For Hannah Arendt, “the greatest danger of recognising totalitarianism as the curse of the century would be an obsession with it to the extent of becoming blind to the numerous small and not so small evils with which the road to hell is paved”. Arendt was gifted with an admirable and visionary ability for comprehending evil and its unsettling banality. A banality reflected in Adolf Eichmann and so many other Eichmanns. Kind neighbours, local policemen or plain old barflies one day, conscientious executors of the death trains to Auschwitz, Serbian chetniks in Srebrenica, or Croatian ustashas in Jasenovac the next.
Arendt foresaw that the problem of evil would be the key intellectual question of the postwar era. But, given the reigning climate of amnesia at the time, she feared that firstly we would not know how to deal with this issue or secondly how to understand its complex manifestations. She was slightly amiss on the first point in that the issue has not been central in our public discourse until quite recently, even in spite of Rwanda and Yugoslavia. I say slightly because the concept of evil is back and stronger than ever thanks to this century’s interminable war on terrorism, ISIS or Daesh, prisoners dressed in orange, and execution videos just a click away. But as the visionary Tony Judt pointed out shortly before his death, Arendt may have been right in her second prediction. Not because of forgetfulness, but rather because of an abuse of the concept of evil and its implications. This is the result of a mixture of governmental short-sightedness, clashing international agendas and, above all, a public discourse dominated by demagoguery and simplification. It is hard for us to discern where these evils come from, why they stalk us and what we can do to eradicate them, without creating new ones.
The political debate about the ongoing war in Syria, (now in a new phase of escalation due to Russia’s full fledged intervention), and IS, is a good example of this. Time and again terms such as “the enemy” are trotted out and wrapped up in a rhetoric that conjures the war against Hitler and a third world war. Our leaders would have us believe that IS (and/or others when it suits) are “the enemy” and that they must be “hit hard”. They are understood as the evil of all evils, the problem and the threat to national security. Meanwhile, the long-forgotten concept of human security, which should make us focus more on the unfortunate peoples in the line of fire, and the human toll on Muslims themselves, count for little.
The underlying message is that other evils, such as the region’s repressive and totalitarian regimes – from Assad to Iran or the Saudis – and an authoritarian apparatus with its own agenda, like Putin’s Russia, are “lesser” evils to be tolerated as necessary partners in this fight, regardless of their role in fanning the flames of current events. International terrorism has become the Other, an antagonistic unifier in a universal war. A war in which we nonetheless remain trapped in complete ignorance over what our concrete objectives and parameters might be, or what scenarios might be desirable for our countries, or for the khanates in question (the two might not always be compatible).
One of the problems with this approach and the exclusive line of thought it promotes is that it encourages us not to ask questions and simply join the battle against a concept with a capacity to mobilise people – Evil. By decontextualising conflicts, the origins of dramatic crises like in Syria, and confusedly mixing cause with effect, we lose a sense of perspective and divorce ourselves from the memory of how the devil we got ourselves into such a situation and where all of our demons came from in the first place. Inevitably, it is difficult to hold back our cynicism when reviewing the quality of the characters making up this universal coalition against terrorism. However, it is also a very natural cynicism in light of the horrific abuses perpetrated or tolerated by the West (and Europe), with (more often than not) little accountability (remember the Feinstein Report on CIA’s tortures?). Since George W. Bush launched the concept of the war on terror after 9/11, later cobbling it together with the noble idea of democratic liberation – and perverting that for generations, this has been the status quo. It is a war on terror that the ever infallible Vladimir Putin signed up to in an unseemly hurry, his mind then on Chechnya and his own terrorists, rebels and dissidents (categories often put together). Today he has his mind on other spoils, such as Ukraine, a strategic Russian presence in the Middle East, and his personal campaign to recast the international order, counter-balancing the West and Europe whenever possible, be it the Middle East or the Balkans. With another kind of cynicism (one which distorts reality and creates a parallel version), he reminded us all of this recently at the UN General Assembly.
True, this is the era of Charlie Hebdos, massacres in Kenya and bombings in the Middle East; the globalisation of hatred and a spread in the “know how” of bringing about massive attacks. These are times of fear and insecurity in which opting for such a public discourse is extremely tempting. But in our democratic societies where we still have the instruments to demand political responsibility, we should not just accept this one-dimensional vision. Let us at least ask questions – basic questions, such as why IS emerged – for it surely was no act of God or Allah – and what factors contributed to its creation. For instance, looking back at the development of the now almost five-year long war in Syria and any of the reports by the United Nations or Human Rights Watch, the narrative I am criticising becomes complicated. Such reports gather and present repeated evidence of the Assad regime’s brutal campaign, in contravention of existing international humanitarian and human rights law. They also attribute much or most of the civilian casualties and systematic torture to this side – facts that have caused a French court to open judicial proceedings against Assad’s government. IS is evil, yes, but it would appear that for many Syrians and refugees, Assad and his system are evil too. Some are saying that Assad should have been “part of the political solution” at least at an early stage, and this includes Spain’s present conservative government and a number of others. Aside from the fact that the Syrian state may no longer exist and the difficulty of formulating any sustainable political solution with Assad in power, it may well be that a combination of realism, our own mistakes and Russia’s clear red line makes this the case in the current context. True, Milosevic was also part of a peace accord and ended up in the dock at The Hague for actions smaller in scale than those of Syria. Then again, he ran out of powerful friends, including Russia.
The premise is that they are “our sons of bitches” but this is patently untrue: they are generally their own men or those of Putin, Rouhani or others. In this regard, leaders of the so called “authentic” and anti-authoritarian left fall merrily into the traps of this ill-named security agenda, cosying up to Putin and Russia Today while leaders of the right embrace their kind, such as Riad or Rouhani’s Iran, which have to be “kept onside”. In passing, we might at least bear in mind that this is the Iran which stokes the flames of the war in Syria; sets world records for executions of underage criminals and homosexuals; and condemns activists and artists such as the brilliant film director Jafar Panahi to a sort of death in life. In this tawdry game of “You have your dictators, I have mine”, right and left are equally complicit – some through ideological zeal, others simply having been duped. In fact, often times, rightists and leftists actually join forces in shielding authoritarianism and its abuses from any Western or European criticism. This shows us how limited such concepts are before the great questions of our time, such as the growth of authoritarianism, which is also evident in Europe.
Global terrorism is a greater evil and within the so-far non-existent strategy to deal with it, there will need to be a military dimension. An agenda to strengthen global governance is urgently required, beset as it is by a crisis in which four out of five permanent members of the Security Council are involved in Syria, each fighting in their own interest and incapable of agreeing to a common solution. If we still value our free societies, besieged by doubts and uncertainty as they are, we have to recover a public discourse which denounces those other evils, whether they emanate from Washington, Damascus, Riad or Grozny. We need a discourse that does not always sideline the goals of justice, popular empowerment and freedom, the same things that drove many Syrians onto the streets in 2011 and plenty others across the region too. Ultimately, we need to keep asking ourselves questions, such as whether Syria would be the tragedy it is today if we had somehow observed our own red lines, for example in 2013 after the Ghouta sarin gas attack.
Otherwise, in this age of insecurity we will create uncontrollable leviathans, and a world in constant chaos and war. One day we may not even remember how this spiral of violence began, and there will be nothing else to do but to continue to destroy ourselves, the blind and half-blind, to the bitter end.
This is an extended version of an article originally published in Spanish for El Mundo, translated by James Badcock.
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