The “Left” and Libya

The last time we met Michael Bérubé on this site was back in 2007, and he was up to his neck in a rubbish dump, where I’d placed him, in the company of other promoters of the 2003 war on Iraq: where, I asked, are those parlor warriors now? Had any of them reconsidered their illusions…

“… that all it would take was a brisk invasion and a new constitution, to put Iraq to rights? Have any of them, from Makiya through Hitchens to Berman and Bérubé had dark nights, asking themselves just how much responsibility they have for the heaps of dead in Iraq, for a plundered nation, for the American soldiers who died or were crippled in Iraq at their urging ? Sometimes I dream of them… like characters in a Beckett play, buried up to their necks in a rubbish dump on the edge of Baghdad, reciting their columns to each other as the local women turn over the corpses to see if one of them is her husband or her son.”

Who’s this Bérubé, you ask. Well, for starters he’s the Paterno Family Professor in Literature and Director of the Institute for the Arts and Humanities at Pennsylvania State University. Penn State’s website informs us that “named professorships provide support for a focused area and are funded by gifts from individual donors,” which means that Bérubé has long been on  Joe Paterno’s payroll – as things have turned out an ironic status for someone who’s spent a fair slice of his time  barking and snapping his jaws at “the left”  for innumerable failures stemming from moral equivocation and blindness to reality. Now that famed football coach Joe Paterno has been fired from Penn State for protecting one of his assistants, Jerry Sandusky,  suspected of raping a ten-year old boy, amidst many other suspected assaults on youths under Sandusky’s supervision, we must await Bérubé’s assessment of how it feels to have been the kept man of this fallen idol. Does the title  “Paterno Family Professor” remain ensconced on Bérubé’s  formal letterhead?

Down the years Bérubé has fostered a niche speciality in trashing what he’s pleased to call “the left,” somewhat in the manner of Todd Gitlin, who – perched on the credential of having once  been an SDS president — wrote so many worthy articles bashing this same left in the Sixties and issuing  stentorian warnings against any such lapses amid the youth of later epochs that eventually he parlayed his services to decorous establishment thinking into a professorship  of journalism and sociology at Columbia University.

Now Bérubé has launched an attack on the “left” for its anti-NATO conduct during the recent  upheavals in Libya, during which the current National Transitional Council of Libya has been installed under the supervision of this same NATO.  On this site this weekend David Gibbs deals capably with some of the major follies in Bérubé’s critique, but since the latter inscribes me in his roster of shame, I think a few comments are in order, starting with the obvious fact that Bérubé, eager to preserve his cred as thoughtful progressive critic of  Left Excess, has had recourse to wholesale invention. The most obvious fact about what passes for the Left in the US and Europe regarding the  entire Libyan saga was that it was  only a few notches short of unanimity in endorsing the entire NATO-backed enterprise.

What consistent voices were raised in questioning the premises and applications of the two Security Council resolutions enabling NATO, the factual basis for the reporting coming out of Libya that enabled the near 100 per cent agreement in the press that the UN resolutions justified NATO’s bombing campaign,  to avoid “genocide” by Gadhafi “against his own people,” that the credentials and conduct of the rebels, later renamed “revolutionaries” were beyond reproach? Here at CounterPunch some of our contributors such as Vijay Prashad were, initially at least,  enthusiastic supporters of the Benghazi rebels. Others, such as myself or Patrick Cockburn, in Libya for the UK Independent, or Diana Johnstone in Paris or Jean Bricmont in Brussels, or Tariq Ali (passim) were critical, raised questions concerning the stentorian pro-NATO chorus.  This role is usually regarded as one of the mandates of left journalism.

I do not recall CounterPunch as being part of a substantial chorus in this worthy enterprise.  In fact I recall us as being among a mere handful on the left, more in concert with a libertarian site like  This is born out by scrutiny of Bérubé’s attack, which is markedly short on names and publications on which to lavish his reprobations of “the left” which, at least prior to the welcome rise of the Occupiers, has been a scrawny thing in recent years.  On Amy Goodman’s Democracy Now one was far more likely to hear CIA-consultant Juan Cole issuing fervent support for the entire intervention than rather any vigorous interviewing  of informed sources  about what was actually happening on the ground in Libya.

Failure as concerns Libya’s history this year belongs not to the virtually non-existent left, but to the entire political spectrum from progressives and the whole arc rightwards. A substantial measure of blame must be allocated here to the press, both here and in the U.K. Could it be that the press coverage of NATO’s Libyan onslaught was actually worse than the reporting on NATO’s attacks on the former Yugoslavia in the late 1990s, or on Iraq in the run-up to the 2003 invasion by the U.S.A. and its coalition partners? The answer is yes.

In the case of both of the earlier NATO interventions, the debates pro and con were accompanied by many journalistic and official or semi-official investigations, most of them blatantly partisan, but some offering substantive claims about such issues as war crimes, weapons of mass destruction, the actual as opposed to self-proclaimed motives of the assailants, and kindred issues.

Mark the contrast with the Libyan intervention. In less than a month, from mid-February to   mid-March, we moved from vague allegations of Gaddafi’s supposed “genocide” or “crimes against humanity” to two separate votes in the U.N. Security Council, which permitted a NATO mission to establish a “no-fly” zone to  protect civilians, this latter protection to be achieved by “all necessary measures.”

By the time U.N. Security Council resolution 1973 had been voted through on March 17, France had already formally recognized the jerry-rigged rebel committee in Benghazi as the legitimate government of Libya. By the end of May, it was being openly stated by senior figures in the relevant NATO governments that “regime change” was the objective and the eviction of Gaddafi a sine qua non of the mission.

Also, by late May, it was apparent that the rebels’ military capacities were modest in the extreme, that Ghadafi’s eviction was not going to be the overnight affair, confidently predicted in western capitals and in Benghazi, also that NATO’s bombardments were not having the requisite effect.

In the crucial February 15 – March 17 time slot, there was no determined effort to investigate the charges against Ghadafi, leveled in the U.N. Security Council Resolutions and by NATO principals such as Obama and Clinton, the U.K.’s prime minister Cameron, or President Sarkozy and his foreign minister.

The amazing vagueness of news stories of this – or indeed any – topic  coming out of Libya has been conspicuous. Here, remember, we had a regime accused in U.N. Security Council Resolution 1973 of “widespread and systematic attacks … against the civilian population [that] may amount to crimes against humanity.”

Yet since mid-February the reporting out of Libya displayed a striking lack of persuasive documentation of butcheries or abuses commensurate with the language lavished on the regime’s presumptive conduct. Time and again one read vague phrases like “thousands reportedly killed by Gaddafi’s mercenaries” or Gaddafi “massacring his own people,” delivered without the slightest effort to furnish supporting evidence. It was the secondhand allegation of massacres that drove both news coverage and U.N. activities – particularly in the early stage, when U.N. Resolution 1970 was adopted, calling for sanctions and the referral of  Gaddafi’s closest circle to the International Criminal Court.

News reports in mid-March, such as those by the McClatchy news chain’s  reporters Jonathan Landay, Warren Strobel and Shashank Bengali, contained no claims of anything approaching a “crime against humanity,” the allegation in Resolution 1973. Yet by February 23 the propaganda blitz was in full spate, with Clinton denouncing  Gaddafi and with Reagan’s “mad dog of the Middle East” exhumed as the preferred way of describing the Libyan leader.

The U.N. commissioner for human rights, Navi Pillay, started denouncing the Libyan government as early as February 18; U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon joined Pillay on February 21. The U.N. News Center reported that Ban was “outraged at press reports that the Libyan authorities have been firing at demonstrators from war planes and helicopters” (our italics). In these early days, no one who represented the Libyan government was permitted to address the council. Only defectors speaking on behalf of Libya were given the floor.

Now, remember that on March 10 French President Sarkozy, a major player in NATO’s coalition of the willing against Libya, declared the Libyan National Transition Council the only legitimate representative of the Libyan people. So,  Gaddafi was facing a formal armed insurrection – not a protest movement demanding “democracy” – led by a shadowy entity based in Benghazi. Seven days later, Resolution 1973 made clear that attempts to suppress this insurrection would elicit armed intervention by NATO.

The political complexion and origins of the rebel leadership and its backers received only fleeting attention. Topics such as the rivalry between the French and Italian oil companies, or the input of other international oil majors, and major U.S. banks and financial institutions were rarely touched upon.

The coverage of any fighting was often laughable. The press corps in Benghazi breathlessly described minor skirmishes involving a tank or two, or some armed vehicles, as mighty engagements.

In fact, the mighty armies contending along the highway west of Benghazi would melt into the bleachers at a college baseball game. News stories suggest mobile warfare on the scale of the epic dramas of the Kursk salient or the battle for Stalingrad in World War Two.

By the end of June the “no-fly zone” prompted some 12,000-plus NATO sorties. As with any bombing, civilians died. Since the beginning of NATO operations, a total of 12,887 sorties, including 4,850 strike sorties, were conducted up to June 27.

A team of Russian doctors wrote to the president of the Russian Federation, Dmitry Medvedev, as follows:

“Today, 24 March, 2011, NATO aircraft and the U.S. all night and all morning bombed a suburb of Tripoli – Tajhura (where, in particular, is Libya’s Nuclear Research Center). Air Defense and Air Force facilities in Tajhura were destroyed back in the first 2 days of strikes and more active military facilities in the city remained, but today the object of bombing are barracks of the Libyan army, around which are densely populated residential areas, and, next to it, the largest of Libya’s Heart Centers. Civilians and the doctors could not assume that common residential quarters will be about to become destroyed, so none of the residents or hospital patients was evacuated.

“Bombs and rockets struck residential houses and fell near the hospital. The glass of the Cardiac Center building was broken, and in the building of the maternity ward for pregnant women with heart disease a wall collapsed and part of the roof. This resulted in ten miscarriages whereby babies died, the women are in intensive care, doctors are fighting for their lives. Our colleagues and we are working seven days a week, to save people. This is a direct consequence of falling bombs and missiles in residential buildings, resulting in dozens of deaths and injuries, which are operated and reviewed now by our doctors. Such a large number of wounded and killed, as during today, did not occur during the total of all the riots in Libya. And this is called ‘protecting’ the civilian population?”

With the Libyan intervention, everything was out of proportion.  Gaddafi was scarcely the acme of monstrosity conjured up by Obama or Mrs. Clinton or Sarkozy. In four decades, Libyans rose from  being among the most wretched in Africa to considerable elevation in terms of social amenities. In a detailed fairly recent report (“The Situation of Children and Women in Libya,” UNICEF Middle East and North Africa Regional Office, November 2010), UNICEF noted that Libya had important socio-economic achievements to its credit. In 2009 it enjoyed:

  • a buoyant growth rate, with GDP having risen from $27.3 billion in 1998 to $93.2 billion by 2009, according to the World Bank;
  • high per capita income (estimated by the World Bank at $16,430);high literacy      rates (95 per cent for males and 78 per cent for females, aged fifteen and above);
  •    high life expectancy at birth (74 years overall; 77 for females and 72 for males)
  •    and  a consequent ranking of 55 out of 182 countries in terms of overall “Human   Development”

In terms of the distribution of oil revenues it would be instructive to compare Libya’s record to those of other oil-producing nations.

Gaddafi’s alleged slaughter of his own people, and alleged ordering of mass rapes, formed the sharp edge of the interventionist crusade and of the Security Council resolutions, draped with the imprimatur of the collusive International Criminal Court. These charges were endlessly recycled by the press, without any serious attempt at verification.

By mid-to-late June, human rights organizations were casting doubt on claims of mass rape and other abuses perpetrated by forces loyal to Gaddafi. An investigation by Amnesty International failed to find evidence for these human rights violations and in many cases has discredited or cast doubt on them. It also found indications that, on several occasions, the rebels in Benghazi appeared to have knowingly made false claims or manufactured evidence.

The findings by the investigators were sharply at odds with the views of the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, who told a press conference that “we have information that there was a policy to rape in Libya those who were against the government. Apparently he [Colonel Gaddafi] used it to punish people.”

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said she was “deeply concerned” that Gaddafi’s troops were participating in widespread rape in Libya. “Rape, physical intimidation, sexual harassment, and even so-called virginity tests have taken place in countries throughout the region,” she said.

Donatella Rovera, senior crisis response adviser for Amnesty, who was in Libya for three months after the start of the uprising, said to Patrick Cockburn in late June that “we have not found any evidence or a single victim of rape, or a doctor who knew about somebody being raped.” She stressed this does not prove that mass rape did not occur, but there is no evidence to show that it did. Liesel Gerntholtz, head of women’s rights at Human Rights Watch, which also investigated the charge of mass rape, said, “We have not been able to find evidence.”

In one instance, two captured pro-Gaddafi soldiers presented to the international media by the rebels claimed that [added] their officers, and later themselves, had raped a family with four daughters. Ms. Rovera says that when she and a colleague, both fluent in Arabic, interviewed the two detainees, one 17 years old and one 21, alone and in separate rooms, they changed their stories and gave differing accounts of what had happened. “They both said they had not participated in the rape and just heard about it,” she said. “They told different stories about whether or not the girls’ hands were tied, whether their parents were present, and about how they were dressed.”

Seemingly the strongest evidence for mass rape appeared to come from a Libyan psychologist, Dr. Seham Sergewa, who says she distributed 70,000 questionnaires in rebel-controlled areas and along the Tunisian border, of which over 60,000 were returned. Some 259 women volunteered that they had been raped, of whom Dr. Sergewa said she interviewed 140 victims.

Asked by Diana Eltahawy, Amnesty International’s specialist on Libya, if it would be possible to meet any of these women, Dr. Sergewa replied that “she had lost contact with them,” and was unable to provide documentary evidence.

The accusation that Viagra had been distributed to Gaddafi’s troops to encourage them to rape women in rebel areas first surfaced in March, after NATO had destroyed tanks advancing on Benghazi. Ms. Rovera says that rebels dealing with the foreign media in Benghazi started showing journalists packets of Viagra, claiming they came from burned-out tanks, though it is unclear why the packets were not charred.

Rebels repeatedly charged that mercenary troops from Central and West Africa had been used against them. The Amnesty investigation found there was no evidence for this. “Those shown to journalists as foreign mercenaries were later quietly released,” says Ms. Rovera. “Most were sub-Saharan migrants working in Libya without documents.” Others were not so lucky and were lynched or executed. Ms. Rovera found two bodies of migrants in the Benghazi morgue, and others were dumped on the outskirts of the city. She says, “The politicians kept talking about mercenaries, which inflamed public opinion, and the myth has continued because they were released without publicity.”

One story, to which credence was given by the foreign media early on in Benghazi, was that eight to ten government troops who refused to shoot protesters were executed by their own side. Their bodies were shown on TV. But Ms. Rovera, says there is strong evidence for a different explanation. She says amateur video shows them alive after they had been captured, suggesting it was the rebels who killed them.

NATO intervention started on March 19 with air attacks to “protect” people in Benghazi from massacre by advancing pro-Gaddafi troops. There is no doubt that civilians did expect to be killed after threats of vengeance from Gaddafi. During the first days of the uprising in eastern Libya, security forces shot and killed demonstrators and people attending their funerals, but there is no proof of mass killing of civilians on the scale of Syria or Yemen.

Most of the fighting during the first days of the uprising was in Benghazi, where 100 to 110 people were killed, and in the city of Baida to the east, where 59 to 64 were killed, says Amnesty. Most of these were probably protesters, though some may have obtained weapons. There is no evidence that aircraft or heavy anti-aircraft machine guns were used against crowds. Spent cartridges picked up after protesters were shot at came from Kalashnikovs or similar caliber weapons.

The Amnesty findings confirmed a report by the International Crisis Group, which found that while the Gaddafi regime had a history of brutally repressing opponents, there was no question of “genocide.”

The report adds that “much Western media coverage has from the outset presented a very one-sided view of the logic of events, portraying the protest movement as entirely peaceful and repeatedly suggesting that the regime’s security forces were unaccountably massacring unarmed demonstrators who presented no security challenge.”

With so many countries out of bounds, journalists flocked to Benghazi, in Libya, which can be reached from Egypt without a visa. Alternatively they went to Tripoli, where the government allows a carefully monitored press corps to operate under strict supervision. Having arrived in these two cities, the ways in which the journalists report diverged sharply. Everybody reporting out of Tripoli expressed understandable skepticism about what government minders seek to show them as regards civilian casualties caused by NATO air strikes or demonstrations of support for Gaddafi. By way of contrast, the foreign press corps in Benghazi, capital of the rebel-held territory, shows surprising credulity toward more subtle but equally self-serving stories from the rebel government or its sympathizers.

The Libyan insurgents were adept at dealing with the press from an early stage, and this included skilful propaganda to put the blame for unexplained killings on the other side. It is a weakness of journalists that they give wide publicity to atrocities, evidence for which may be shaky when first revealed. But when the stories turn out to be untrue or exaggerated, they rate scarcely a mention.

It is all credit to Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch that they have taken a skeptical attitude to atrocities until proven. Contrast this responsible attitude with that of Hillary Clinton or the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC), Luis Moreno-Ocampo, who blithely suggested that Gaddafi was using rape as a weapon of war to punish the rebels This systematic demonization of Gaddafi – a brutal despot he may be, but not a monster on the scale of Saddam Hussein – also made it difficult to negotiate a ceasefire with him.

There is nothing particularly surprising about the rebels in Benghazi making things up or producing dubious witnesses to Gaddafi’s crimes. They were fighting a war against a despot whom they feared and hated, and they understandably used propaganda as a weapon of war. But it did show naivety on the part of the foreign media, who almost universally sympathize with the rebels, to the extent that they swallowed whole so many atrocity stories fed to them by the rebel authorities and their sympathizers.

The only massacre by the Gaddafi regime, involving hundreds of victims, which is so far well attested is the killings at Abu Salim prison in Tripoli in 1996, when up to 1,200 prisoners died, according to a credible witness who survived.

Battlefronts are always awash with rumors of impending massacre or rape, which spread rapidly among terrified people who may be the intended victims. Understandably enough, they do not want to wait around to find out how true these stories are. Earlier this year, Patrick Cockburn was in Ajdabiyah, a front-line town an hour and a half’s drive south of Benghazi, when he  saw car loads of panic-stricken refugees fleeing up the road. They had just heard an entirely untrue report via al-Jazeera Arabic that pro-Gaddafi forces had broken through.

Likewise, al-Jazeera was producing uncorroborated reports of hospitals being attacked, blood banks destroyed, women raped, and the injured executed.

This toxic mixture of cheerleading and willful blindness persisted through to the end – though now stories do appear about the summary executions, revenge killings and mass imprisonments that are occurring.

These are the real failures, to which Bérubé is indifferent, just as he is indifferent to and entirely ignorant of Libyan history, past and present. His mandate is to issue his pro-forma denunciation of “the left,” an excerise in data-free ranting. By way of an antidote I strongly recommend a fine piece in the London Review of Books by Hugh Roberts, who was the director of the International Crisis Group’s North Africa Project from 2002 to 2007 and from February to July 2011. Roberts is about to take up the post of Edward Keller Professor of North African and Middle Eastern History at Tufts University.

A couple of samples:

“The claim that the ‘international community’ had no choice but to intervene militarily and that the alternative was to do nothing is false. An active, practical, non-violent alternative was proposed, and deliberately rejected. The argument for a no-fly zone and then for a military intervention employing ‘all necessary measures’ was that only this could stop the regime’s repression and protect civilians. Yet many argued that the way to protect civilians was not to intensify the conflict by intervening on one side or the other, but to end it by securing a ceasefire followed by political negotiations. A number of proposals were put forward. The International Crisis Group, for instance, where I worked at the time, published a statement on 10 March arguing for a two-point initiative: (i) the formation of a contact group or committee drawn from Libya’s North African neighbours and other African states with a mandate to broker an immediate ceasefire; (ii) negotiations between the protagonists to be initiated by the contact group and aimed at replacing the current regime with a more accountable, representative and law-abiding government. This proposal was echoed by the African Union and was consistent with the views of many major non-African states – Russia, China, Brazil and India, not to mention Germany and Turkey. It was restated by the ICG in more detail (adding provision for the deployment under a UN mandate of an international peacekeeping force to secure the ceasefire) in an open letter to the UN Security Council on 16 March, the eve of the debate which concluded with the adoption of UNSC Resolution 1973. In short, before the Security Council voted to approve the military intervention, a worked-out proposal had been put forward which addressed the need to protect civilians by seeking a rapid end to the fighting, and set out the main elements of an orderly transition to a more legitimate form of government, one that would avoid the danger of an abrupt collapse into anarchy, with all it might mean for Tunisia’s revolution, the security of Libya’s other neighbours and the wider region. The imposition of a no-fly zone would be an act of war: as the US defense secretary, Robert Gates, told Congress on 2 March, it required the disabling of Libya’s air defences as an indispensable preliminary. In authorising this and ‘all necessary measures’, the Security Council was choosing war when no other policy had even been tried. Why?

Resolution 1973 was passed in New York late in the evening of 17 March. The next day, Gaddafi, whose forces were camped on the southern edge of Benghazi, announced a ceasefire in conformity with Article 1 and proposed a political dialogue in line with Article 2. What the Security Council demanded and suggested, he provided in a matter of hours. His ceasefire was immediately rejected on behalf of the NTC by a senior rebel commander, Khalifa Haftar, and dismissed by Western governments. ‘We will judge him by his actions not his words,’ David Cameron declared, implying that Gaddafi was expected to deliver a complete ceasefire by himself: that is, not only order his troops to cease fire but ensure this ceasefire was maintained indefinitely despite the fact that the NTC was refusing to reciprocate. Cameron’s comment also took no account of the fact that Article 1 of Resolution 1973 did not of course place the burden of a ceasefire exclusively on Gaddafi. No sooner had Cameron covered for the NTC’s unmistakable violation of Resolution 1973 than Obama weighed in, insisting that for Gaddafi’s ceasefire to count for anything he would (in addition to sustaining it indefinitely, single-handed, irrespective of the NTC) have to withdraw his forces not only from Benghazi but also from Misrata and from the most important towns his troops had retaken from the rebellion, Ajdabiya in the east and Zawiya in the west – in other words, he had to accept strategic defeat in advance. These conditions, which were impossible for Gaddafi to accept, were absent from Article 1. (1) Demands the immediate establishment of a ceasefire and a complete end to violence and all attacks against, and abuses of, civilians;…”

And here’s Roberts concerning  the influential charge that Gadhafi had ordered the  slaughtering of his fellow Libyans from the air, plus his conclusion:

In the days that followed I made efforts to check the al-Jazeera story [about Ghadafi bombing Libyans] for myself. One source I consulted was the well-regarded blog Informed Comment, maintained and updated every day by Juan Cole, a Middle East specialist at the University of Michigan. This carried a post on 21 February entitled ‘Qaddafi’s bombardments recall Mussolini’s’, which made the point that ‘in 1933-40, Italo Balbo championed aerial warfare as the best means to deal with uppity colonial populations.’ The post began: ‘The strafing and bombardment in Tripoli of civilian demonstrators by Muammar Gaddafi’s fighter jets on Monday …’, with the underlined words linking to an article by Sarah El Deeb and Maggie Michael for Associated Press published at 9 p.m. on 21 February. This article provided no corroboration of Cole’s claim that Gaddafi’s fighter jets (or any other aircraft) had strafed or bombed anyone in Tripoli or anywhere else. The same is true of every source indicated in the other items on Libya relaying the aerial onslaught story which Cole posted that same day.

I was in Egypt for most of the time, but since many journalists visiting Libya were transiting through Cairo, I made a point of asking those I could get hold of what they had picked up in the field. None of them had found any corroboration of the story. I especially remember on 18 March asking the British North Africa expert Jon Marks, just back from an extended tour of Cyrenaica (taking in Ajdabiya, Benghazi, Brega, Derna and Ras Lanuf), what he had heard about the story. He told me that no one he had spoken to had mentioned it. Four days later, on 22 March, USA Today carried a striking article by Alan Kuperman, the author of The Limits of Humanitarian Intervention and coeditor of Gambling on Humanitarian Intervention. The article, ‘Five Things the US Should Consider in Libya’, provided a powerful critique of the Nato intervention as violating the conditions that needed to be observed for a humanitarian intervention to be justified or successful. But what interested me most was his statement that ‘despite ubiquitous cellphone cameras, there are no images of genocidal violence, a claim that smacks of rebel propaganda.’ So, four weeks on, I was not alone in finding no evidence for the aerial slaughter story. I subsequently discovered that the issue had come up more than a fortnight earlier, on 2 March, in hearings in the US Congress when Gates and Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, were testifying. They told Congress that they had no confirmation of reports of aircraft controlled by Gaddafi firing on citizens….

The idea that Gaddafi represented nothing in Libyan society, that he was taking on his entire people and his people were all against him was another distortion of the facts. As we now know from the length of the war, the huge pro-Gaddafi demonstration in Tripoli on 1 July, the fierce resistance Gaddafi’s forces put up, the month it took the rebels to get anywhere at all at Bani Walid and the further month at Sirte, Gaddafi’s regime enjoyed a substantial measure of support, as the NTC did. Libyan society was divided and political division was in itself a hopeful development since it signified the end of the old political unanimity enjoined and maintained by the Jamahiriyya. In this light, the Western governments’ portrayal of ‘the Libyan people’ as uniformly ranged against Gaddafi had a sinister implication, precisely because it insinuated a new Western-sponsored unanimity back into Libyan life. This profoundly undemocratic idea followed naturally from the equally undemocratic idea that, in the absence of electoral consultation or even an opinion poll to ascertain the Libyans’ actual views, the British, French and American governments had the right and authority to determine who was part of the Libyan people and who wasn’t. No one supporting the Gaddafi regime counted. Because they were not part of ‘the Libyan people’ they could not be among the civilians to be protected, even if they were civilians as a matter of mere fact. And they were not protected; they were killed by Nato air strikes as well as by uncontrolled rebel units. The number of such civilian victims on the wrong side of the war must be many times the total death toll as of 21 February. But they don’t count, any more than the thousands of young men in Gaddafi’s army who innocently imagined that they too were part of ‘the Libyan people’ and were only doing their duty to the state counted when they were incinerated by Nato’s planes or extra-judicially executed en masse after capture, as in Sirte.

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We offer two terrific pieces, by Nancy Scheper-Hughes and Fred Gardner. A distinguished anthropologist,  Scheper-Hughes is one of our favorite writers. Indeed your CounterPunch editors listed her Death without Weeping in its top 100 non-fiction books published in English in the 20th Century.  A few months ago we ran her amazing investigation of the international trade in body parts.  This time she contributes a very powerful piece – in part autobiographical – on the slow death of the Roman Catholic Church, centered on the Vatican’s  appalling response to the  disclosures of the past few years of the sexual predations of Catholic priests on children, among them indigenous peoples.

On September 23, 2011,  Scheper-Hughes writes, human rights lawyers and former clerical sex abuse victims filed a complaint with the International Criminal Court in the Hague, asking for an investigation to prosecute Pope Benedict XVI and three of his top officials, including William Levada, a cardinal, and the former bishop of the diocese of San Francisco, for crimes against humanity.

“The request to war crimes court may seem theatrical. The Vatican did not ratify the Rome statute that created the court, although both Germany (Benedict’s birthplace) and Italy (home of the Vatican) have done so. The ICC only has jurisdiction over war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide committed after 2002. Nonetheless, the International Criminal Court has agreed to examine the papers, and a spokesperson has said that the case has merit.

So, finally, what’s a former Catholic to do when her Church is corrupt and moribund? Today, the defections are not just of unhappy priests and nuns, but of the global Catholic community at large. Churches are closing in European and in American cities. The will and the desire to fight the Vatican are mostly gone. The damage, beyond the current sex scandal, to women’s bodies, the indifference to maternal and infant mortalities, to the populations at risk of the AIDS epidemic, especially in Catholic parts of Africa, are too much to bear.

“Some former Catholics take solace in other spiritual traditions. Given the animistic quality of Catholic ancestor worship, some former Catholics embrace a cult of everyday saints, virgins, and martyrs, adding Steven Biko, Martin Luther King Jr., Albert Einstein, Dorothy Day, and Harvey Milk to their older devotion to Saint Joan, San Antonio, and Saint Francis of Assisi. Others look to a green theology based on reverence for earth, and sky and sea, and all the critters that slither and crawl, walk and swim. Some, like Paul Farmer, continue along the Vatican-savaged remains of a once vibrant liberation theology, a theology of hope.

“I am grieved and not relieved by my loss of a faith that once gave beauty, richness and fullness to my life. The secular humanism of anthropology offers an alternative form of discipleship, built around the practice of studied observation, contemplation and reflection. I know that anthropology is a powerful tool capable of taming unruly emotions, replacing disgust with respect, ignorance with understanding, hatred with empathy, and a practice of compassionate and modest witnessing to human sorrows. But it is cold comfort for the former believer, when the mystery is gone and with it the light has gone out of one’s soul.”

Don’t miss this marvelous essay.

Also don’t miss Fred Gardner’s contribution to our ongoing series on Obama’s record. Gardner examines the pledges on medical  marijuana  he made on the campaign trail and his substantive record thereafter and the current onslaught of the Justice Department on medical marijuana dispensaries in California. Gardner’s question to the leaders of the marijuana reform movement: Did they really read his lips? Did they “over-read” and too optimistically interpret what the candidate was saying.


Alexander Cockburn can be reached at

Alexander Cockburn’s Guillotined!, A Colossal Wreck and An Orgy of Thieves: Neoliberalism and Its Discontents are available from CounterPunch.