Behind the violence in Gujarat, Gaza and Iraq is the banality of democracy
The moral deviancy of our elite no longer shocks. What is dispiriting is its tacit endorsement by electoral majorities
Pankaj Mishra The Guardian, 11 February 2009
In his memoir, Secrets, Daniel Ellsberg describes how he decided to risk years in prison by leaking the Pentagon Papers, the top-secret record of American decision-making on Vietnam, to the New York Times. Hoping that his wife, Patricia, would help him make up his mind, Ellsberg showed her a few memos on bombing strategies crafted by his former superiors at the Pentagon. She was horrified by some of the phrases in the documents: "a need to reach the threshold of pain"; "salami-slice bombing campaign"; "the objective of persuading the enemy"; "ratchet"; "one more turn of the screw". "This is the language of torturers," she told Ellsberg. "These have to be exposed."
I recalled this scene while reading about Israel's objectives in its assault on Gaza, as defined by the country's political and military leaders and its western supporters. Speaking to a delegation from the Israeli lobby Aipac, President Shimon Peres confirmed that "Israel's aim was to provide a strong blow to the people of Gaza so that they would lose their appetite for shooting at Israel". Writing in the New York Times, Thomas Friedman, who had previously explained that the US invasion of Iraq was meant to say "suck on this" to the Muslim world, agreed that "the only long-term source of deterrence is to exact enough pain on the civilians".
Perhaps it is no longer shocking that elected leaders and mainstream journalists in democracies seem to borrow their tone and vocabulary from Ayman al-Zawahiri and Hassan Nasrallah - after all, the war on terror, now officially declared a "mistake", unhinged some of our best writers and thinkers. What is more bewildering and dispiriting than the moral deviancy of our political elites is its tacit endorsement by large democratic majorities.
Democracy, loudly upheld as a cure for much of the ailing world, has proved no guarantor of political wisdom, even if it remains the least bad form of government. In 2006 the Palestinians voted for Hamas, whose doctrinal commitment to the destruction of Israel makes peace in the Middle East even less likely. Given the chance, majorities in many Muslim countries would elect similarly intransigent Islamist parties to high office.
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