Ideas June 2003

Building Democracy Out of What?

The Iraqi people, and anyone who wants to help them, will have to deal with the long-term psychological trauma of life under Saddam

In the early 1990s, while covering the decline and fall of the Soviet Union, I observed a curious phenomenon. The inside of every apartment I visited was tidy and clean. But every building's vestibule, hallways, and stairs were filthy and rancid. The floors looked as if they'd never been mopped; lights were burned out; the air reeked of urine. I started asking people why they didn't get together to clean up the hallways. After all, I'd say, there are four or five families living on your floor. A half hour's shared work and it would be done.

They'd give various reasons: The neighbor on this side is an alcoholic. The neighbor on that side we never see. But the real reason was that after seven decades of living under totalitarianism, they didn't know whom they could trust; they didn't know if their neighbors belonged to the secret police. By that time citizens were no longer being sent off in large numbers to the gulags for minor or manufactured crimes, but the bonds of normal society had been destroyed. People's souls had been damaged by decades of terror and mass murder.

Memories of that time came to me as I looked at images of our soldiers in Iraq during the early days of the war. The soldiers were thrust among people who have been living with random violence, invisible but constant surveillance, arbitrary law, and brutal repression for more than three decades. In short, the Iraqis have been living on the dark side of the moral universe. I hope our soldiers aren't thinking that the people they encounter have been undamaged by their experience, or that they will respond to events in the ways Americans would.

And I hope that we at home aren't underestimating the weirdness of what the soldiers encounter. During the first days of the war many Americans assumed that it would be over, as so many said, "in a flash." This is a natural impulse, common at the start of wars. We realize that what we're embarking on is a terrible enterprise, so we want to believe that it will be easy and short—that the boys will be home for Christmas, as they used to say.

It almost never works out that way. But part of our dream this time was that the average Iraqi would react to our invasion as we thought we might react under similar circumstances. As soon as the military power of the United States became apparent to the Iraqis, we imagined, millions of them would rise up to seize freedom and overthrow tyranny. They'd see that Saddam was doomed and quickly switch to the winning side.

I got caught up in those hopes as much as anybody else, even though, because of my experience in the former Soviet Union, I had little excuse. In addition, I'd read Hannah Arendt. In The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951) she drew a crucial distinction between tyranny and totalitarianism. In a tyranny, she wrote, the leader lives apart from the people. He exploits them for whatever money, power, and position his lusts require, but he doesn't try to reshape who they are. In a totalitarian state, Arendt argued, the leader gets inside people's heads. He constructs a regime that is everywhere, one that seeks to obliterate spontaneity, creativity, and individual initiative, and to dictate thought. The result is not overpoliticization but a perverse depoliticization of life. People come to understand that they cannot think a political thought, because the wrong one could get them executed. They lose the habits of citizenship. Society becomes atomized. Individuals experience psychological isolation and loneliness, because they can't be sure that even their own family members won't betray them. They fall into a passivity induced by the impossibility of freedom. All they have is their perpetually whipped-up nationalism and the omnipresence of their dictator.

If Saddam's regime had been merely a tyranny, perhaps the Iraqis would have risen up at the start of the war, as we hoped. But the ideology of the Baath Party was formulated by intellectuals who studied in Paris in the 1930s. They combined a deep admiration for Nazi ideas with a respect for Leninist party structure. Saddam himself especially idolized Stalin, and the regime he established was an Arab amalgam of the most brutal twentieth-century totalitarianisms, with an Islamic element added in the final decade. As events in Iraq unfold, we need to remember that every segment of Iraqi society has been profoundly affected by that regime.

Let's start with the oppressors. According to estimates from Human Rights Watch, Saddam's forces have killed or caused the disappearance of some 290,000 Iraqis. Thousands more were killed during ethnic-cleansing campaigns against the Kurds and the Shiites. Killing that many people and processing their corpses requires a huge apparatus. Saddam was careful to implicate as many people as possible: for example, he ordered civilian advisers to serve on firing squads, so that they, too, would have blood on their hands. The people who manned that apparatus are not unhurt by what they did.

What is it like to be an official in a government that rules by terror? What sort of taste for sadism grows in one's heart? What does murdering fellow citizens, even neighbors, do to one's soul? How has a person who has performed such deeds justified them, and is that person likely to give up that justification simply because American troops appear?

Presented by

David Brooks, an Atlantic correspondent, is also a contributing editor of Newsweek, a senior editor of The Weekly Standard, and a political analyst for The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer.

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