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By John Feffer
Elias is Swedish and has buck teeth. These are two strikes against him at the Danish school he attends. The resident bully, along with his fawning entourage, calls Elias “Rat Face” and subjects him to endless indignities. That all changes, however, with the arrival of Christian, an exchange student who is appalled at the treatment of sweet-natured Elias. Christian follows the bully into the bathroom where he is about to inflict yet another humiliation on Elias. But this time it is Christian who metes out the punishment, hitting the bully repeatedly with a bicycle pump and threatening him with a knife if he dares to throw his weight around again.
Who in the audience of the 2010 Oscar-winning film In a Better World does not secretly thrill to this application of justice to an obvious sociopath? The school authorities had already told Elias’s parents that they didn’t consider the situation a problem. Little Elias was up against a deadly combination of violence and indifference, and only Christian possessed the courage and determination to act.
The adults, however, are appalled at this vigilantism. Christian’s father rebukes him for his violence: "If you hit him, he hits you, and then you hit him, then it never ends. That's how wars are started." Christian counters with a stubborn realism: “Not if you hit hard enough the first time. You don’t know shit. All schools are like that. No one will dare touch me now." Bullies consolidate their position through fear. When the oppressed fight back and the fear dissipates, the bullies often melt back into the shadows. And in this case, Christian's prediction proves correct.
If In a Better World were a Disney production, Christian would stop cursing and become a benign bodyguard, Elias would get his teeth straightened, and the two boys would win the hearts of the school’s cutest girls. But this is a Danish production, from the land of Hamlet and Kierkegaard, so it forces us instead to confront several unpleasant truths. Christian and Elias soon discover that their campaign to teach bullies a lesson inevitably causes collateral damage. They both nearly die as part of their misconceived campaign for justice, confirming the Chinese dictum that if you embark on a journey of revenge then you should dig two graves. Bullies act outside the law, but so do vigilantes. They are both, to a certain extent, sociopaths.
The problem remains: how do we obtain justice in a world that lacks the fair and impartial mechanisms to enforce justice? In a Better World came out in 2010, but it has anticipated the moral and tactical debates surrounding the intervention in Libya.
Muammar Gaddafi has been a bully ever since he seized power in a military coup in 1969 at the age of 27. He concentrated power in his own hands and in those of his family and friends. He started wars, cracked down on dissent, assassinated critics overseas. He was not without friends, of course. African leaders that received large chunks of Libyan aid competed for his affections. He was welcomed into the international community by none other than the United States and United Kingdom as a result of secret negotiations nearly a decade ago around Libya’s nuclear program and the Lockerbie bombing. As a result of skillful patronage and certain economic improvements in the country, not to mention thumbing his nose at the former colonialists, Gaddafi enjoyed a measure of domestic popularity. But this support was hollow. A brutal state apparatus secured his position and all but guaranteed his own increasing isolation. His self-aggrandizement and frequent lapses into incoherence only confirmed that absolute power had corrupted Gaddafi absolutely.
When protests broke out in Libya in February, in response to the government’s arrest of a human rights campaigner as well as protests in neighboring Tunisia and Egypt, Gaddafi did not hesitate to respond with maximum threats and force. The international community issued its routine condemnations of the violence. But it wasn’t until Gaddafi’s troops were poised on the outskirts of the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi that a group of nations, with the United States prominent in the mix, pushed through a UN resolution to apply the Responsibility to Protect doctrine. There were certainly other places in the world to draw the line, but the failure to act in one place does not dictate the lack of action everywhere. Double standards are the norm in the absence of the rule of law.
And who in the international community could not secretly thrill to the application of force to stop an obvious sociopath on the verge of committing an atrocity? Even if Gaddafi did not follow through on his pledge to wipe out the rebellious "vermin," he was too skilled and ruthless a political survivor to give the protest movement a mere slap on the wrist. He was well aware of the success, however temporary, of the Syrian regime when it crushed the Muslim Brotherhood in Hama in 1982 and the Iraqi regime when it suppressed the Shi’ite rebellion in 1991. Bullies must maintain a regime of fear to survive.
As in the film, the campaign to stop the bully was initially successful but it also caused collateral damage. The mission expanded from enforcing a no-fly zone to intervening on one side of a civil war to effect a regime change. The NATO strikes and the rebel advances resulted in civilian casualties, the prevention of which was the ostensible reason for the action in the first place. The rebels have also engaged in reprisals against Gaddafi loyalists and, according to several reports, focused their wrath on black-skinned Libyan residents on the suspicion that they fought as mercenaries. Finally, the country is awash in weapons, with some of Gaddafi’s munitions depots still dangerously unsecured, so any future struggle for power inside the country could be very messy.
A revolution, as Mao famously wrote, is not a dinner party. Given the refusal of Gaddafi to go gently into the night, it would be naïve to have expected a “velvet revolution” in Libya. Still, the campaign to overthrow Gaddafi has caused comparatively little collateral damage, at least compared to the outside intervention to overthrow Saddam Hussein. "The intervention was messy, but it's worth noting that NATO took more care to minimize civilian deaths than we've seen in other conflicts," says Fred Abrahams, who works as a special adviser to Human Rights Watch. "I was there looking at the bombing sites one week before Tripoli fell, and the cases were minimal compared to Afghanistan and Kosovo, which is one reason why this took six months." Worse might come, as it did in Iraq, so it is certainly premature to deride the pessimists, as Tom Ricks has done. Even cautious optimism at this point is probably unwarranted.
Without an overwhelming bloodbath or dispiriting quagmire to hold up as cautionary example, some critics have withheld their applause at Gaddafi's ouster in favor of decrying the West's neo-colonialism. They forget that Western governments had no problem dealing with Gaddafi – or any other authoritarian leader – to guarantee access to oil or solicit support for counter-terrorism. He was a wild card, however, so when an authentic indigenous challenge emerged, the West quickly shifted its allegiance, though not without considerable concerns over the nature of the rebel coalition. Western oil companies will likely get better deals in Libya with Gaddafi out of the way – he restricted exploration and raised taxes and fees on the companies that did have contracts – but don't confuse a consequence for a cause. Also, don't underestimate the role of politics in prompting the intervention. Absent political pressure from both the opposition and within his own party, Obama would likely have ignored the Libyan opposition, sitting on his behind rather than leading from behind.
Neither diplomatic pressure nor economic sanctions would likely have dissuaded Gaddafi from wiping out his opposition, either by killing large numbers or throwing them all in jail to rot. The no-fly zone stopped Gaddafi in his tracks. This doesn’t mean that the choice was a good one. It was a bad decision. But not acting would have been a worse decision.
“First do no harm” is the modern version of the Hippocratic Oath that some practitioners would like to apply to foreign affairs in defense of sometimes doing nothing. At first blush, this seems a sensible course of action. But even for doctors, the situation is not so clear cut. For instance, in the Hippocratic Oath itself, doctors pledge that “I will not give to a woman an abortive remedy.” Yet many doctors put a higher value on the woman’s right to choose. If medical decisions were clear cut, there would be no need for the field of medical ethics.
Which brings us back to In a Better World, where Elias’s father confronts just such a dilemma. In Denmark, he tries to set an example for his son by turning the other cheek when dealing with a pugnacious opponent. In Africa, however, where he periodically serves as a doctor in conflict-torn areas, his non-violent ethos is put to an even more serious test. One day he must decide whether to treat the “Big Man,” the warlord responsible for so many of the victims who turn up at the camp hospital. The “Big Man” is obviously a bully, but the doctor subscribes to the Hippocratic Oath and agrees to operate on his leg. When the “Big Man” subsequently makes a joke about a woman that his forces have brutalized and who has died on the operating table despite the best efforts of the medical team, Elias’s father drags the thug out of the hospital and leaves him in the dust. When the families of the sick and dying take their revenge by beating the “Big Man” to death, the doctor does nothing to stop them.
The international community, too, made it possible for the families of the aggrieved to take their revenge on the Gaddafi regime. It was not possible to keep our hands clean in this affair, for harm would have ensued whether we intervened or didn't intervene. Our choice was much more difficult for it revolved around the kind of harm we felt compelled to do.
The Danish title of In a Better World was, typically, much starker. It was simply called Haevnen (Revenge). American audiences instead are asked to reflect on a possible future: in a better world perhaps we will not face such terrible choices, a world in which the UN and the International Criminal Court render all bullies powerless. Liberal Americans cling to this slender hope in the face of the bully problem. As art, this is unsatisfying. But as an aspirational public policy, such idealism is surely an improvement over Hamlet and Kierkegaard.
Starving the Bullies
One way of dealing with bullies is to take away their source of income. Warlords and militias in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) have financed their activities through the sale of valuable minerals. Section 1502 of the Dodd-Frank Act, passed in 2010, requires purchasers of these minerals to verify that the suppliers were not warlords or militias. But the U.S. Chamber of Commerce is now challenging this act on the grounds that it is causing unemployment in the DRC and reducing the competitiveness of U.S. business.
"The critics of Section 1502 are wrong," writes Foreign Policy In Focus contributor Patrick Cannon in Controlling Congo's Minerals. "The best way to promote development and stability in eastern DRC is through more, not less, regulation of U.S. businesses that profit from Congolese minerals."
In Mexico, meanwhile, the bullies are thriving on the revenues of the drug trade. Instead of coming up with a sensible policy that addresses this trade, leaders in Latin America and the United States have tried to punish the bullies by declaring war on them. The collateral damage has been devastating.
"The attacks on cartels — including the killing or capture of leaders — spark turf wars that rage throughout Mexico, with the worst concentrated along the northern border," writes FPIF columnist Laura Carlsen in Drug War Madness. "In response, some cartels have reorganized, with splinter groups frequently employing far more violent tactics than their parent organizations. Military operations have pushed the violence around the country in what experts call a 'whack-a-mole' strategy that shows no signs of letting up."
Peru and the South China Sea
Many of the small countries along the South China Sea fear that China is throwing around its weight in the area in order to secure important sea lanes and capture the energy wealth that might lie beneath the surface of the water.
The United States could confront China on this issue. But FPIF contributor Richard Javad Heydarian recommends caution. "Beijing is neither irrational nor reckless," he writes in The South China Sea Conundrum. "Washington must understand Beijing’s unique needs and challenges, and adopt a more nuanced policy position. Ultimately, China seeks stability as it rises within the current international order. The United States should avoid a self-fulfilling prophecy of confrontation with the world’s next preeminent power. If Washington plays its cards well, it could avoid confrontation with China and further integrate China into an evolving and stable international system that reflects new geopolitical realities."
Finally, in Peru, the left is experiencing a resurgence with the election of President Ollanta Humala Tasso. But it's not just parties and politicians. After decades of repression, the student movement is reviving as well.
"Some small leftist student organizations have gained strength in the past few years, and they hope to compel a wider sector of indifferent youth to help fight for social and political reform," writes FPIF contributor Terra Stanley in Peru's Leftist Student Revival. "If Humala doesn’t cumplir (carry out his promises) student apathy will likely deepen and leftist organizations will have to jump another hurdle. ‘Fujimori and Garcia didn’t cumplir to democratize the country…maybe Humala can,’ says Cesar Germaná, a sociology professor at San Marcos, and ‘students are very sensitive to the carrying out of electoral promises.’”
- Originally published by Foreign Policy in Focus
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