the truth."

What does it take to "tell the truth," as Havel saw it?

In his case, a great deal of courage, including a willingness to spend years of his life in prison or working the menial jobs to which the regime sentenced him. The real mystery is why, in free societies where few journalists and politicians are ever at serious risk of reprisal, truth-telling seems to be in relatively short supply. North Korea is a vast modern-day Auschwitz. Yet when George W. Bush named Pyongyang to the Axis of Evil, it was Mr. Bush who was roundly mocked. Note the balance of contempt in the New York Times' write-up of Kim's death from Sunday night:

"President George W. Bush called [Kim] a 'pygmy.' . . . Yet those who met him were surprised by his serious demeanor and his knowledge of events beyond the hermit kingdom he controlled." O, misunderstood Dear Leader, if only we had known you better.

It says something about the force of Havel's personality and ideas that his life did, in the end, have a fairy-tale ending. That is a triumph for the West. It is a triumph for the West, too, that for all the opposition to the Iraq War, a noose was put around Saddam's neck.

But it also says something that Kim died in his proverbial bed, thanks in part to global acquiescence in, and considerable tangible support for, his rule. That's a testament to what our indifference continues to achieve for tyranny, and a poor way of honoring the memory of Václav Havel

WSJ - http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052970204879004577108353959148734.html

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