Sunday, June 5, 2011

David Brooks' Warped Sense of "Normal"

I've more or less quit reading David Brooks' NY Times columns anymore.  He's eminently predictable, tends to focus more on the wonderfulness of the American way and to pronounce Yoda-like judgment on "big" questions, usually after reading some new book.  So, when I spotted his latest essay - "The Depravity Factor," a title that seemed to advertise more Brooks-as-Yoda  - I decided to skip it.  But then, when I saw Phil Weiss' post about how the neocon Brooks had deemed the "Iraq war as necessary for ‘peace process’, I could no longer lay off.

Brooks appropriately condemns the brutality with which the Asad government of Syria has tried to squelch protests, killing demonstrators and torturing detainees (including a 13-year-old boy whom Syrian security forces detained for a month and then maimed and tortured horribly before returning his body to his family).  Brooks calls such acts depraved.  Indeed, they are; and Brooks does us all a service by singling out those acts to bring them to our attention.

But as is his custom, Brooks felt compelled to move on from specifics to general characterizations of regimes.  For him, the regimes in Syria and Libya, and the Hamas-led government in Gaza, are to be counted as
governments that are fundamentally depraved. Either as a matter of thuggishness (Syria) or ideology (Hamas), they reject the full humanity of other human beings. They believe it is proper and right to kill innocents. They can never be part of a successful negotiation because they undermine the universal principles of morality.

These "depraved" governments are to be compared to those of Arab countries that are "not nice, but normal" -  and he specifies Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia as examples.

Is he joking?

Egypt? Where the consistent and well-documented brutality of the security forces - the police especially - was a major stoker of the public anger that led to the uprisings in January and the ouster of Hosni Mubarak?  Where - it's well known - the US customarily sent (via its illegal programs of rendition) detainees from Iraq and Afghanistan to be "interrogated"/tortured into giving up "intelligence"?

Jordan?  Where Human Rights Watch discovered (and reported)  that torture of detainees was practiced regularly (even by prison directors)?

Saudi Arabia?  Where judges regularly punish offenders by lopping off fingers, arms, or feet as official, legally sanctioned punishment?  Where the state-sponsored Wahhabi fundamentalist doctrine deems Shiites to be heretics, and essentially sub-human?  Where tanks and troops were rushed to the defense of a Sunni monarchy in Bahrain that over the last months has beaten and killed Shiite protesters, and defaced or demolished dozens of Shiite mosques (some of them historical landmarks)?

Don't such acts "reject the full humanity if other human beings"?  Don't they entail the killing of innocents?  Why not consign them as well, then, to the ranks of "depravity"?

Well, on the other hand. . . .

By adjudging as "normal" Arab countries that do and preach such hideous things, Brooks does provide some cover for another Middle Eastern country where detainees have frequently been subjected to state-sanctioned torture at the hands of state security agencies.  Where members of the government have advocated and undertaken the forcible removal of  Arab "undesirables" and the wanton demolition of their homes, have referred to them as vermin, and have dispatched overwhelming military force to bomb, shell, and shoot them into submission, killing dozens of "innocents" in the process.  Where religious leaders legitimized the killing of others simply because they were "other," not "Us", and refused to accept the full humanity of other human beings.

But, of course, as Phil Weiss remembered, David Brooks admits that he was raised to look "gooey-eyed" at Israel.

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