“The strong man with the dagger is followed by the weak man with the sponge” is one of the memorable aphorisms of Lord Acton, the great 19th-century historian. It seems to be part of human nature that assorted ideologues and fanatics and Osama bin Ladens are deranged enough to kill their way to power. The use of the dagger, so to speak, appears to be habitual, ingrained. But essential to their success are the toadies who sponge away the crimes of the strong men by depicting them as national heroes, in plain language telling self-serving lies.
A particularly egregious example is the Romanian Adrian Paunescu. Quite probably, he had talent as a poet. The Communists imprisoned his father, and he seems to have decided that he would escape such a fate by licking their boots. This was also the way to riches and privileges, of which he could not have enough. So he turned himself into an apologist for the megalomaniac Romanian dictator, Nicolae Ceausescu. He poured out pitiful tripe glorifying Ceausescu and his dreadful wife and children. I recall him being driven about in a huge black car in Bucharest, and how ordinary people were enraged by this prostitution of himself and his gifts. Ceausescu was shot when Communism collapsed in 1989, and Paunescu was lucky not to have been put up against the wall too. Now he has died in a hospital bed.
Another man in the public eye who sold out quite as sickeningly is Tariq Aziz. More than anyone else, he tried to sponge away the brutal crimes of Saddam Hussein, thus making himself an accomplice to mass murder. He spoke reasonable English, and he liked to be seen before the cameras dressed in military fatigues and puffing a cigar, the picture of calm insolence. A court in Baghdad has just sentenced him to death by hanging. But Jalal Talabani, the president of Iraq, says that he will not ratify the sentence. He has his reasons, moreover: Christians are now being summarily massacred in Iraq by al-Qaeda, Tariq Aziz is a Christian, and his execution would seem to the terrorists a license to go killing yet more Christians.
So, like Paunescu, Tariq Aziz looks likely to escape his just deserts. What ought to be done to these sponge-wielding apologists for tyranny is really a difficult question, with arguments and counter-arguments that are equally valid. But they exploited their positions and their capabilities to support tyrants responsible for persecuting and killing people, a good number of whom were thrown into unmarked graves. Maybe they acted so vilely only because they were weak, but to be allowed to die tranquilly in bed seems like one more privilege that they really don’t deserve.