Sunday, December 31, 2006

Last minute execution

The execution of Saddam Hussein in the hours before the start of the feast of EID demonstrates one of the key aspects of the ongoing tragedy in the Middle East, riddled as it is with huge intercultural errors. However it may have been officially managed, it looks to the world as if it was engineered according to some recognizable principles that have been at work throughout the period of American occupation.

The official comments by various world leaders (always meant to reassure their own electorate) reveal the cultural logic behind the operation. The first thing to notice is the importance given to the "formally legal" within US (and to some extent Anglo) culture. It can become a tragic source of cultural blindness. One only has to be convinced that a particular act is consistent with the law (i.e. not in flagrant contradiction with it) and all other considerations -- including the potential impact of the act on other people -- may be waived. Because "no one is above the law" (would this were true! -- but that's another question), the law is above everyone.

An act that is vindicated by the "law of the land" may not be appreciated by all but it cannot be called into question or criticized on moral, psychological or cultural grounds. Even when objections are recognized as "subjectively" real or sociologically true, the "objectivity" of the law always trumps the "subjectivity" of personal feelings. Low context cultures find it difficult to see feelings -- even when shared by a significant swath of the population -- as being anything other than individual "opinions", whereas history teaches us that when shared by sigfinicant numbers they may become social forces capable of producing revolutions and radical change.

What is now being presented as a "clash of civilizations" in the Middle East (what Condoleezza Rice describes euphemistically as "birth pangs") derives from the deeply held cultural conviction of Western political leaders that the existence of a legal framework (the "rule of law") cancels out and invalidates considerations of moral relationship, seen to be messy and undefinable. The law constitutes the sole standard of public morality, binding on all. It's also worth remembering that, in spite of appearances, the current "clash" was precipitated not by the logic of war (rivalry, aggression, revenge, domination), but by well-prepared Western low-context government decision-making (i.e. legal) as a response to terrorist attacks (illegal)*. The battle was and is over legal frameworks (regime change), legal philosophy and legalist culture, not over territorial control as in traditional wars. Legality replaces morality. In spite of the official rhetoric or propaganda, it isn't at all the clash of good and evil, concepts that belong to the domain of morality, although it's also true that the prevailing culture assumes and insists that "rule of law" = good and anything else = evil..

Here is what Bush had to say: "Bringing Saddam Hussein to justice ... is an important milestone on Iraq’s course to becoming a democracy that can govern, sustain and defend itself, and be an ally in the war on terror." "Milestone" unsurprisingly reflects a managerial culture (business within the law, much of the law being concerned with how business is conducted). "Bringing... to justice" in a "democracy" sets the legal framework (it also implicitly recognizes the US as the police force and the Iraqis as the judiciary). Once the framework of judicial procedure is clearly established, there can be nothing to criticize or regret. Executing Saddam is a milestone on the road to progress and profitability. Bush characteristically takes it one step further by pushing his standard political agenda, identifying the good not only as "democracy" but also as being "an ally in the war on terror". This fittingly reminds us that, according to his logic, the law isn't designed to bring peace and reconciliation, but to justify war. Quite the opposite of the spirit of Eid. Which makes the act of pushing the execution to the pre-dawn of Eid doubly insulting to many in the Muslim community. The timing (last minute, before the official start of the feast) smacks of legalism, a US speciality.

The critical factor in all this appears to be the conviction within US culture that recourse to a legal and judicial framework (a democracy with a constitution and "a fair trial by one's peers") -- even in an extremely unstable and historically ambiguous political environment -- authorizes the neglect of all the standard elements of human relationships: identity, empathy and even self-preservation or survival. Interestingly, the British put the emphasis on personal justice:
In London, Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett said Saddam had “now been held to account for at least some of the appalling crimes he committed against the Iraqi people,” while at the same time condemning the death penalty.
Perfidious Albion (as the French would say)! They'll always try to have it both ways. Justice is served (at least partially) but the way barbarians carry it out is reprehensible (or merely distasteful). It's the "at least" that I find intriguing. Does she mean that if the Brits had had their way Saddam would have been condemned for more of his crimes... but still not executed, of course? I detect behind the rhetoric an appeal to the standard Blairist justification for invading Iraq: punishing an evil man. "Held to account", like Bush's "milestone", also reveals a nod to low context managerial business culture.

Curiously I find a parallel in the reactions of the Arabic community -- a part of which sees Saddam as a martyr to Western "management" of the Middle East -- and the the acquittal of O.J. Simpson in his murder trial in Los Angeles a decade ago. Those who felt a form of justice was served by acquitting OJ (essentially the black community) did so not because they thought the man was innocent (they didn't), but because they saw it as a symbolic victory of their community against a legal system heavily weighted against blacks. I remember seeing a black man interviewed on TV who described it succinctly: "The support of our community for O.J. was a mile wide... and an inch deep." That's a high context comment, if ever there was one! OJ, the murderer, was seen as a successful resistant to a system that oppressed blacks. Saddam, the mass murderer, is a resistant and martyr to a system that oppresses Arabs. For both communities, official justice (the laws and the courts) is what money and power can purchase, neither more nor less. It is clearly not the idealized "rule of law" that sets everything right and makes everyone equal.

What could interculturalists have done to limit the damage? (We shouldn't forget that some intercultural experts probably were in fact consulted in all this business, but what they may have said we don't know and whether they were listened to at all begs another question). They might nevertheless have reminded the US authorities that revenge is a dangerous horse to back and that Saddam's Shiite enemies were motivated by revenge. They could have highlighted the moral contradiction associated with the feast of Eid, especially as US citizenstend to see such things as "holidays" rather than "holy days", devoid of any meaning other than historically anecdotal and serving principally as a pretext for taking time off to pursue one's leisure activities. (The status and meaning of "feasts" is a factor of cultural differentiation at least as important as power-distance and the other traditional dimensions). They could also have pointed to the role of martyrdom in all cultures and in middle eastern Muslim cultures in particular (the West still has difficulty understanding the psychology of suicide bombers and therefore appreciating the "extent of the risk", to put it into management terminology).

What the interculturalists couldn't do was to influence an overall political situation that has been based from the start on culturally insensitive calculations -- from the price of a barrel of oil to the cost of regime change -- and is now concerned with manipulating whatever forces that remain (or appear to remain) manipulable to create a semblance of stability. Unfortunately, the very act of manipulating certain people, parties and communities renders them suspect, augmenting the instability and undermining the "progress" represented by the significant "milestones".

For a more realistic reading of the situation, I suggest this article:

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