This year’s fundraiser for Canadian Journalists for Free Expression in Toronto last week had a nice, raw quality for a change. The main speaker was Lieutenant-General Roméo Dallaire, clearly still working through the savage, futile experience of commanding United Nations troops in Rwanda during the genocide. He spoke forcefully, like a general, as Anne Collins, the editor of his new book, put it. He said governments are no longer the main players on human rights, non-governmental organizations have replaced them. Agree or not, it’s a provocative idea. He added that after being refused more troops, he brought in journalists instead, in a desperate effort to save lives. His plan was to recruit and use them, he stated frankly.

Then, Stephan Hachemi, son of photojournalist Zahra Kazemi, murdered by Iranian security forces, accepted an award for his mother. He underdressed in a T-shirt. He was terse, he restated his “demands,” he sounded angry. He said he knew editors were present so he upbraided them for reporting that Iranian Nobel Peace Prize winner and lawyer, Shirin Ebadi, represents his family. She represents his grandmother, he grumbled, that’s all. The papers had it wrong. There was naiveté, rage and honesty in him, I thought, and it felt like an honour to be in such an unfeigned presence.

Peter Mansbridge hosted the evening and ended it, as these events often are ended, by noting how lucky we are to live where we are free to report what we see and opine as we think, without being threatened or killed (with exceptions: Zahra Kazemi’s award is named after Tara Singh Hayer, a Sikh editor murdered in B.C. in 1998). What Peter Mansbridge said was not smug, nor inaccurate. So I left wondering what about it bothered me.

I think it’s this: His words suggested an essential separation between our reality and theirs, over in those repressive places. As if it is mainly a sense of gratitude and benevolence that leads us to offer our aid. I don’t think that picture is accurate, not in a world where everything is connected to everything.

Let me try and specify this, taking Iran as an example. In the early 1950s, Iran was a genuine democracy with a moderate, nationalist leader. The United States decided his policies undermined its oil and security interests, so it staged a coup, which put the Shah on his peacock throne for almost three decades, during which the United States aided his brutal security force, SAVAK. None of this is denied by anyone. That set the stage for his overthrow, and the repressive, angry regime that replaced him. Even so, the democratic strain in Iran continues to persist, more than in most of the region. So we are involved in their repression and travail, and to some extent our wealth and the space for our own liberties were bought by those involvements.

There are many examples. The Taliban were direct successors to fundamentalists nurtured by the United States in its fight with Soviet communism.

The United States enthusiastically supported Saddam Hussein in the 1980s (against Iran) and even propped him up during the 1990s, after the Gulf war.

Please: I am not saying the United States or the West is responsible for these regimes. Each society bears the guilt for its own deeds. But no one stands alone in an interconnected world. We are implicated there, as they are here. Everyone is compromised, everyone can (and should) learn from and help out everyone else. There are no one-way relationships.

This is true in practice, too. Take U.S. plans to bestow democracy on Iraq.

The New York Times describes a U.S. colonel “walking” a local council “through democratic bedrocks” like secret votes and open meetings. But when the council began to discuss firing the police chief, the colonel “quickly drew the line” and “confirmed” the chief for six months because “we need him.”

I’d argue that that kind of democratic double standard abroad has a bad effect on Americans’ own sense of democracy and undermines it at home, where they still have some improvements to make. Even brutal Guatemala will hold a runoff election for president next month because a true majority is required to win there, something the United States — and Canada — don’t yet demand.

Okay. What about good and evil then; surely they are utterly separate. Well, Doug Saunders wrote on evil in The Globe and Mail last week. He said September 11 was a “simpler form of evil” than most because Osama bin Laden and the Taliban “really did have evil intentions.” Not by their own account. Osama and the Taliban believed they were doing good and destroying evil. How do you handle that, once you buy the categories? The whole trouble with good-evil scenarios is that both sides always claim to be good. The most you can say is that each needs the other to represent evil in order to view itself as good. It’s all about connectedness, reflection and mutual need.


Rick Salutin

Rick Salutin is a Canadian novelist, playwright and critic. He is a strong advocate of left wing causes and writes a regular column in the Toronto Star.