There is this tendency in politics for people to become very concerned about the subjective feelings of their opponents. They do not want an enemy or often someone they disagree with to “feel good” or (a weird phrase) “to be emboldened” by having anything good happen to them. This leads to downright anger of something that might briefly make an enemy “feel” better, often rationalized by claiming it’s ‘legitimizing’ someone (what on earth does that mean in any practical sense?) or has some unspecified political ramifications.
The latest examples of this silly rage come from Libya and North Korea. Yesterday Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed Al Megrahi, convicted of being part of the terror attack which brought down a jet airliner over Lockerbie, Scotland in 1989, killing 270 people, was released. He has three months to live, and the judge decided he could go back to Libya and end his life there.
OK, one can disagree with that decision. Should a convicted terrorist who killed hundreds be allowed to die at home, or should he be forced to die in jail? We can debate that, I’m not sure what the right answer is, but the Judge who had the power to make that decision chose to let him go home. Once he arrived he was given a hero’s welcome by his country folk. OK, I would never give the guy a hero’s welcome, but I’m sure some kind of warped nationalism was in play there.
Impotent to do anything about it, President Obama harshly condemns the decision to release the prisoner or treat him like a hero, and family members express anger and shock about the events. Pundits both left and right get on the soap box to stir up emotions attacking this action. Yet it is a meaningless and ridiculous anger.
First, this guy is all but dead anyway. So he gets a bit of a chance to enjoy life at the end by being treated as a hero. That may not be fair, but it’s not really anything of consequence. Libya’s political position has moved so far from the days of the Lockerbie attack that this is irrelevant to the politics of the day. Nothing brings back the 270 dead, and in reality this is by far one of the most meaningless stories of the day in terms of any practical consequence. No matter, it can stoke emotions, and thus the pundits all converge, and the President feels compelled express his outrage. I yawn.
Last week it was President Clinton’s actions to secure the release of two American journalists who strayed over into North Korea. The pundits on Fox were especially angry, saying that somehow this “legitimated” Kim Jong-il, and gave him “undeserved recognition.” In other words, this bad guy Kim Jong-il had a moment of feeling good. The fox pundits didn’t like that.
Kim Jong-il’s policies, plans and nuclear programs are not impacted at all by this. He still has his cases of cognac and beautiful female playthings to occupy his time. (I used playthings rather than playmates because I’m sure to him they are just objects). This has no practical impact on North Korea’s situation, policies, or its leader’s options.
But it did get two women freed who had been condemned to 12 years of hard labor. Fox’s Dick Morris poo-poo’d their release saying they should “face the consequences of their actions.” Oddly, in his haste to condemn his former boss’s work to free the two, he treated as legitimate the idea they were arrested and sent to hard labor for just crossing the border. I guess that is a real example of legitimation of the dictatorship — from the mouth of Dick Morris!
Again, the pundits were all aflutter (this time primarily from the right) about how this was a bad thing for the US, and somehow was a favor to North Korea. It could be a politically driven effort to try to downplay the success of President Clinton, a man the right still loves to hate, but I think they may truly be caught up in the idea that the goal of policy is to make sure your enemies do not get anything that might make them feel good.
The psychology of it is simple, politics is reduced to a morality play of good vs. evil, and experienced on an emotional level. Moreover, it is political spectacle, where image is all. Thus the real good done by freeing two young female journalists is irrelevant — they are neither the enemy, nor are they on the side of the pundits. What matters is that Kim Jong-Il is smiling and might even have nice things said about him. That means evil is feeling good about itself, which can only mean that good (in the minds of these pundits, that means the US) somehow is being denigrated. Policy doesn’t matter and the impact on real world issues is irrelevant, it’s all about how the bad guy feels.
Given how much real support the US has given dictatorial regimes over the years, including helping coup d’etats which more than once replaced democracy with dictatorship, the idea that somehow we should be in a huff over a meaningless symbolic act that might make an enemy feel good is ridiculous and hypocritical. Both of these cases did no practical or real harm to the US, nor did they help North Korea or Libya. The freed terrorist is still less than three months from death.
Caught up in politics as emotion, observers simply enjoy righteous rage as the day’s distraction, or a chance to pontificate, attack those they dislike, and sound strong and tough. These stories are symbolic of how the spectacle of politics helps distract us from thinking about and discussing the important issues of the day. Instead it’s emotion, sport, and meaningless rage.