Thursday, June 13, 2024

Personal Judgement and the Pursuit of Accountability

“All governments […] even the most autocratic ones, even tyrannies, “rest on consent,” and the fallacy lies in the equation of consent with obedience. An adult consent where a child obeys; if an adult is said to obey, he supports the organization or authority or the law that claims “obedience”. Hannah Arendt

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As we approach the last 50 days of the time set for the next parliamentary elections, and with very little evidence that the groups that mushroomed out of the 2019 protests, having any chance to make a meaningful difference at the ballot, one should ask: “Where we go from here?”. These protestors after all did cause a government to fall, and a quasi-nuclear blast resulting from a combination of negligence at the top and a logistical or operational glitch at the war and barrel bombs department level, caused a second government to follow suit. Nevertheless, there is little to gain from boycotting upcoming elections, and it would not be fair to characterize the successful future David’s if any, as mere validators of Goliath’s legitimacy. So, the question is really: where we go from here – irrespective of the election’s outcome, and therein perhaps lies hope. 

The outburst of anger triggered by an abusive tax on text messaging did not result in regime change, nor in a neutral government tasked with overseeing reforms, not even a so called “techno-political” government representing a sort of cohabitation with evil in the eyes of the protestors. Thawra groups use an acronym designating the failed political system and the people who captured it at the onset of the civil war and joined in 2005 by the presidential party of Michel Aoun: the “Manzoumeh”.  The more accurate way of describing the Lebanese Narco-Terror State today is a combo: Mafia & Militia (M&M). But there seems to be a taste of something missing in these descriptions because labelling illness is not equal to making a diagnosis. Not surprisingly therefore, Lebanese are left coping with their rapid downfall into one of the world’s most miserable places to live in (by various metrics be it inflation, extreme poverty, or happiness index).  

The Manzoumeh firmly kept its handles on the wheel driving that titanic confidently into the nearest and biggest iceberg: the deliberate financial collapse as described by the World Bank in its 2020-2021 assessment. I must admit, at this stage many including myself attempted to explain the desperate lack of leverage among change seekers by an overstatement: Lebanon is under Iranian occupation. I even went further by comparing them to the Warsaw ghetto residents. That was a stretch, too big a stretch as I reminded myself that luckily the airport is still open (350,000 are said to have packed)! 

For although one can easily assert that Lebanon is divided between people collaborating with Iran (clearly many political leaders are) and people who are opposed to Hezbollah and its paymasters, this doesn’t explain the moral disintegration of the society in its accommodation with levels of evil never encountered before, while in fact in its quasi entirety and on a daily basis it expresses its consent to the government’s devilish policies, even where it faces the most benign consequences. Such consent reaches a new level of ridicule when a female judo competitor reportedly had no choice but to obey her coach and forfeit in an international competition because otherwise, she would be competing against an Israeli judoka during the next round.  Some would even insist on the contrary that our problems emanate merely from an inadequate political system, and that “We” is not an absolute given, that affinity with Hezbollah is simply driven from some form of Shiite cultural affiliation that can only be dealt with by loosening the grip of a centralized state and creating a sovereign Christian cantonal authority under a new Lebanese federation. Those Christian federalists are of course at loss to explain the Christian party’s unshakable alliance and allegiance to the “Wilayat Al Faqih” meaning to the Islamic jurist’s province (i.e. Iran’s supreme leader) and its local militia.

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Analyzing our evils and our attitude in dealing with them may help understand why the Lebanese people and their aspiring new leaders yearning for change have so far failed to deliver it. 

There are two evils that at first glance appear to describe the Lebanese government bible as mentioned above: First is the sacrosanct war against peace-for-Lebanon-with-Israel (practically synonymous with an anti-Zionist attitude check, but it goes typically very well with bigotry, homophobia, and any other form of sociopathic misdemeanor such as distributing sweets when the news of the cold blooded murder of an Israeli soldier, or an attack on civilian infrastructure in Saudi Arabia spreads at home). This first evil is today powered and promoted by the Hezbollah network of influence inside and by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards in Tehran and has practically been enshrined by law under the tag of Mukawameh (resistance) with a legal argument that advocacy for peace is a form of collaboration with the enemy, an affront to “Al-Karameh-L-Watanieh” (national pride) and supporting war (inside and outside) is a necessary evil path until the Arabo-Islamic world defeats Israel and conquers Jerusalem (which is harder to argue now in the context of the Abraham Accords and the various regional summits that include Israeli and Arab leaders). 

The second evil is the acceptance of State Capture as a matter of course, for the lack of a better word. Lebanese depend on the state, which in turn is captured by kleptocrats. The recent multi-jurisdiction seizure in Europe of 120m€ alleged to belong to the governor of the central bank and his entourage, wasn’t followed by a statement from the government let alone his dismissal: It’s complicated. Is it?

To counter these two government evils, civil society groups that are most passionately voicing their despise to the M&M combo have been repeating a strange mantra since 2019: KYK aka “Kellon-Yaani-Kellon”, literally translated as All-Means-All, a sort of collective political disqualifier code. Many analysts and twitter commentators wrote extensively about the intrinsic limitations and perhaps the fallacy of the famous “KYK” mantra. As people coped with their new reality caused by flawed policies of that governor, or actions by this minister or that speaker or the president himself, or if they couldn’t cope because they suffered from cancer and have been dying for lack of treatment in a deafening silence among their friends and sometimes their own families, as they witnessed the collapse of the social security fund and the attempt to coerce a World Bank funded ration card program, as they watched the blatant political assault and maneuvers against judges and judicial independence in the case of the Beirut port blast investigation, those groups, some now turned political parties, tended to resign themselves to the mantra: “it’s a complex political web, who are we to judge a specific individual? KYK!”. “If you are confronted with two evils, thus their argument runs, it is your duty to opt for the lesser one. And it is irresponsible to refuse to choose altogether”. And here is where Hannah Arendt comes to mind. 

Following her account on Adolf Eichmann’s trial (1960) published in her book “Eichmann in Jerusalem, A Report on the Banality of Evil”, Arendt felt the need to elaborate further her analysis by examining the problematic of personal responsibility and judgement in an essay titled “PERSONAL RESPONSIBILITY UNDER DICTATORSHIP”. Setting up the landscape during German society in the years leading to the breakout of war (1933-1938), she writes: 

In brief, what disturbed us was the behavior not of our enemies but of our friends, who had done nothing to bring this situation about. They were not responsible for the Nazis, they were only impressed by the Nazi success and unable to pit their own judgment against the verdict of History, as they read it. Without taking into account the almost universal breakdown, not of personal responsibility, but of personal judgment in the early stages of the Nazi regime, it is impossible to understand what actually happened. [..] I think this early moral disintegration of the German society, hardly perceptible to the outsider, was like a kind of dress rehearsal for its total breakdown, which was to occur during the war years.”

Arendt attempts to examine what goes on inside the individual consciences at the time, making a clear contrast and distinction between political responsibility “which every government assumes for the deeds and misdeeds of its predecessors” and “Personal Responsibility”. She then expands:

“I have always regarded it as the quintessence of moral confusion that during the postwar period in Germany those who personally were completely innocent assured each other and the world at large how guilty they felt, while very few of the criminals were prepared to admit even the slightest remorse. The result of this spontaneous admission of collective guilt was of course a very effective, though unintended, whitewash of those who had done something: as we have already seen, where all are guilty, no one is.”

Reading her analysis of post war Germany raises a shocking parallel with Lebanon. The “quintessence of moral confusion” since October 2019, and perhaps since the failure to implement or even to wake up every morning to the ruling judgement of the Special Tribunal For Lebanon in the case of the assassination of former prime minister Rafic Hariri, can be understood through the prism of the “collective guilt” concept. “Hezbollah killed Hariri”, this is likely part of the military aspect of the KYK mantra. It is in that instance that Salim Ayyash is free and probably having breakfast at home with his family as I write these words. The Manzoumeh is responsible for the spoils of over 100 billion dollars deposited at the central bank, why are we fixated on the central banker who served it, who may have by some act of omission on matters of conflict of interest appointed his brother a broker and generating less than half a billion dollar in fees from third party investors? And so, on it goes, the Manzoumeh retaliates via its media servants, all but accusing the middle class in the society of lack of gratitude for where it would be had Riad Salemeh not pegged the pound to the dollar for so long.

Harendt then analyses the “cogs and wheels” of a political system as well as the moral fallacy of arguing their innocence:

“Recently, during the discussion of the Eichmann trial” she goes, “these comparatively simple matters have been complicated through what I’ll call the cog-theory. When we describe a political system how it works, the relations between the various branches of government, how the huge bureaucratic machineries function of which the channels of command are part, and how the civilian and the military and the police forces are interconnected, to mention only outstanding characteristics- it is inevitable that we speak of all persons used by the system in terms of cogs and wheels that keep the administration running. Each cog, that is, each person, must be expendable without changing the system, an assumption underlying all bureaucracies, all civil services, and all functions properly speaking. This viewpoint is the viewpoint of political science, and if we accuse or rather evaluate in its frame of reference, we speak of good and bad systems and our criteria are the freedom or the happiness or the degree of participation of the citizens, but the question of the personal responsibility of those who run the whole affair is a marginal issue. Here it is indeed true what all the defendants in the postwar trials said to excuse themselves: if I had not done it, somebody else could and would have.” 

Harendt then is relieved by the trial judgement clarity although to her surprise it was the prosecution who tried hard making of Eichmann the biggest cog of all in the Third Reich:

“For, as the judges took great pains to point out explicitly, in a courtroom there is no system on trial, no History or historical trend, no ism, anti-Semitism for instance, but a person, and if the defendant happens to be a functionary, he stands accused precisely because even a functionary is still a human being, and it is in this capacity that he stands trial.”

By invoking Hannah Arendt’s analysis, that is her work on personal judgement or its lack thereof in the pre and post war German society and her searching for a sense of justice in examining the need to put the men behind the system on trial for their personal responsibility in the events that took place, and not a hopeless pursuit of the system itself, whose trial is for historians, my point is: if one were to account for all the loss and suffering among a vast majority of Lebanese from all “sides”, the list would be very long and the damage unquantifiable, but the sense of confusion in Lebanon would continue, sadly, until we experiment the reality of an impartial trial that brings along all the truth and all the accountability and could lay the ground for national reconciliation. The real dividing line today as Arrendt writes, is “between those who want to think and therefore have to judge by themselves, and those who do not”. Considering as unreliable those who merely cherish and uphold moral norms during a period of total moral collapse. 

We could go back to Mar 28th, 1991, the day Lebanese parliament consented to the general amnesty law (which retrospectively exempted Lebanese war-protagonists from legal liability for all crimes committed). “The official Lebanese policy on this issue”, meaning remembrance and subsequently truth and reconciliation, writes Gianluca Siega Battel, a human rights expert specialized in post conflict situations, “at both the institutional and political levels, seems to have been underpinned by a narrative which favors national forgetting in order to rebuild state institutions and to allow the former militia actors to enter the political stage and public administration[1]. 30 years later, we know how much that narrative has failed, and we must therefore pick up our pieces, restore our moral system and our historical memory for the sake of our children.

[1] Beirut’s Sunset: Civil War, Right to the Truth and Public Remembrance – Gianluca Siega Battel (2011)’

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