What Passes for|Good News Today

     I was in junior high school when I learned that something was going on in Vietnam.
     I saw a Buddhist monk burn himself to death on Walter Cronkite’s CBS evening news.
     The TV showed Thich Quang Duc sitting calmly in his robes at an intersection in Saigon, enveloped in flames. Then he slowly toppled over.
     Thich was protesting the persecution of Buddhists by the administration of South Vietnamese Premier Ngo Dinh Diem.
     I was 12 years old. I remember thinking: Why in God’s name would anyone do that? I couldn’t understand it. But it sure got my attention.
     Now the government of Tunisia has been toppled, and what set it off was another man burning himself to death. Mohamed Bouazizi, 26, did it to protest the corruption that prevented him from working for a living, even by selling vegetables on the street, despite his college diploma.
     Since Bouazizi killed himself to protest the rule of the corrupt dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, two men have burned themselves in Egypt, four have done it in Algeria, and one in Mauritania – all to protest brutal, entrenched, corrupt governments.
     I am far from endorsing this as a manner of protest, but it seems to have done a lot more to fight political corruption in a few weeks than decades of terrorism has done about it.
     Nonviolent protest is not very big in the Middle East.
     Nonviolent protest is a method of shaming a government into changing. Gandhi didn’t put it quite that way, nor did Martin Luther King, but at bottom, that’s what it is.
     For nonviolent protest to work, the government has to have a sense of shame.
     It’s not clear if any governments in the Mideast have that. Nor is it clear to me anymore whether our own government has it.
     In this sense – and only in this sense – it’s a good thing that nonviolent protest has come to the Middle East. It forces governments, and the vile people who control them, to demonstrate, at long last, that they have a sense of shame.
     I know, I know: Burning oneself to death is not exactly nonviolence. No, it isn’t. Not exactly. But it seems to be more efficacious – doesn’t it? – than murdering other people at random, or en masse, as they do in Iraq. And Tucson.
     Americans can be very insistent about not learning things. Or we insist upon learning things that ain’t so. Politicians – so-called leaders – from both our parties refuse to draw parallels between the pointless, self-destructive wars we wage today and the stupid, self-destructive war we waged in Vietnam.
     But the parallels are there. Premier Ngo Dinh Diem, our man in Vietnam, ran Saigon’s prostitution rackets and its opium and heroin trade until he was assassinated – 20 days before President Kennedy was killed.
     The president of Iraq’s brother today is one of that country’s biggest heroin dealers, if you can believe the CIA, the State Department and The New York Times.
     Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, in Afghanistan, who was our buddy when he fought the Soviet Union, and whom we continue to pay off with millions of dollars so he’ll let trucks bring beer and ammunition to our troops, may be the biggest heroin dealer in the world. Don’t take my word for it. Read “The Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia,” by Alfred McCoy, the best book on that subject.
     The United States, of course, supported Diem in Vietnam. We supported Ben Ali in Tunisia, Saddam Hussein in Iraq and Noriega in Panama. We support Mubarak in Egypt, Karzai in Iraq, and we are still paying off Hekmatyar in Afghanistan – and he uses some of our money to kill our troops.
     The United States is not very smart sometimes.
     It should be clear by now that we cannot support murderous, corrupt dictators, just because they sometimes will do our bidding, and expect the people in their countries, and their regions, to thank us for it.
     It’s clear that by doing so, we give our so-called enemies, such as the Communist Party of Tunisia, credibility and respect for fighting the dictators we support.
     Well, all this is old news.
     It’s far from clear whether the somewhat peaceful revolution in Tunisia – the first such popular revolution in the Arab world – will succeed. It’s clear that it’s made other corrupt rulers there nervous – and that includes all of them. I include Israel among these repressive nations.
     The only good news from this vile morass is that some people in Arab nations appear to be trying out nonviolent protest. That’s good. But how good is it, really, when the good news is that people are burning themselves to death?

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