by Rod D. Martin
February 4, 2005
It has been almost exactly seventy years since Leni Riefenstahl directed what is still the singular masterpiece of documentary and propaganda filmmaking, Triumph of the Will. Her film glorified Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party at the beginning of their run, at a time when many the world over were speaking hopefully of the “new German renaissance,” and helped convince both Germany and much of the globe that the new world order was and ought to be totalitarian.
There’s something about that number seventy. In the Bible it can signify perfection or completion, and it represents the number of years the Jews lived in Babylonian captivity; in our time, it is the approximate number of years allotted to the evil reign of the Soviet Empire, from the October Revolution to the fall of the Berlin Wall.
And it is more than slightly fitting that seventy is also the number of years from the release of Triumph of the Will not just to Leni Riefenstahl’s death, but to the fall of Saddam Hussein.
At his height, Saddam had the world’s fourth-largest army, which he used in two aggressive wars of conquest against his neighbors. He idolized Josef Stalin, and though his Ba’ath Party was in many ways indistinguishable from Hitler’s Nazis, Saddam took great personal inspiration from the dead Soviet leader, right down to his mustache. From his statues to his Republican Guard to his countless palaces and secret police, Saddam Hussein personified the 1930s Social Darwinism, its faith in the organizing principle of the Führer-state (or the dictatorship of the proletariat, depending on which sort of leftist you prefer) and its certainty that an industrialized “scientific” “ordered” world was sweeping Western ideals of liberty away.
Sunday, the Saddam-state collapsed as finally as the thousand-year Reich.
As an overwhelming majority of Iraqis voted, braving the Ba’ath Party/al Qaeda alliance’s worst – death threats, car bombings, beheadings and worse – they showed with millions of indelibly-inked fingers marking them for reprisal what dictators from Romania to the Philippines learned as the 20th century closed: that given time and opportunity, the people’s will for freedom trumps the dictator’s will to enslave.
Michael Moore may have marveled, but the scene of a dead American sergeant’s mother embracing (and giving her son’s dog tags to) an Iraqi women’s leader during President Bush’s State of the Union was entirely to be expected. Of course the mayor of Baghdad emoted that a statue of our President should go up on the site of Saddam’s toppled one; of course countless Iraqis told reporters that Saddam had been the occupier, that the Americans – whatever their flaws – were the liberators. And of course those same Iraqis showed no fear.
Just as the Russians who gathered around Boris Yeltsin as he stood on the tank, just like the Chinese who stood defenseless in the path of the tanks in Tiananmen Square, or the Philippinos who did likewise in 1986, or the Ukrainians who stood up this December to the unfolding quasi-Communist coup, Iraqi men and women “yearned to breathe free.” It did not and it does not matter that they are Muslims. It does not matter that they are Arabs. It does not matter that they aren’t western, aren’t rich, aren’t us.
It only matters that they are human. And that someone gives them a chance.
George W. Bush, in the footsteps of Reagan, has given them that chance. The American left, still infatuated with the 20th century’s discredited statist nightmare, would gladly have left them slaves; and they indeed predicted servile cowardice among the people, while likening the terrorists to George Washington (someone should ask Moore if he thinks Washington would have joined Zarqawi in sending a Down’s Syndrome victim to blow up civilian voters as a suicide bomber). But the Iraqi people proved Bush right. And in so doing, they not only set an example for the entire Middle East like that of East Germany to Eastern Europe in 1989: they also demonstrated one more time that the totalitarian experiment has failed, and that freedom is and ought to be the future’s way.
That particular charity starts at home: the President’s state of the union this same week focused as much on “the Culture of Life” and the “Ownership Society” (in this case, the right of an individual to control their own retirement savings through Social Security) as on foreign affairs. The work of freedom is never done, anywhere; and the 20th century left much harmful baggage here at home too, from a government grown too arbitrary and too confiscatory, to a Supreme Court and millions of citizens willing to discard millions more innocent lives, eviscerating the very idea of “unalienable rights”.
But while it may begin here it certainly does not so end. The vital insight of Bush’s speech, borrowed from the brilliant and long-imprisoned Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky, is this: free societies do not go to war with each other, unfree “fear societies” are forever on the march. So long as tyranny exists anywhere, freedom – and every person, free or otherwise – are endangered everywhere. In an age of global terror groups and suitcase nukes, that danger is no longer acceptable. And as tyranny shrinks, that danger will too.
It is entirely appropriate that America should so stand. We are a very different nation from that which Washington addressed, three million souls huddled against the eastern seaboard, surrounded on all sides by covetous powerful empires. Then, the American Revolution stood on shaky ground; today its unalienable rights are the defining hope of all the world’s people, too frequently their leaders not withstanding.
America is indeed a city on a hill, the great beacon of liberty, in a world where “modern” and “pre-modern” increasingly mean “peaceful” and “threatening”. The time has come to subdue the countryside’s brigands and spread freedom beyond our walls. Like settling the west, this has become our destiny; and in a century’s time, none will doubt that it was humanity’s finest hour.