Libyan Good Guys and Bad Guys

Libyan Good Guys and Bad Guys

By David Warren - August 27, 2011

The reappearance of Seif al-Islam, Col. Moammar Gadhafi's second son, before journalists at the Tripoli hotel where they are holed up, provided a fine instructive moment to journalists. Apparently he had not been captured, as all media had reported. Things are not always as they appear, or we assume. A certain skepticism should be cultivated, even towards the sources we favour as the "good guys," and more generally towards what sounds plausible.

Seif Gadhafi is himself a puzzlement. He had been a media darling: the embodiment of "reform" within his father's regime. This because, as Wall Street Journal columnist Bret Stephens says, he knows "how to chew food with his mouth shut," and would privately admit to the most extraordinary outrages committed by his father's regime, as if he personally disapproved of them. But as Stephens adds: "Evil is never banal, and often self-conscious."

Mahmoud Jibril, head of the National Transitional Council now recognized internationally as Libya's legitimate government, is another such puzzle. He served Gadhafi faithfully until quite recently. He, too, has western education and polish. He knows what we want to hear. Those who repose their faith in appearances trust him.

In trying to follow what has been happening in and around Tripoli, these last few days, I've been struck by the naiveté of media both East and West. There is less difference between them than first meets the eye. Al Jazeera and the BBC are apt to provide the same wrong information, in live time. So, for that matter, do Fox News and CNN, across the left-right divide in America.

The issue is not crude bias. It is, so far as I am able to understand, the compounded effect of two large factors. Journalists fail to self-criticize, because we belong to a particular, now globalized, class, that is self-referential, like all classes. We assume that others either think as we do; or are beyond the pale.

And this is compounded by the nature of our trade. We must seem to know what we are talking about. "The news must always sound important," as the late Indian national broadcaster Latika Ratnam once told me, while explaining why the late Walter Cronkite could sound most credible, when he was least well informed.

Those hoping to retain authority must avoid contradicting themselves. Once you have said something is so, it must continue to be so, despite evidence to the contrary. You must stick with what you have already reported, for as long as you can, to avoid the naked emperor problem.

I wouldn't be surprised if the Gadhafi regime is extinguished by the time this column appears in print. Or, is still clinging to life, in six months' time. We simply don't have enough information; and much of the information we have is wrong.

We can see that the combination of well-armed rebels, able to call in air strikes from NATO (whether or not NATO admits this), is very telling. We have consistently refused to see that the regime enjoyed considerable support; and specifically, in the west of the country.

Moreover, having created the usual dramatic scenario of "good guys versus bad guys," we are not looking for virtues in the bad, nor vices in the good. It is "boo boo bad man!" versus "the people."

This is never more apparent than when journalists editorialize against their critics. I have now read several little diatribes against "those who think all the rebels are Islamists."

But nobody thinks that. What critics, with some knowledge of historical ground conditions, more commonly think, is that diverse factions are united by opposition alone; and that when they fall out, after victory, the most ruthless are likeliest to prevail.

Had more journalists been reared in the habit of consulting history, they would have grasped in advance at least one of the major factors in the Libyan conflict, which makes it resemble a civil war. Note the ease with which Benghazi was "liberated," and the relative security in which the rebel administration was established there.

Eastern Libya, or "Cyrenaica" as it was anciently known, is in reality a different country from "Tripolitana," or western Libya. East and west are attached by accidents of history; as is the desert Fezzan to these Mediterranean realms. But the glue is thin. Forty-two years ago, Gadhafi displaced a Senussi monarchy, which had held the country together by resisting tribalism and instead patronizing an Islamic order that combined the practical and the mystical in an interesting way. Gadhafi imposed an abstract nationalism that ultimately splintered. The resulting violent mess is multi-dimensional.

We might hope that a new "United Libya" will emerge, to the finest and dandiest of our democratic ideals. But we have no reason to expect that. Having hurled our rock into the hive, to help liberate the bees, let us not be surprised when many of them sting us.

© The Ottawa Citizen 

David Warren

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