Thursday, February 24, 2005

The Other Lesson of 1989

There's been a lot of talk comparing popular anti-Syrian protests in Lebanon to the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Over by the Martyr's Monument, Lebanese students have built a little tent city and are vowing to stay until Syria's 15,000 troops withdraw. They talk like characters in "Les Miserables," but their revolutionary bravado is the sort of force that can change history. "We have nothing to lose anymore. We want freedom
or death," says Indra Hage, a young Lebanese Christian.
I guess the lesson of the Berlin Wall is that "people power" can defy the will of an exhausted dictatorship and change the life of a nation. I remember the watching the Wall come down. It was wonderful and I think the world has taken the lesson to heart.

Before we get carried away I'd like to remind everyone of another lesson from another event in 1989, Tiananmen Square. I was a college student at the time and seeing other college students, people more or less like me and my friends, stand up to the Communist Autocrats moved me. I remember watching the footage on cable tv: thousands of young people together day and night in an atmosphere of hope that combined protest, street festival and study session. I can still see the handmade Goddess of Liberty rising over the crowd.

Then it all came to a horrible end. Seeing the massacre unfold, essentially live on tv from the house I shared with my roommates, left a lasting impression on me. I learned a valuable lesson: people can always be shot and the survivors shipped to labor camps; if you hit the young idealists hard enough they will limp home to nurse their wounds and mourn their dead but they won't cause trouble; as long as the army remains loyal no protest, no matter how popular, can bring down a dictatorship; there is always a military solution.

The young Lebanese idealists may yet force the Syrians out. They may even sound impressive in the Western media. "We're going to stay here, even if soldiers attack us," says Hadi Abi Almouna, a Druze Muslim. "Freedom needs sacrifices, and we are ready to give them." But everyone should remember Tiananmen. The Syrians haven't left Lebanon yet. Nothing has changed on the ground. The Syrian military could still mow down a few thousand students and protesters, 'disappear' others and send the rest into exile. The world would bitch and whine but is anyone going to do anything about it? No. We would mourn the dead and have memorials and get on with our lives.

The lessons of Tiananmen are especially applicable to Arab dictatorships and shouldn't be forgotten.
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