Libyan Hypocrisies

Has anyone else noticed the odd double-standard that has characterized the media’s reporting on Libya, and even more so the politicians’ spin on events there?  

When the rebels tell chilling stories about how Gaddafi is mercilessly killing civilians, they are presented as hard fact–or rather soft, stretchy fact, that can be inflated like a balloon from “scores” to “hundreds” to “thousands.”  But when the Libyan government alleges that coalition bombs are killing civilians, these are immediately qualified with “these reports cannot be verified”; the media then hastens to raise doubts about these “allegations,” and ends by dismissing them as propaganda.

When people rose up and demonstrated against Gaddafi, no doubts were raised about their sincerity or their motives, or their numbers.  We were encouraged to believe that they were merely the tip of the iceberg, a few of untold masses who were ready to rise up and be rid of him.  But when people have taken to the streets demonstrating in favor of Gaddafi, we are first encouraged to think that they have merely been bribed, and when this argument stops working, we are reminded that there are hundreds of thousands more that did not take to the streets, and we can only assume that it is because they hate Gaddafi and are too afraid to say so.  

When the Arab League calls for a no-fly zone and invites the UN to intervene, we are told that this is absolutely crucial, that the Arab League is very important and lends legitimacy to the whole operation, that without the Arab League’s request for action, action would probably not be taken.  But as soon as the Arab League says, “Whoa, wait a minute!” and calls for a halt of coalition attacks, everyone is hastening to explain why the Arab League is unimportant, can’t be taken seriously, and can be safely ignored.

When Gaddafi makes absurd speeches and accusations, as he is wont to do, we are told that he is a lunatic and should not be listened to or believed.  But when he makes a fiery speech about how the rebels will be shown “no mercy,” but will be hunted “house to house,” then immediately these words are trumpeted far and wide, and we are urged to take them literally and with absolute seriousness, as proof that hundreds of thousands will die if we don’t intervene right away.  Worst of all, in almost every report, speech, and opinion column, a crucial caveat of Gaddafi’ threat is left out–those who continue to resist will be shown no mercy; those who surrender will be shown amnesty.  

In other words, it was precisely not civilians that he was threatening to kill, but armed rebels who continued to resist by arms.  And this is a very different matter.  Most countries reserve the right to kill armed rebels within their borders seeking to overthrow the government–that doesn’t make it right, of course, but we cannot simply call it “genocide,” as some of the more sensationalist attacks on Gaddafi have.  Indeed, many countries reserve the right to kill armed rebels within their borders who are seeking merely to secede and mind their own affairs, leaving the main government entirely alone.  Pat Buchanan pointed out the hypocrisy quite brilliantly in an editorial yesterday, 


Indeed, Gadhafi has asked of Obama, “If you found them taking over American cities by force of arms, what would you do?”

Well, when the South fired on Fort Sumter, killing no one, Abraham Lincoln blockaded every Southern port, sent Gen. Sherman to burn Atlanta and pillage Georgia and South Carolina, and Gen. Sheridan to ravage the Shenandoah. He locked up editors and shut down legislatures and fought a four-year war of reconquest that killed 620,000 Americans — a few more than have died in Gadhafi’s four-week war.

Good thing we didn’t have an “international community” back then.

The Royal Navy would have been bombarding Lincoln’s America.

Of course, it may well be that Gaddafi would’ve killed civilians anyway…certainly such an assault would have entailed many civilian deaths, intended or not.  Quite possibly, his promises of amnesty could not be trusted. Perhaps he was not merely out to vanquish rebels, but to indulge in a bloodthirsty taste for massacre.  Perhaps peace negotiations were not an option, because he was hell-bent on wanton destruction.  But if so, this should be argued for, not merely assumed.  One of the Western media’s favorite tactics is to demonize our enemies–to paint them as irrational, bestial, possessed of no shred of human feeling.  This tactic obviates any need for dialogue or diplomacy–any calls for such can be dismissed as absurd, because, “Such people simply cannot be reasoned with.”  We know a priori that they are bestial, and so are entitled to treat them as such, and to assume the worst of all their actions.  


As Christians, however, we are called to believe that love is stronger than hate, that no one is past redemption; rather than making our enemy sub-human, separated from us by an unbridgeable chasm, we are called to put ourselves in the shoes of the murderer and the oppressor, because Christ made himself one of us when we were murderers and oppressors.


And this, by the way, is why I am so distressed at what is happening.  I have been a bit taken aback in the last couple days to find that my vociferous opposition to the intervention is shared by many of the arch-conservatives back home that I almost never see eye-to-eye with.  But while they may rant against the war because Obama started it, and everything he does is evil, or because it was “unconstitutional” or, worst of all (but most frequent of all), because it is not clear to them how it “serves American interests,” that is not why we must oppose it.  I’m all for helping the oppressed, not American interests.  But will this help the oppressed?  Not if it is founded on deception, as it seems to be.  Not if it shows no love of enemy, no interest in reconciliation.  Not if it is has no clear objectives or victory strategy.  In short, we must oppose it because it has given no clear evidence of being in any way a just war.  I hope in a post this weekend to analyze the conflict rigorously in terms of traditional just war criteria, to show just how seriously it falls short.


(Thanks to Nick Needham for the Buchanan link; and here are a few more for thought-provoking further reading:



7 thoughts on “Libyan Hypocrisies

  1. Brad Littlejohn

    On Facebook, a friend of mine responded to this post with this link, ostensibly providing evidence of the alleged massacres:'s worth reading, and does finally provide some eyewitness testimony of attacks on civilians. But I'm not sure that it proves nearly what it claims to, or needs to, as I responded on Facebook:"However, I must say that this article raises as many questions about the reliability of the media as it answers. The heading of the article claims "evidence of a massacre." A "massacre," mind you, is a very strong term, which defines as "the unnecessary, indiscriminate killing of a large number of human beings." Even in the text of the article, there is hardly evidence of a massacre, merely testimony that many civilians died and may have been being intentionally targeted. Even the modest (compared to the headline) claims of the article's text are not substantiated by what they captured on film, and one would certainly think that if they were making these allegations, they would put their most damning evidence on film. We are left to rely on the verbal testimony of the reporter, hoping that he can be fully trusted.But in any case, that link is in a sense the exception that proves the rule. They make such a big deal of this article because this is the article that actually provides evidence; but for the most part, the media have been happy to trumpet the accusations without providing the evidence. Whenever Gaddafi is accused of something by the rebels or the West, the assumption is "guilty until proven innocent"; whenever Gaddafi makes an accusation, the assumption is "innocent until proven guilty." Of course, there is nothing new or unexpected about this–this is always how we act, and how wars always go. But it is still a double-standard, and Christians must call it as such.Finally, this article seems to confirm another of my contentions–there is no evidence here of "genocide," of "another Srebenica" (in which thousands of unarmed refugees were rounded up and raped or executed) or of the innocent slaughter of hundreds of thousands. What there is evidence of is a rather rough and brutal attempt to retake a town filled with rebels, rebels who might in fact bear some of the responsibility for civilian deaths by refusing to lay down their arms."


  2. Tony

    Indeed, Gadhafi has asked of Obama, "If you found them taking over American cities by force of arms, what would you do?"Are Americans being oppressed by a thieving tyrant? Are Americans deprived of the right to vote? Has Obama stored incomprehensible amounts of money in foreign banks while his people starve? If you answered no to these questions, then surely you can see the difference.Brad, I'm a bit perplexed by this post. You seem to be defending an evil tyrant. You seem to be standing with the oppressor and not the oppressed. I'm with Obama on this–lend a hand to the oppressed people of Libya.


  3. Brad Littlejohn

    Tony, did you read these sentences: "I'm all for helping the oppressed, not American interests. But will this help the oppressed? Not if it is founded on deception, as it seems to be. Not if it shows no love of enemy, no interest in reconciliation. Not if it is has no clear objectives or victory strategy." Of course I'm not in favor of the oppressor rather than the oppressed in this situation, or any situation. What I am concerned is a) that we really help the oppressed, as our actions seem unlikely to do in the long run here; b) that we not be oppressors ourselves, as we have very often proved in the past; and in this case, I would like to see a lot more evidence and transparency to be sure that we aren't being oppressors ourselves this time; c) that whatever is done to help the oppressed be done with complete honesty and openness, not the hypocrisy, propagandism, and half-truths that have characterized this operation thus far.Am I defending the oppressor? No, I don't think so. This reminds me of the movie "Twelve Angry Men"–ever seen it? Everyone pounces on the one juror who's asking questions because he's trying to defend a murderer, but all he's doing is trying to figure out why some things about the prosecutor's story don't add up, refusing to jump to the most damning conclusions. That's what I'm doing–Gaddafi may be wicked, but that doesn't mean the official narrative isn't slam full of holes, and it's our duties as citizens to ask about those holes.As far as the difference between rebels in Libya and hypothetical rebels here, the point is not that rebellion here would be as justified as rebellion in Libya, but that, regardless of how justified a rebellion against their authority might be, sovereign governments anywhere would generally assert the right to use military force against an armed rebellion–including the American government. This doesn't make it right for them to do so; it simply means that Gaddafi is not ipso facto illegitimate in fighting back, nor are his actions legitimately described (from anything I have seen thus far at any rate) as genocide.


  4. Brad Littlejohn

    For those interested, this kicked off, as such things often do, quite a discussion on Facebook, which you can see here (at least, many of you can, I suppose; I don't know exactly how these privacy settings work).And in case you didn't see it, my original post on this, which explains where I'm coming from at more length, is here.


  5. Brad, I appreciate your desire to extend charity and the possibility of redemption to all, even the apparently worst. I also appreciate your desire to examine the log in our eye on some of these issues and the tendency of much of the media to accept more or less uncritically the government line when it comes to matters of national security and warfare. Iraq and the WMD was a classic example and as citizens we are right to hold suspicions about our government's true intentions in such complex matters and about the ability for us to be receiving a very partial picture of the true state of affairs. I hold no great respect for most media, which, notwithstanding the personal integrity of numerous journalists, is by and large a for-profit business more interested in gaining eyeballs than checking truth.So, with my own sympathies to your stance briefly outlined, can I ask that you concede that (putting aside the events of the last few months for a moment) Gaddafi has a long history of tyranny, bloodshed, political repression, state-sponsored terrorism and brutal suppression of dissent?This doesn't by itself justify military intervention, but it does justify quite a healthy level of scepticism towards his claims today. I don't think that Christian charity means uncritically extending the same level of trust to all. Charity is different to trust. Gaddafi has lost the trust of many of his own people and of most of the world's governments through decades of abuses. It is not unreasonable for our assumptions about his present statements to be shaped by this history.Of course, our own governments and media are far from spotless truth-tellers (as I indicated above). So I agree with your call for more scepticism towards western claims, but would argue for no reduction in scepticism towards Gaddafi's.Are there any bodies with credibility whose workings we can reliably accept? Not really (not with total trust), but the International Criminal Court (whatever its legal problems concerning jurisdiction and national sovereignty) for me holds a bit more water than mainstream media. The UN Security Council has referred Gadaffi to the ICC. We shall see what becomes of this.(PS Just checking that you realise that "Tony" above is (I'm fairly sure) Tony Bolos from Ps&Gs.)


  6. Brad Littlejohn

    Hey Byron,Thanks for a very fair and fairly-worded question. Can I concede that Gaddafi is a pretty nasty character? Sure. "a long history of tyranny, bloodshed, political repression, state-sponsored terrorism and brutal suppression of dissent"? Sure, I think I'd grant all of those. But with a couple big caveats. The first is that much of this long history is a history that has already come to us with quite a slant. It's funny how many leaders who have stood up to the West and pursued nationalist economic policies that don't sit well with US interests find themselves saddled with "a long history of tyranny, bloodshed, political repression, state-sponsored terrorism and brutal suppression of dissent"–e.g., Noriega, Aristide, Chavez, Gaddafi, etc. Sometimes this is well-deserved, as in Gaddafi's case–though even then, it's a double-standard, as brutal and repressive dictators who are friendly to the West often manage to maintain a clean record. The second caveat is that even in the official Western narrative, Gaddafi has supposedly improved and reformed a great deal in recent years. Libya was removed from the list of terrorist-sponsoring regimes in 2007, and Gaddafi was starting to earn back some credibility. So, I'm not prepared to automatically accept that he's an evil, utterly untrustworthy psychopath. Possibly, but like I said, I'd rather err on the side of over-humanizing our enemies than over-demonizing them. A very interesting read, if you haven't seen it already, is this article by the president of Uganda–a country that suffered from Gaddafi more than just about anyone did. It's quite balanced, however, recognizing that the man has done good as well as harm: of course, my point isn't to argue that Gaddafi is a good guy, only that just because he's a bad guy, it doesn't follow that the rebels aren't also bad guys (and that we aren't also bad guys). We should cultivate a healthy skepticism about all parties involved. That said, I admitted in the Facebook discussion that I had perhaps erred on the side of hastily assuming the worst of our own leaders, which isn't a very Christian thing to do either.And yes, I did know that Tony was Tony Bolos. Did I not sound like I did?


  7. And of course, my point isn't to argue that Gaddafi is a good guy, only that just because he's a bad guy, it doesn't follow that the rebels aren't also bad guys (and that we aren't also bad guys).That was my point as well.Re Tony – I was just making sure. I think it's a healthy thing for online discussions to have real names. I often get comments on my blog from people who just give a first name and I'm not sure whether it is the "x" that I know (or one of them) or some random stranger.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s