The American Interest
Policy, Politics & Culture
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People Will Be People
Published on August 24, 2011

I really cannot resist commenting on two phenomena that seem quite different in nature but whose simultaneity suggests a few curmudgeonly observations. I am of course still on curmudgeon alert, but I can’t get to my real work today until I get these observations off my chest.

First, about Washington’s earthquake yesterday early afternoon. There isn’t much to say about the earthquake that everyone does not already know, but there is something to say about the reaction to it downtown yesterday. When I got home from my downtown office, a commute made much more laborious by the extra precautions taken by Metro, I heard on the news that a lot of people had at first thought that a terrorist attack was in progress. This fact was corroborated in today’s Washington Post.

I have to say that it never occurred to me that what was happening had anything to do with terrorism, a subject about which I have written a great deal and about which, I think it is fair to presume, I know more than the average bear. When the first shaking occurred, I wondered whether there had been some construction accident not too far away, like a crane falling or something like that. By the time the second wave began just a few seconds later, I was sure that this was an earthquake.

Objectively speaking, given the pathetic operational capacities of al-Qaeda, even before the death of Osama bin Laden, the probability that a terrorist attack could possibly have created rumbles of such magnitude is fairly close to zero. So why did so many people at first rush to such an irrational judgment?

No doubt there are many facets to a complete explanation, but the main explanation turns on the cumulative consequences of the bureaucratized paranoia that we have so counterproductively engaged in since 9/11. It reminds me of George Gerbner’s famous “mean world syndrome”, which, for those who do not know, is the name Professor Gerbner gave to the phenomenon wherein people who watch a lot of commercial television think that the world is far more prone to violence, perversion, infidelity and general mayhem than it really is. People cannot, or at any rate do not, typically distinguish the motives of television executives wanting to create excitement on the screen to gain market share and the way the real world actually works. People model their behavior after these erroneous assumptions, so it’s not an entirely harmless or theoretical issue. In this case, it’s our own government that has helped to create a terrorist equivalent of the mean world syndrome. What a bunch of idiots we are.

I can elaborate that conclusion. After giving it a moment’s thought, the reaction I saw out on the street yesterday afternoon reminded me at least a little of the completely irresponsible behavior of most people after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. On that day, nearly ten years ago, most people in this town started running around like chickens without heads. They clogged the streets, they clogged the airwaves, they clogged the Metro, so that emergency staff could not get to their critical jobs. On a far less significant level, the same thing happened yesterday. Everybody got on their cell phones, or tried to surf the Internet for news, the result being that emergency staff again were thwarted in doing their jobs. A lot of people rushed to leave the city, creating what amounted to a near stampede in Metro station entrances. It is true that some of these people, being government bureaucrats let out from their jobs or contractors let out from theirs, can be expected to act more or less like school children, relishing a free vacation day, or half day in this case. But that doesn’t take anything away from the conclusion one has to reach, which is that despite (or because of, far more likely) all of the bureaucratized paranoia, the average Washingtonian is no more stoic, sensible, or rational that he or she was almost ten years ago. Clearly, our government has been working on the wrong aspects of the problem, making things worse rather than better. (You’re totally surprised, aren’t you?) We would be much better off ten years after 9/11 if, instead of all these ridiculous “Is that your bag?” noise pollutions in the subway system, people had been systematically advised not to use their damned cell phones (except, of course, in cases of urgent medical need) for twenty to thirty minutes after a significant incident.

Now let’s head off to Tripoli. A little while ago I wrote in this space that, it seemed to me, there was a better than average prospect of significant bloodshed in Tripoli if and when the rebels brought their advance that far. Obviously, they brought it that far in a dramatic fashion, and the regime elected not to put up a frontal fight to prevent it. In that post, I also noted that in tribal Arab societies it has been traditional to make sure that a defeated party is thoroughly defeated so that the vanquished cannot rise up to take revenge against the victor. You can refer back to that post to see my exact words, but to paraphrase myself, I said that, in this traditional mindset, an enemy had to be decapitated politically, economically, and sometimes literally.

I never said that a victorious force in such a circumstance would literally wish or try to kill every one of their enemies. That is absurd. I never said that tribal Arabs were savages, or barbarians, or that they were morally or in any other way deficient as human beings. I was trying to describe, as any anthropologist or social scientist would, the objective reality of the situation.

Nevertheless, people will be people, and some people will be ignorant, mean-spirited and ethno-racist idiots. Before very long, commentary on this piece got loose from its chain, and people started commenting on latter comments rather than on my original language. People began to refer to Arab tribes as composed of savages, barbarians and worse. Then, yesterday afternoon, I got a call from a radio station in Toronto. This talk radio station wanted to interview me on the air because, the producer said, he had heard—indirectly of course, for no one actually reads the original of anything if it can be avoided—that I had said that the rebels would kill every Qaddafi supporter to the last man. This is the modern IT-aided version of whistle down the wind.

I told the producer that I had never said or written any such thing, and that it might be a good idea for him to read what I actually did write. He wasn’t interested. He merely wanted to know whether I would go on the show. I decided to go on the show, if only to correct any wild impressions that these folks might have conveyed about my views to their audience. I have nothing against Toronto. I rather like the place. If I visit there again, I would like to do so in circumstances where I do not have to fear that people there think I am either a bloodthirsty madman or a garden-variety idiot.

So I did the show, which amounted to about an 8-10 minute spot. I found it frustrating, as I usually do on such talk radio shows. The questions were not the right ones if the aim of the program had been to actually educate the audience. They were the right ones if the purpose of the show was to present ever so slightly highbrow entertainment. As I say, I find these things frustrating. Every time I do one, I ask myself why I did it. Then time passes and I forget. As I say, people will be people, even including myself.

Just to finish the point on Libya: The rebel advance on Tripoli was pretty remarkable. And frankly I doubt whether the regime is clever or strong enough to really mean it when it says that all this was deliberate, all of it a trap to lure the rebels into the maw of a vicious counterattack to come. It could be, I suppose, but I really doubt it. Far more likely, however, is that the remaining towns and villages still under regime control will put up some kind of a fight, especially if Qaddafi is among them. The reason is that Muamar Qaddafi, naturally enough, is from the Qaddafi tribe, which is one of Libya’s smaller tribes, its homeland lying to the southeast of the capital. The Great Green Book Loon was able to rule Libya from the basis of this rather small tribe by, among other means, trading on and elaborating traditional alliances with the larger tribes of Tripolitania to balance off the power of the tribes of Cyrenaica. (If you do not know where these places are and are a sentient adult claiming to be interested in this subject, that would be amazing. But be that as it may, you can always look at the map below.)

I am not expert enough in contemporary Libyan affairs to know how these tribal alliances have shifted and changed over the past several months of civil war. The fact that a lot of the residents of Tripoli seemed happy at the rebel advance into their city suggests that these tribal alliance ties have frayed to a considerable degree, but that is not a studied conclusion, merely an impression based on information whose veracity and reliability I do not know. Assuming for a moment that they have deteriorated, and that the small Qaddafi tribe is now more or less on its own, then I don’t think we can expect a protracted, let alone a successful, resistance to rebel forces—unless, of course, the rebel forces start fighting among themselves before they finish off the last regime supporters. That is not as far-fetched a possibility as one might suppose. But all this is conjecture on my part. I am not there, and I am not privy to the intelligence traffic from the ground.

Any experienced observer of this part of the world is concerned that, even though we did not see a bloodbath visited upon the civilian population of Tripoli, revenge killings by the score might still be in the offing. Wars of this kind stir up extremely strong emotions. Men who have lost their fathers, brothers or sons often feel obligated to exact revenge from those responsible, and if those specifically responsible cannot be identified, as is usually the case, then any male member of the offending family, clan or tribe will often do. The feud is a traditional way of evening scores in the absence of any central formal authority. It is a form of balanced opposition that works tolerably well, though its side effects can seem rather misanthropic to those who are not used to it.

But as is well known to residents and students of the region, feuds can get out of hand. A tit can lead to a tat, which can lead to another tit, another tat and so on. That is why it is so important that the new government, however it is cobbled together, manages to establish at least a rudimentary rule of law based on the reality that there be just “one gun”, which is to say a monopoly of force in the hands of duly constituted authority. Unfortunately, if the descriptions in this morning’s newspapers are to be believed, the looting of the Great Loon’s compound of tons of weapons does not bode well.

One of the things I tried to point out on the radio yesterday for the benefit of the citizens of Toronto was that it’s a good idea to resist conflating different kinds of phenomena and dropping them into one huge basket. But in this case I cannot resist mentioning that the current situation in Libya, and specifically in Tripoli, bears an eerie resemblance to what happened in Baghdad after that statue was pulled down. There were revenge killings aplenty, although in Iraq these killings tended to have a sectarian as opposed to a tribal basis. Nonetheless, we all know what the failure to establish basic order led to in Iraq. Let us hope the Libyans avoid a similar fate. Let us hope, too, that outsiders stay outside and let the Libyans work this out for themselves. After all, our credentials on this score are pretty pathetic.

One last remark about Libya before I try to tie earthquake and Tripoli together: Speaking of differences and distinctions, what is happening before our eyes in Libya illustrates a very important development. What happened in Egypt was the end of the Mubarak dynasty, not the end of the regime (at least not yet). The same may be said about Tunisia. The fact that most American observers missed this “minor” point and thought that the end of Hosni Mubarak was tantamount to the end of the Egyptian military-bureaucratic regime is a stellar example of the impulse to conflate that I just mentioned. But in Libya a regime is late in the process of actually falling. This is the first time in modern Arab history (by which I mean the independence period beginning in the various countries from around the 1930s to the 1950s) that any Arab regime has fallen as the result of a mass armed uprising of its own citizens. (The Sudanese regime of General Ibrahim Abboud fell to angry mobs in 1964, but that was, on balance, a minor affair with eccentricities of its own.)

This is a big deal. But we are so set on pushing disparate phenomena together that when a real event marking a significant, distinct departure from the norm occurs, we are not interested. We don’t even notice.

Which leads me to what yesterday’s downtown Washington reaction to the earthquake and the very strange misinterpretations of happenings in Libya have in common: People increasingly seem to base their judgments and behavior on shards of information entirely bereft of context. Worse, many people do not seem to realize that they are doing this, and so they experience no doubt about what they come to believe. Few people are checking their own work anymore, it seems.

This is not the place to speculate about why this is. Besides, maybe things have always been this way (but I don’t think so, at least not to this extent). If you’re curious, let me suggest that you go back and read Sven Birkerts’s review of Nicholas Carr’s book The Shallows. That will get you started thinking about some very interesting questions, if you have not started thinking about them already.

Finally, I want everyone out there to know that I do not undertake this particular comment lightly, given the bizarre interpretations festooned by so many on my last one. I can’t help what people think. People will be people, after all, in their many less attractive qualities as well as in their great nobility. I suppose that’s better on the whole than the alternative. We wouldn’t want people walking around acting like ducks, now, would we?