Fighting Words

American Inaction Favors Qaddafi

The administration’s inadequate response to the crisis in Libya reveals a lack of courage and principle.

Read more of Slate’s coverage of the Libya conflict.

Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi

Our common speech contains numberless verbs with which to describe the infliction of violence or cruelty or brutality on others. It only really contains one common verb that describes the effect of violence or cruelty or brutality on those who, rather than suffering from it, inflict it. That verb is the verb to brutalize. A slaveholder visits servitude on his slaves, lashes them, degrades them, exploits them, and maltreats them. In the process, he himself becomes brutalized. This is a simple distinction to understand and an easy one to observe. In the recent past, idle usage has threatened to erode it. Last week was an especially bad one for those who think the difference worth preserving.

Dissenting from the Supreme Court majority that had upheld the First Amendment rights of the ghoulish Westboro Baptist Church, Justice Samuel Alito opined that in order to have vigorous public expression, “it is not necessary to allow the brutalization of innocent victims.” And on Saturday the New York Times ran a front-page headline over a report from Tripoli: “Qaddafi Brutalizes Foes, Armed or Defenseless.”

Alito’s hold on English is pitifully weak at the best of times, and his formulation could be construed as meaning that those whose feelings had been outraged were subject to the equivalent of blunt physical force. The Times did not commit this error, and at least preserved some of the relationship between the word and its origins. But of course the result was a half-baked euphemism. Col. Muammar Qaddafi’s conduct is far worse than merely brutal—it is homicidal and sadistic and megalomaniac (“firing on unarmed protesters in front of international news media” was cited in the first paragraph) and even if a headline can’t convey all that, it can at least try to capture some of it. Observe, then, what happens when the term is misapplied. The error first robs the language of a useful expression and then ends up by gravely understating the revolting reality it seeks to describe.

The other possible meaning of the verb to brutalize is that you may succeed, at length, in making others into brutes. Russian serfdom was sometimes depicted in this way, as a cruel system that had the effect of reducing humans to the status of beasts. Again, that cannot conceivably be the intention in either of the above cases. It is important, then, to hang on to the original intent (take note, Justice Alito) of the expression and to the more accurate and discriminating choice of language it permits us.

Far from being brutalized by four decades of domination by a theatrical madman, the Libyan people appear fairly determined not to sink to his level and to be done with him and his horrible kin. They also seem, at the time of writing, to want this achievement to represent their own unaided effort. Admirable as this is, it doesn’t excuse us from responsibility. The wealth that Qaddafi is squandering is the by-product of decades of collusion with foreign contractors. The weapons that he is employing against civilians were not made in Libya; they were sold to him by sophisticated nations. Other kinds of weaponry have been deployed by Qaddafi in the past against civil aviation and to supply a panoply of nihilistic groups as far away as Ireland and the Philippines. This, too, gives us a different kind of stake in the outcome. Even if Qaddafi basked in the unanimous adoration of his people, he would not be entitled to the export of violence. Moreover, his indiscriminate barbarism, and the effect of its subsequent refugee crisis on neighboring countries such as Egypt and Tunisia, ipso facto constitutes an intervention in the internal affairs of others and a threat to peace in the region. In arguing that he no longer possesses legal sovereignty over “his” country, and that he should relinquish such power as remains to him, we are almost spoiled for choice as to legal and moral pretexts.

And yet there is a palpable reluctance, especially on the part of the Obama administration, to look these things in the face. Even after decades of enmity with this evil creep, our military and intelligence services turn out not even to have had a contingency plan. So it seems we must improvise. But does one have to go over all the arguments again, as if Rwanda and Bosnia and Kurdistan had never happened? It seems, especially when faced with the adamancy for drift and the resolve to be irresolute of Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, that one does. Very well, then. Doing nothing is not the absence of a policy; it is, in fact, the adoption of one. “Neutrality” favors the side with the biggest arsenal. “Nonintervention” is a form of interference. If you will the end—and President Barack Obama has finally said that Qaddafi should indeed go—then to that extent you will the means.

Libya is a country with barely 6 million inhabitants. By any computation, however cold and actuarial, the regime of its present dictator cannot possibly last very much longer. As a matter of pure realism, the post-Qaddafi epoch is upon us whether we choose to welcome the fact or not. The immediate task is therefore to limit the amount of damage Qaddafi can do and sharply minimize the number of people he can murder. Whatever the character of the successor system turns out to be, it can hardly be worsened if we show it positive signs of friendship and solidarity. But the pilots of Qaddafi’s own air force, who flew their planes to Malta rather than let themselves be used against civilians, have demonstrated more courage and principle than the entire U.S. Sixth Fleet.

There’s another consequence to our continuing passivity. I am sure I am not alone in feeling rather queasy about being forced to watch the fires in Tripoli and Benghazi as if I were an impotent spectator. Indifference of this kind to the lives of others can have a coarsening effect. It can lower one’s threshold of sympathy. If protracted unduly, it might even become brutalizing.