From the June 2003 issue of World Press Review (VOL. 50, No. 6)
In Support of President Bush
We, the Traitors
Adam Michnik, Gazeta Wyborcza (liberal), Warsaw, Poland, March 28, 2003
Adam Michnik in 1981, the year Michnik was imprisoned for the second time for his outspoken opposition to the communist regime in Poland (Photo: AFP).
A German journalist published an article in the paper Die Tageszeitung in which he claimed that Vaclav Havel, Adam Michnik, and George Konrad, Europe’s long-standing moral authorities, had suddenly become undiscriminating admirers of America.
I read that article with a twinge of nostalgia. Here we were, together again. Our three names were grouped together for the first time by Timothy Garton Ash in his widely acclaimed essay nearly two decades ago. If I recall correctly, Havel and I were doing jail time then, and Konrad’s books were banned from print in Hungary. Even though we did not meet very often, we maintained a common ground in our reflections on the worlds of values and of politics. We were united by a dream of freedom, a dream of a world infused with tolerance, hope, respect for human dignity, and a refusal of conformist silence in the face of evil.
We were also united by the specific wisdom of people familiar with “history unleashed,” the experience of the acute loneliness of people subject to the pressures of totalitarian despotism and doomed to the world’s indifference. Every Hungarian citizen had retained the image of Budapest burning in November 1956, every citizen of Czechoslovakia was haunted by the sight of Soviet tanks on the streets of Prague in 1968, every Pole was to keep in the back of his mind the memory of Warsaw in the fall of 1944, murdered by Hitler and deserted by its allies.
We were not fanatics of primitive anticommunism. We saw communism as a historical phenomenon and communists as people capable of becoming democrats. Later, too, after 1989, we—Konrad, Havel, and I—did not like the fundamentalism of anticommunist radicals, especially those who remained quiet throughout the years of the dictatorship and were now eager to string up the communists. I am bringing all of this up to explain who these three traitors of the new generation are, those accused of blind, conformist pro-Americanism by the German journalist.
I do not know whether Havel and Konrad agree, but I will present my own perspective.
I aim to avoid double standards in thinking about the world. I thus aim to use the same criteria in assessing the arrogance of all great powers, not just the Bush administration.
I remember my nation’s experience with totalitarian dictatorship. This is why I was able to draw the right conclusions from Sept. 11, 2001. Just as the murder of Giacomo Matteotti [leader of Italy’s United Socialist Party] revealed the nature of Italian fascism and Mussolini’s regime; just as the great Moscow trials showed the world the essence of the Stalinist system; just as “Kristallnacht” exposed the hidden truth of Hitler’s Nazism, watching the collapsing World Trade Center towers made me realize that the world was facing a new totalitarian challenge. Violence, fanaticism, and lies were challenging democratic values.
This is not the place to analyze the ideology that, while disfiguring the religion of Islam, creates a crusade against the democratic world. Saddam Hussein takes part in this just as Hitler and Stalin did before him. He asserts that in the holy war with the “godless West” all methods are permitted. Waiting for this sort of regime to obtain weapons of mass destruction would be plain recklessness.
This logic is accused of leading to the idealization of the United States, of not leaving room for critical reflection on American policies. In answer to this, I guarantee that I have not forgotten about the U.S. intervention in Vietnam or the American support of despotic, anticommunist regimes in Latin America—the perpetual argument of the intellectuals of the Western European left. However, I also have not forgotten that the American defeat in Vietnam resulted in the North’s armed conquest of the South and a wave of terrible repression. I also realize that while condemning the dictatorships of [Rafael] Trujillo or [Augusto] Pinochet, I should remember the dictatorship of Fidel Castro. Brutal power is equally repugnant whether executed under a red banner or a black one. The belief that there was no rightist or leftist torture, no progressive or reactionary torture, was a fundamental principle we lived by. It led us to reject the hypocrisy of the Western left, which proclaimed that even bad communism was better than good capitalism because it was the former and not the latter that led to a bright future.
What, then, is our betrayal? Today we reject the notion of equality between a regime that belongs to the democratic world—even if it is conservative and disagreeable—and a totalitarian dictatorship, whether its colors are black, red, or green. This is why we will never again say that Chamberlain is no better than Hitler, Roosevelt no better than Stalin, and Nixon no better than Mao Zedong, even if we do condemn Roosevelt for Yalta, Chamberlain for Munich, and Nixon for Watergate.
We do not like Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon because of his brutality and his primitive demagogy, but we would not equate him with the Hamas leaders who openly call for barbarian suicide attacks. George W. Bush may not be our hero, but he is the one we will support in the war with Bin Laden, Al-Qaeda, and Saddam Hussein.
Many of us participated in the anti-American protests of 1968, which is why we were horrified and guilt-stricken at the image of so many Vietnamese escaping the regime after the communist victory in tiny boats, risking their own lives and those of their families. We also remember the Manichaeism of the supporters of the Viet Cong who burned the American flag but later failed to denounce the regime. We want to avoid this. Today we are not burning the Iraqi flag; we just do not understand those protesting under Saddam Hussein’s portraits.
The hatred felt toward America becomes absurd when it ceases to be a critical stance that is normal within democratic discourse and takes up the defense of brutal, totalitarian dictatorships. The so-called peace movements of the Cold War burned effigies of American presidents and genuflected before Stalin’s portraits. We will not repeat such a masquerade today.
In other words, we understand the complexity of the world and we understand the complicated relationship between desire and possibility. We understand the drama of the war in Chechnya; that is why we do not call Putin “the next Stalin.” For the same reasons, we are not enthusiastic about America’s relations with the dictatorial regime in Saudi Arabia, though we believe that the democratization of Iraq can have a positive influence on the other nations of the Middle East.
Do we like the internal politics of the Bush administration, its projects to spy on citizens, or the rightist rhetoric of the Christian fundamentalists of the Republican Party? No, we do not, though we do believe that the American democracy, the wiser for the lessons of McCarthyism and Watergate, will be capable of protecting itself from the self-poisoning of the “open society.”
The German journalist accuses us of not being concerned about the Bush policies that lead to the suppression of humanitarian principles in international relations. Certainly we are unsettled, but we believe that what leads to the destruction of humanitarian principles is rather the tolerance of totalitarian regimes and the cowardly silence about the crimes of the dictatorships in Iraq, North Korea, Libya, and Cuba. We perceive real moral values in the people who take to the streets of the democratic world to protest against the war. These mass protests arouse the public’s criticism of the elites in power. Every war presents an excellent opportunity to stifle criticism and gag the critics. The climate of war promotes the violation of democratic procedures and the militarization of public life. It creates the belief that there is only one patriotic way of thinking while all other views amount to betrayal.
Still, we are all the wiser for our history. We remember Munich in 1938, which paved the way for Hitler while enjoying the enthusiastic approval of the war’s opponents. We remember Yalta, whose original goal was to prevent war but which led Stalin into our countries. After all, the reasoning of the proponents of the 1938 Munich agreement seemed sound. People wanted peace, not war. They were happy when Chamberlain read the declaration he signed with Hitler and said: “For the second time in our history, a British prime minister has returned from Germany bringing peace with honor. I believe it is peace for our time.” It was Sept. 30, 1938. A year later World War II broke out.
This is why we are at odds with today’s pacifists: We will not peacefully pave the way for those who committed the crimes of Sept. 11 and their allies.
Finally, have we also lost the fear that democratic systems can become totalitarian, as suggested by the German journalist? We have often gone against the grain of public opinion and, before the German publication did, we were accused of betraying our countries. We have spoken about xenophobia and intolerance, about corruption, about the spirit of revenge, about a market devoid of humanity, about the taking over of nations by interest groups or even by mafias. I do not think that Havel’s, Konrad’s, or my own speeches suggest that we have stopped criticizing what is happening in our democratic countries or that we have failed to perceive the temptations and threats of totalitarian regimes.
Today, however, the primary threat is terrorism by Islamist fundamentalists. War has been declared against the democratic world. It is this world, whose sins and mistakes we know all too well, that we want to defend.
These are the reasons behind our absolute war on the terrorist, corrupt, intolerant regime of the despot from Baghdad. One cannot perceive totalitarian threats in George W. Bush’s policies and at the same time defend Saddam Hussein. There are limits to absurdity, which should not be exceeded recklessly.
Adam Michnik is a prominent Polish essayist, former dissident, and editor of Gazeta Wyborcza. This article was reprinted in El País in Madrid, Profil in Vienna, Libération in Paris, and Tages-Anzeiger in Zurich.