Baghdad Vigilantes and the Dark Side of Civil Society

Discussion in 'Freedom and Liberty' started by JC Refuge, Oct 25, 2006.

  1. JC Refuge

    JC Refuge Emergency Essentials Store Vendor

    Baghdad Vigilantes and the Dark Side of Civil Society
    by Frederick Turner

    Isn't something missing in the current accounts of the new wave of Iraqi violence? The situation has changed quite radically, it seems, but nobody is saying exactly how. Here is how it strikes this naïve observer.

    The attacks against our soldiers go on, but there is no surprise there. The suicide bombings of markets, mosques, bus stations, and police recruiting places do too—nothing new there either. The campaign against those courageous individuals who are trying to create a democratic Iraqi government also continues, as does the opportunistic violence of criminal gangs.

    What has changed is that all of a sudden there is a whole new category of killing going on. Almost every night scores of individuals, obviously chosen and targeted with care, clearly known personally to their attackers, are being tortured and murdered. Who are they? And who are the killers?

    The Press, it seems, is deliberately not answering these questions. Neither Democrats nor Republicans are giving the matter any public attention beyond deploring it in loud but utterly unspecific tones—and this in an election season. Even the Iraqi government is trying to hush it up; recently they forbade the hospitals to give out information about the victims.

    It almost seems as if neither side—the ones who want the Iraqi government to fail, and those who want it to succeed--can afford to answer the awkward questions. Here is a hypothesis.

    The Sunni extremists, al Qaeda-type Wahhabis and Saddamite Baathist fascists in uneasy alliance, perceived that they were losing the war in Iraq. A legitimate government had been voted in and the Americans were preparing to leave it in charge. It was a disaster. They resorted to a desperation measure: to attempt to foment a religious war between Shiites and Sunnis, in the hope of fishing in troubled waters. In doing so they unleashed a very terrible force. That force is not, as often claimed, civil war as such, or even religious war.

    It is something with which we have become quite familiar in Latin America: vigilanteism on a massive scale—murder squads and desaparacidos—the force of civil society itself in extremis.

    When there is a significant fraction of the population that will not join in political compromise, whether because of ideological idealism, addiction to supernatural power, or the passion for revenge, civil society is faced with a diabolical paradox.

    It wishes to form legal and political institutions that are transparent, correctable by debate, and under the control of the people (with protections for minorities), where people can make good money in the marketplace and raise families in peace. But the reality is that even after all possible compromises have been offered to the refuseniks, civil society is faced with a small but absolutely hostile minority that will be content with nothing but total victory.

    What can civil society do? The only solution is the disappearance of that implacable moiety. Civil society cannot use the instruments of government to stamp out its mortal enemy—for that would be to invalidate and destroy the very principles and legitimacy of that government, and set in place a precedent by which normal political squabbles could in future be settled by genocide or the Gulag. It would be to do what Saddam did to the Kurds, what Turkey did to the Armenians, what the Soviets and Maoists and Khmer Rouge did to their bourgeoisie.

    The enemies of the legitimate Iraqi government are almost exclusively Sunnis (though so too are many of its supporters). By logical necessity the exterminators would have to be mostly Shiites and Kurds. The government simply cannot afford to go after its enemies in the systematic way required, for that would be to destroy its claim to represent all minorities. There are, from the point of view of Iraq's nascent civil society, some thousands of people who, in the Texas phrase, need killing. Who is going to do it?

    In the absence of government intervention, the answer is: ordinary people. Basically the killers are posses of self-organized vigilantes, who know their local area, who know who the bombers are, and who the bombers' relatives are. The posses are expert in distinguishing those people who might be fair political enemies from those who will go on striking, like a snake, even when cut in two.

    The change is radical. Whereas the Wahhabi/Baathist killers are indiscriminate in whom they kill, as long as their victims may include Shiites or at least people who might have voted in the elections, the death squads are quite focused in their aim. There is all the difference in the world between bombing a marketplace and shooting a man you have identified and chosen. Reason—even a vile and brutal reason—can be found in the second, where it was absent in the first. The whole point of bombing a market or a bus station is to assert the monstrous and magisterial superiority of chaos itself, of unreason—only thus can the ultimate terror be evoked, terror of what no reasonable strategy of complicity or evasion can avoid. Only thus can ordinary decent people be forced to accept any kind of order, however evil they find it, as long as it is predictable.

    But death squads are rational, in their own horrible way. They may prove, as they did in Latin America, to be a pretty effective method of wiping out implacable enemies of social order and preparing the way for democratic and law-abiding government. In living memory almost every decent and legal regime in Latin America was preceded by a chaotic period in which ordinary men armed themselves with guns, said goodnight to their families, and went out in groups to kill some local dissident. That period was a bit further back in the past for the French, the English, and the Americans. But no nation can be shown to have reached the rule of democratic law without it. The work of the vigilantes is the hideous and dark crime that Socrates and the Greek tragic dramatists hinted must underlie all civilization. That crime is indeed a crime, and its perpetrators must stand trial for it, whether before God or some human tribunal. But it is possible that true civil self-government can only be established with its aid.

    Death squads are distinctly better than suicide bombers. Their members want to survive and have something to lose—they envisage a future in which they can stop killing and get on with family life, while the horrible nightmares gradually fade.

    In a sense, the great new weapon, the suicide bomber—which had seemed to all the world to be irresistible—has, like all weapons, shown its fatal flaw. That flaw was first revealed in the Jordan bombing of the hotel wedding party, which radicalized Jordanians against al Qaeda. Now it has turned to bite the radicals in Baghdad. If civil society finds itself threatened by utter chaos, it may resort to free-enterprise war against its enemy. By definition what it does then cannot be law-abiding or approved by its own government; it is in Hobbes' state of nature; but it can be a kind of savage rationality that might precede law.

    But, as Socrates knew, this dark archetypal crime must be hidden. The American authorities in Baghdad are not saying much about it because the vigilantes are doing their work for them, with infinitely greater precision and expertise. The Iraqi government is not doing or saying much about it either, because it would lose legitimacy if it cooperated with the death squads, and sabotage its own interests if it tried (probably unsuccessfully, anyway) to stop them; but it obviously cannot admit that this inaction is its policy. The U.S. Republican Press cannot say anything about it because it would imply in an election year that it approved of the death squads. The Democratic Press cannot give the vital information—that most of the victims probably deserve their fate—because that would imply that the Iraqis have finally started to do what they were expected to do all along, that is, clean up their own house.

    Everybody is waiting—the Iraq government, until the terrorists are all dead (whereupon it will launch a great campaign of national reconciliation and a long unsuccessful quest for justice against the vigilantes); the US armed forces, until their work is done for them; the irredentist Baathists and Wahhabis, hoping for true civil war; the Republicans, until the violence burns itself out; the Democrats, until the American people can no longer hold down its lunch at what is going on.

    The author is a TCS Daily Contributing Editor and author of [URL=''][COLOR=#0000ff]The Culture of Hope[/COLOR].
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  2. ghostrider

    ghostrider Resident Poltergeist Founding Member

    Yes, that's why the press won't touch it, because it's sectarian violence-racial hatred.
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