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Joseph Sobran’s
Washington Watch

Waco Writ Large

(Reprinted from the issue of March 13, 2003)

Capitol BldgIt’s now ten full years since the siege of Waco began. David Koresh, the leader of the Branch Davidian sect, was the target of a ferocious demonization campaign by the Federal Government. The charges were wild, poorly defined, and sometimes self-contradictory; some of them were about technical weapons violations, though Koresh wasn’t threatening anyone. There was a huge buildup before the actual attack. The besieging army, complete with tanks, insisted it was trying to spare the innocent, including children, whom the government said Koresh had abused.

Remind you of anything? The eerie parallels with Iraq may soon be completed by an even bloodier denouement.

The slaughter at Waco remains infamous. Few can say what it was all about; nobody feels relieved that Koresh was stopped (and killed). Any problem he posed could have been handled by local authorities, not by a small Federal army using overwhelming lethal force against his whole community, while pretending it was “protecting” the public from him.

The demonization of Saddam Hussein and the long siege of Iraq, in the name of “liberating the Iraqi people” (with massive force), are like Waco writ large. True, Saddam Hussein is far nastier than Koresh. He is a cruel dictator whose methods include tortures one hesitates even to describe. But, as with Koresh, all sense of proportion has been lost in the flood of propaganda.

There are dictators and dictators. Conservatives used to make an important distinction between “authoritarian” and “totalitarian” dictators. The authoritarians tolerated no political dissent, but otherwise left their subjects pretty much alone; they were satisfied with a monopoly of power. The totalitarians, on the other hand, claimed and exercised total ownership of their subjects. There were no limits to their power — over property, religion, culture, education, even sports.

Totalitarianism was basically co-extensive with Communism. Apart from terrible purges of suspected “reactionaries,” it made propaganda the very fabric of social life. Children were taught to inform on their parents to the state. Christianity was persecuted with a fury beyond that of pagan Rome. The state abolished private property and controlled all of economic life. The slightest criticism of the state was punishable by death.

Liberals in general inverted this conservative distinction. They judged authoritarian regimes, like that of Franco’s Spain (a highly civilized country), far more harshly than totalitarian ones. We are just now observing the fiftieth anniversay of Stalin’s death, and who can forget liberalism’s fondness for “Uncle Joe”? Not to mention Castro, Ho Chi Minh, and Chairman Mao and his “agrarian reformers.” While feigning impartial disapproval for all dictatorship, “right” or “left,” liberals showed a marked preference for those of the left.

One of the most perverse achievements of Communism — one which separated it from even the cruelest authoritarian regimes — was that it drove millions of people to try to flee. Ordinary people were often willing to leave their ancestral homelands, their families and friends, and what few possessions they had in order to escape to the free world.

This forced the Communist states to do something almost without precedent in history. They armed their borders — not to keep enemies out, but to keep their own subjects in. The Berlin Wall was only the most notorious example of this new twist in tyranny. Other forms of dictatorship had never had refugee problems so severe as to require turning whole countries into maximum-security prisons.

The recent case of Elian Gonzales was a reminder that Communism is not yet quite dead. And most liberals showed no sympathy for his poor mother’s hope of saving him from life in Castro’s Cuba — just like old times! Liberals also displayed their old habit of vilifying Miami’s Cuban refugees, while sparing Castro himself.

Communism also survives in North Korea, where Kim Jong Il has imposed mass starvation on his subjects while building huge military forces. He also continues the Red tradition of murdering Christians, though this doesn’t trouble the liberal West overmuch. China’s official Communism is now thought to be merely residual, but it too continues to persecute Catholics mercilessly, having established a puppet “Catholic” state church. This too has failed to excite much interest in the West. Yet despite much recent economic liberalization, China remains, both in principle and to some degree in practice, totalitarian.

And Iraq? A million Catholic Iraqis practice their faith unmolested. Saddam Hussein isn’t interested in persecuting religion; he even includes Christians in his inner circle. He hasn’t seized or abolished all private property, or otherwise created famine. He is encouraging his subjects to buy guns (unthinkable in a Communist state), so he doesn’t seem worried about their loyalty when the American “liberators” arrive. He hasn’t armed his borders to kill people trying to flee the country, because his tyranny isn’t suffocating enough to drive many people to want to leave their homes.

Maybe Hussein is just lazy; totalitarianism requires a lot of work. Nor does he generate propaganda advertising Iraq as a utopia, in the Communist style; but Iraq does seem to be freer, in practice, than many countries in the region. So, despite its demonization, Iraq clearly belongs in the authoritarian rather than the totalitarian column. Yet conservatives seem to have forgotten this basic and vital distinction.

You can evaluate Hussein in many ways, few of them flattering: he may be a tyrant and a threat, or a tyrant but not a threat, or a threat but not much of a tyrant, and so forth. It’s odd that so many people are all judging him alike, as if there were only one way to see him. The same phrases recur again and again — “gassing his own people,” for instance. Such verbatim unanimity is suspicious; it smacks of the fad or party line.

What is striking, from a Catholic point of view, is that so many Catholic hawks speak of Saddam Hussein and Iraq with a moral outrage they don’t feel for Saudi Arabia (where the practice of Catholicism is outlawed), or even for China and North Korea. In this they sound no different from irreligious conservatives and neoconservatives. Blending in with the secular world isn’t limited to liberal Catholics.
Dead or Alive?

The capture of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, alleged mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, is said to have struck a serious blow to al-Qaeda. Mohammed supposedly ranks just below Osama bin Ladin himself in the terrorist organization.

But bin Laden himself may already be dead. My friend Tom Bethell notes that his most recent purported messages are suspect. Why are they audiotaped rather than on video, as in the past? It’s not as if al-Qaeda can’t afford videotape. A televised message is more powerful than a merely aural one.

If he is dead, al-Qaeda may want to conceal the fact so as not to demoralize its followers. And the Bush administration, which hasn’t disputed the authenticity of the messages, may fear that his death would deprive it of the necessary fuel for keeping war fever blazing. One side needs its hero, the other its villain. So both sides might have a shared interest in keeping the world thinking that he is still alive. Just a hunch, mind you, but worth pondering.
Copyright © 2003 by The Wanderer
Reprinted with permission.

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