Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Black Book of Saddam Hussein

Reviewed in the Weekly Standard:

For all that, Le Livre noir de Saddam Hussein represents an intellectual mystery. Journalists and authors have already extensively covered Saddam and his regime. It's true that this book provides some of the best discussions available on the
persecution of the Marsh Arabs and the suppression of the 1991 Shiite uprising. But in the main, all these stories are familiar. And many of them are going to be dredged up in that Baghdad courtroom anyway. This borders on old news. It seems unnecessary to produce a Black Book about Saddam at all. Yet most of these writers have an urgent and indignant tone.

What gives? Kutschera, the editor, offers one answer: Many people, in fact, do not know the scope of Saddam's crimes, and many others don't know many details about them. Perhaps more important, Kutschera and his collaborators know that they live in a world in which some items are pushed out of people's moral imaginations, and off their moral agendas, with remarkable ease and speed. Specifically, they know they live in a world in which once the Holocaust has been addressed, moral blind spots about mass murder and abuse proliferate impressively.

The pattern is plain: Over and over again, perceived abuses by Western societies--colonialism, the Vietnam war--are revisited in conversation and thought until they are part of our mental furniture. What happens to the crimes of others is very different. Some of them get sucked down the memory hole. Those of us of a certain age remember that the very independent Idi Amin was far worse, but it is Joseph Mobutu--portrayed as a U.S. ally, if not puppet--who has emerged as the durable symbol of abusive African rule.

More often, crimes committed by non-Westerners are blamed on Westerners. As in: America provided Saddam with chemical weapons; Palestinians mimic Israeli brutality; the Khmer Rouge was driven to madness by U.S. bombing. It was Belgian colonialism that taught Rwandan Hutu génocidaires to be tribal and to kill. And the CIA created Osama bin Laden, while U.S. excesses created his followers.

The soft bigotry here is not of low expectations but of no expectations. This suggests that only Westerners have moral agency. To deny a person the capacity to initiate evil is to deny them the capacity to initiate good, or anything in between.

The result is a vicious cycle in which many educated people engage easily with the storylines they already know, and are unsure what to do with the unfamiliar. Most infamously, members of the world's intellectual and journalistic classes have a habit of not denying Communist atrocities but of knowing almost no details about them and never volunteering the topic.
Read the whole thing.

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