This is part of a series of blog posts called "Readings." As a subscriber to 15 periodicals, I will share what I discover and maybe introduce you to a new author.
Inevitably, the way news cycles operate, while we were looking the other way for several weeks, obsessed with the killing of Osama bin Laden, we lost track of “yesterday’s” big story, the other “bad guy” whom we were getting rid of, as the rest of Arab world, in its eruption demanding what we hoped was “democracy,” went about its business. Sunday’s Washington Post (May 22) lead story tells us that men in black masks arrested, beat, and imprisoned a man who had served in Qaddafi’s internal police, although he was not charged with any crimes.
In short, those who would replace Qaddafi employ the politics of revenge, the very behavior deplored in the government they would replace. Two weeks before, NATO air strikes, whose original mission was to protect civilians from the overwhelming bombardments of Qaddafi’s military, bombed his family compound and killed his oldest son (29) and three grandchildren under 12. This is not the image of democracy.
In mid-April the Guardian Weekly reminded us that the western powers should have realized some time ago that the rebel army is not a fighting force. Mostly they retreat.
But the best in-depth coverage, to make us think through the complexities of the situation, other than the big New York Times investigative articles, now comes from the intellectual magazines, including the New Yorker and the New York Review of Books. For mid-March, the New Yorker's John Lee Anderson lived with the rebel forces between the coastal towns of Benghazi, Ajdabiya, and Brega, where he befriended Osama, a Libyan businessman married to a half-American wife Suzi, from Martinsville, Virginia. He and his two sons, Muhammed and Yousef, had left America in February to fight for the revolution.
In his efforts, Osama met another man searching for his lost son’s body, only to find the boy headless. The young fighters had never seen guns before. Qadaffi had called the rebels “cockroaches,” swearing to hunt them down house by house. For Osama, the revolution was no longer about freedom, it was about survival, “protecting one’s family.” His son Muhammed was a 21-year-old, fair-haired and blue-eyed medical student, and his the son’s zeal led the father to throw himself into this war. When his Virginia friends tried to talk him out of it, Osama quoted Patrick Henry, “Give me liberty, or give me death.” He said, “My son Muhammed has shown me what it is to be a man.”
On March 13 Osama got word that Muhammed was dead. Two weeks later he received word that his body had been found lying by the roadside with a bullet in his forehead, but though dead for two weeks he showed no signs of corruption. Osama declared, “This is a miracle. We believe — Muslims and Christians — that there is a Heaven and Hell, and if you sacrifice yourself for a good deed then God will reward you.”
Anderson ends his report with Osama’s prayer, but draws no conclusions from the story. He has warned his readers that the revolution’s greatest strength has been its hatred of Qadaffi, but its weakness is a shortage of leaders. But we have seen the revolution through one good man’s eyes.
Like Anderson, Nicolas Pelham describes the March 17 NATO air attacks on Quaddafi’s forces at the brink of capturing Benghazi as the turning point of the war. Pelham, a regular correspondent for the London Economist, writes in the New York Review of Books from the rebels’ ad-hoc capital Benghazi on April 14, says the city’s fall would have led to a bloodbath. But a month later the war has become a regional conflict — the rebel northeast against the government’s west and south. Benghazi struggles “to retain and air of normality,” but the schools are still closed and garbage is piling up in the side streets. The town’s youth party in the courthouse square while rebel towns in the west burn. Some worry that the “listless lawlessness could soon spark anarchy.” Rebels who a month earlier had rejoiced that they had American allies are beginning to talk about a cease-fire, reconciliation, partition.
They remember what happened when the United States in 1991 encouraged the Shiites to rise up against Saddam Hussein and then abandoned them when he crushed the uprising. If this rebellion were to fail it would be a signal to the rest of the Mediterranean despots to raise their own level of violence. If al-Queda gains strength on the Mediterranean coast, says Pelham, it will result not from the rebels winning but from their defeat.
Raymond A. Schroth