On a bright spring day in 2005, in a country I cannot name, I entered a drab, unremarkable building, a gateway to a grim, unaccustomed world. Its spaces were impersonal, antiseptic, institutional. The residents of that alien world, both the guards and the guarded, were never exposed to natural light. They inhabited a claustrophobic universe of their own, a place suffused with a permanent air of foreboding, in which both time and external reality had been suspended. On entering that world one could sense an invisible bond among the inhabitants, the captors and the captured, impenetrable to outsiders. A harsh necessity had bound them together, condemning them both.
Washington, DC – “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”
The sentiment, from Edmund Burke, is a noble one. Surely the self-regarding good should bestir themselves when confronted with evil. And yet the translation of Burke’s words into virtuous action, as Burke himself would attest, can be fraught with moral peril. Concern over the legitimate grievances of American colonists might have led him to sympathise with the American Revolution; yet during the French Revolution the depredations of the French noble class were not enough for him to excuse the excesses of the Parisian mob. One wonders, at the end, what a later-day Burke would make of the Syrian Revolution.
“Until this moment, Senator, I think I never really gauged your cruelty or your recklessness… Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last?”
With those famous words, spoken on June 9, 1954, during a nationally televised hearing of the US Senate, an Army lawyer named Joseph Welch produced perhaps the first nationally galvanising moment ever achieved in the US through a medium seemingly created for such moments, and which has generated many dozens of them around the globe since. In an instant, the powerful Senator Joseph McCarthy, anti-Communist demagogue, was revealed in three dimensions before the world for what he was: A small, petty, conniving man, willing to casually destroy the reputation of an innocent person – in this case, a junior lawyer on Welch’s staff – in order to score a minor debating point. It was the beginning of a rapid descent, political and personal, for the once-feared Republican senator from Wisconsin.
Geographers might disagree, but as a resident I can attest that for two months a year, Washington DC lies in the tropics. Its days are stultifyingly hot and humid, and its evenings are punctuated with monsoon-like downpours, frequently accompanied by lightning and high winds. In such storms, trees in the residential areas surrounding the US capital, over-grown and top-heavy from lack of competition for water and nutrients, frequently fall like ten-pins.
It is strange, really, how the destruction of buildings and inanimate objects can sometimes capture the world’s attention in ways that ordinary, simple human suffering does not. Northern Mali, like much of Saharan and Sahelian Africa, has long been home to endemic hunger, poverty and civil strife.
It would seem that there has been little news generated in south-central Asia over the past 10 days to inspire optimism for the future. Violence on both sides of the Durand Line, often mindless and reflexive, continues unabated. The governments of the key protagonists – Afghanistan, the US, and Pakistan – nominally interested in finding political solutions to the region’s conflicts, remain gridlocked, internally and externally, unable to see beyond the impasses their current policies have made for them.
Washington, DC – “They are falling into the trap,” he said. “The Islamists will soon win their election, and they will come to power. But this will be their undoing. Soon the people will see that they are no more capable of solving the country’s problems than we were; before long, the public will blame the Islamists for their problems, rather than us. Then you will see what will happen: the people will turn on them, and turn again to us.”
My friend might well have been an Egyptian Army officer or a member of the ancien regime, speaking before the parliamentary elections of November 2011, in which the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party and the Salafist Al-Nour party won a majority of seats. Or he might well have been speaking just days ago, before the presidential run-off election – won by the Freedom and Justice party’s Mohamed Morsi.
Washington, DC – When in 1990 the US was in the midst of organising an international coalition to drive Saddam Hussein’s forces from Kuwait, it made a desperate plea to its Israeli ally: Please, please do not help.
Saddam may have been a strategic ignoramus in most respects, but he had wits enough to know that the best way of unravelling the coalition of Arab countries arrayed against him, and to deny the regional staging areas on which the Americans relied was to frame the coming fight as a struggle between Arab nationalism and US-backed Zionism. He made clear that if hostilities were launched against him, he would strike immediately at the “principle enemy”: Israel.
Washington, DC – “Don’t believe what you read in the papers,” my father used to say. And as with most of the sage advice I ignored in my youth, experience would later prove him to be right. It eventually occurred to me when in government that if on topics I knew as an insider the press was at least half wrong, it was unlikely that they could be right on everything else.
Washington, DC – Once again, voices of righteous indignation are being raised dramatically in Washington. Senators Carl Levin and John McCain, the two ranking members of the Senate Armed Services Committee, are perhaps the most strident among them, having just pronounced the actions of a Pakistani court to be “shocking and outrageous”. Should the government of Pakistan fail to undo this judicial travesty, they assert, it “will only do further harm to US-Pakistani relations, including diminishing Congress’ willingness to provide financial assistance to Pakistan”.