Baghdad Vigilantes and the Dark Side of Civil Society

Thursday, October 26th, 2006

Frederick Turner examines Baghdad Vigilantes and the Dark Side of Civil Society:

The change is radical. Whereas the Wahhabi/Baathist killers are indiscriminate in whom they kill, as long as their victims may include Shiites or at least people who might have voted in the elections, the death squads are quite focused in their aim. There is all the difference in the world between bombing a marketplace and shooting a man you have identified and chosen. Reason — even a vile and brutal reason — can be found in the second, where it was absent in the first. The whole point of bombing a market or a bus station is to assert the monstrous and magisterial superiority of chaos itself, of unreason — only thus can the ultimate terror be evoked, terror of what no reasonable strategy of complicity or evasion can avoid. Only thus can ordinary decent people be forced to accept any kind of order, however evil they find it, as long as it is predictable.

But death squads are rational, in their own horrible way. They may prove, as they did in Latin America, to be a pretty effective method of wiping out implacable enemies of social order and preparing the way for democratic and law-abiding government. In living memory almost every decent and legal regime in Latin America was preceded by a chaotic period in which ordinary men armed themselves with guns, said goodnight to their families, and went out in groups to kill some local dissident. That period was a bit further back in the past for the French, the English, and the Americans. But no nation can be shown to have reached the rule of democratic law without it. The work of the vigilantes is the hideous and dark crime that Socrates and the Greek tragic dramatists hinted must underlie all civilization. That crime is indeed a crime, and its perpetrators must stand trial for it, whether before God or some human tribunal. But it is possible that true civil self-government can only be established with its aid.

Death squads are distinctly better than suicide bombers. Their members want to survive and have something to lose — they envisage a future in which they can stop killing and get on with family life, while the horrible nightmares gradually fade.

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