Shouts for freedom, &c.


I don’t know if you’ve been following Syria for the past week or so — but what’s happening there is astounding. Tens of thousands have massed in the streets, shouting, “We want freedom!” Oddly enough, when they say, “We want freedom!” I actually interpret them to mean, “We want freedom!”

Few of us can really know what it’s like to take to the street in a totalitarian society and protest — even in the (relative) safety of a crowd. It requires tremendous courage. To take the risks they’re taking, these people must be desperately fed up.

I saw a photo — here — snapped by someone on his cellphone. It shows a crowd of women gathered in the city of Banias. Brave women. Apparently uncowed women.

The most startling headline I’ve seen is this: “Syrian soldiers shot for refusing to fire on protesters.” The story begins, “Syrian soldiers have been shot by security forces after refusing to fire on protesters, witnesses said, as a crackdown on anti-government demonstrations intensified.”

I’m reminded of a message sent to the Cuban armed forces by Lincoln Diaz-Balart, the Cuban-born American politician. He said (and I paraphrase), “If you repudiate the Castros, anything is possible. If you stick with them, nothing is possible. And if you pull a Tiananmen Square — if you do what Chinese forces did in 1989 — the Cuban people will never forgive you.”

What will the Arab militaries ultimately do? A key question.

As far as I know, the U.S. government, in the form of the Obama administration, is saying nothing about Syrian citizens in the streets. I would like to think we are doing all we can to help them, behind the scenes. But I doubt it. The impression I get is that our president and his team would rather deal with the Assad dictatorship, same as U.S. administrations have been doing decade after decade. Stability, you know.

Yeah, yeah.

So, it was the 50th anniversary of the Bay of Pigs the other day. The operation started on April 17, 1961. If the Obama administration had an official statement, I didn’t see it. But I have a memory — a bad memory — of something that occurred in April 2009.

Obama attended a Summit of the Americas. And Daniel Ortega, the old Sandinista, delivered a long diatribe against the United States, which included a blast at the Bay of Pigs. He conceded, however, that Obama could not be held responsible for the operation.

And what did our president say in return? Did he tell Ortega to stuff it and stand up for freedom? Um, not exactly. He said, “I’m grateful that President Ortega did not blame me for things that happened when I was three months old.”

At the time, I scribbled what I called a “fantasy response” to Ortega. Here is what I wish the American president had said:

“Well, the Bay of Pigs was terribly executed. But it was a noble cause: the overthrow of a heinous dictatorship. One that denies an entire people their natural, God-given rights. Had that operation succeeded, Cuba would have been infinitely better off, and the world would have been better off. And many good and brave men died in that operation. If we are to be sorry for anything, it’s that the operation did not succeed, not that it occurred.”

But Obama could never say anything like that — because it is utterly contrary to his mindset. He would be only slightly less likely to say it than would Bill Ayers, Rashid Khalidi, or Jeremiah Wright.

I was disturbed by the story of Vittorio Arrigoni. (You can read a little about him here.) He was an Italian and a true believer in the pro-Palestinian, anti-Israeli cause. A member of the International Solidarity Movement, he went to Gaza, to aid the struggle. Tattooed on his arm was a guerrilla slogan, in Arabic. This cause was his life.

He died horribly, as people tend to do in Gaza: strangled by a Palestinian group even more extreme than Hamas. Or at least by a group competing with Hamas.

When he lived, Arrigoni maintained that he was doing what his grandfather had done before him: The grandfather had fought the Nazis; Arrigoni would fight the Israelis. That is a belief inculcated in many Europeans: the belief that the Israelis are like the Nazis, and the Palestinians like the Jews under the Third Reich. This fantasy must relieve some European guilt.

In thinking about Arrigoni, and the path he chose, I thought of the atmosphere in Ann Arbor, Mich., when I was growing up there. I heard much of the same stuff. I particularly heard it in the Near Eastern Studies department of the University of Michigan. The Palestinians were innocent victims; the Israelis embodied iniquity. You know the deal.

It was easy to see how one could be led into the cult that Arrigoni later joined — the cult of “Palestinianism,” as some have called it. I felt the tug myself, for a time.