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?

One has probably been regarded with fear and trembling by everybody else, and may have developed a lust for blood and violence. "When we are cruel to others, we know that our cruelty is in order to bring them back to their true selves, of which they are ignorant," Michel Aflaq, a founder of the Baath Party, once wrote.

The Fedayeen Saddam have probably experienced the same sensations that motivated members of the Gestapo and the KGB—the desire to inflict pain, the feeling that one is so powerful in serving one's cause, and so superior to others, that one can maim and kill at will. Earlier this year the U.S. State Department reported that members of the Fedayeen went on a beheading spree, lopping off the heads of more than 200 women in the name of stamping out prostitution. Their zealous cruelty brings to mind an SS guard Arendt described in her book. "Usually I keep on hitting until I ejaculate," the guard told an interviewer. "I used to be perfectly normal. That's what they've made of me."

And what of the subjects of Saddam's regime? What is it like to have one's mind invaded without respite by such a man and his propaganda? What is it like to live a life dominated by fear, by the knowledge that at any moment an official might rape one's daughter or kill one's son? What is it like to live in a society of emotionally wounded people who have lost friends and family to the regime, to the war against Iran, to the first Gulf War?

My Weekly Standard colleague Matt Labash learned of one incident that, though shocking to an American sensibility, is merely typical of Saddam's Iraq. A man was arrested for a minor infraction, beaten, and detained; finally he was told he was being released. Baath Party officials escorted him from the jail to his home, where his family joyfully gathered around him. Then the officials shot him in the head.

Hannah Arendt is famous for her phrase "the banality of evil," but she was also struck by the radicalism of evil—by humankind's ability to be evil in ways that destroy all norms, all expectations, all sense of order. When Baath Party officials took children hostage to force their brothers and fathers to fight against the United States this spring, they were committing the sort of crime that Arendt had remarked on in other totalitarian regimes. "The alternative is no longer between good and evil, but between murder and murder," she wrote. "Who could solve the moral dilemma of the Greek mother, who was allowed by the Nazis to choose which of her three children should be killed?"

One simply doesn't recover from experiences like these. At the start of the war the prominent Iraqi intellectual Kanan Makiya began posting a diary on The New Republic's Web site. In one entry he described an Iraqi friend who had suddenly flown into a rage over a trivial slight. The man had relatives who had been murdered, Makiya pointed out; he himself had been starved and tortured. "Try to imagine the worst and still you will not come close to the physical pain this man has suffered," Makiya wrote, addressing fellow exiles.

And remember while you are trying to imagine what this person went through, that this is the human raw material that you want to build democracy for.
Every day in the last five weeks of my travels I have come across such damaged and wounded people, people who breathe nationalism, sectarianism, without knowing that they are doing so, and people who are deeply chauvinistic and suspicious toward their fellow Iraqis. These are the facts of life for the next generation in this poor, unhappy and ravaged land. Don't even think of coming back to it after liberation if you are not prepared to deal with such facts.

Makiya holds fervently to the vision of an Iraqi democracy. He has devoted the past three decades of his life to making this vision a reality. But he knows that the blood shed during thirty-five years of Saddam's rule will not wash away in a lifetime or two. The Iraqi people, along with any nations that try to help rebuild Iraq, will be dealing with the psychological and spiritual aftershocks of the country's trauma for a long time.

Perhaps the most sickening aspect of the Iraqi drama has been Saddam's popularity in various parts of the world. Here is a man responsible for the deaths of more Muslims than any other person in recent history. But Palestinians carrying his photograph marched in his support, and so did large numbers of people in other Arab countries. Majorities in Europe told pollsters that Saddam's threat to peace was equal to or less than that of George Bush.

Part of this reaction is pure anti-Americanism. But part of it is the strong if secret admiration that many people have for cruel power and unabashed strength. Totalitarianism exists, Arendt said, because it solves certain psychological problems: it eliminates uncertainty and it casts politics in a maximalist, seemingly heroic role. It will survive, if not in Iraq, then in North Korea, or in a terrorist cell somewhere. And as bizarre as it may seem to us, there will always be people willing to fight and die in order to preserve it.