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Friday, August 26, 2011

Political Psychology: Syrian Human-Rights Abuses

According to the New York Times, “masked gunmen severely beat Syria’s best-known political cartoonist,” Ali Farzat, on August 25, 2011. The attack came days after he had published a cartoon showing Bashar Assad hitching a ride out of town with Qaddafi. To be sure, it seems foolhardy for the cartoonist to have published such a cartoon in Syria unless he meant it as an act of non-violent civil disobedience. If the latter, willingly taking the beating without hitting back would be of such moral fortitude that the injustice of the regime would be made transparent and discredited. How moral strength can overcome physical force is a point on which Gandhi had much faith.

Mr. Farzat suffered two broken fingers on his left hand, a fractured right arm, and a bruised eye. He was thrown out of a car after being beaten severely. The American Embassy in Damascus called the beating “ a government-sponsored, targeted, brutal attack.” A Syrian activist from Homs told a reporter that the beating scared the activists there. “But it’s only a proof of how desperate the regime is. It shows how frightened they are and proves that they are losing control.”  I want to focus on the two words, scared and frightened.

It is easy to understand why the beating would cause Syrian activists to be scared, for similar abuses could be done to them. It is less clear to me that a regime can be frightened. To government officials, dealing with political opposition must surely be part of their jobs. It is difficult for me to believe that individual officials would actually feel the emotion of fear due to protests unless a crowd were outside about to break in and physically attack the government officials. Even a fear of being arrested and sent to the ICC would not be as immediate as the fear of an imminent physical attack. Similarly, it does not follow that gunmen hired by a government official to beat a person would necessarily be angry. Of course, were the gunmen admirers of Assad and felt anger in looking at the cartoon, some of that anger could have been felt in attacking Farzat. However, even such anger would not be on the level of rage that one would expect in carrying out such a beating. So I wonder whether government operations involving beating (which I would argue is a category mistake—beating as a political tactic) are done more matter-of-factly than out of emotion such as activists feel. In other words, activists and others may project emotions that they feel onto people hired by government officials (and those officials themselves, unless directly insulted).

This is not to imply that government policy cannot (or should not) be motivated by emotion. For instance, rather than simply have its embassy link the government to the attack, the U.S. Government could have been motivated to appeal to the U.N. and/or N.A.T.O. to do more to protect civilians such as Mr. Farzat in Syria from the government charged with protecting them. This, after all, was the justification by which the U.N. Security Council passed the resolution permitting member nations to enforce a no-fly-zone in Libya.

In short, we ought to distinguish the psychology of government officials and their hired guns from that of protesters and activists. Doing so will add to our understanding of the actual dynamic that is at play when a regime turns against its own people rather than protects them.


Nada Bakri, “Political Cartoonist Whose Work Skewered Assad Is Brutally Beaten in Syria,” New York Times, August 26, 2011. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/08/26/world/middleeast/26syria.html