The slaughter of innocents and the moral burden

The slaughter of innocents and the moral burden
Comment: The murder of Egyptian Copts in Libya is a heinous crime that cannot be justified by pointing to the crimes of Egypt's rulers.
6 min read
24 Feb, 2015
The massacre of Egyptian Copts has prompted widespread mourning [Emad Hajjaj]

One does not need a fertile imagination to imagine the extent of misery that forces breadwinners to leave their country to try and eke out a living in far-away Libya - even in the dire circumstances currently prevailing there.

Much harder to imagine, however, is what might motivate those who not only slaughtered them with such brutality, but even boasted of the massacre by filming it.

The history of Arab regimes is littered with unfilmed instances of the torture and slaughter of their opponents. At the start of the Syrian revolution, we saw crude footage taken with mobile phones of atrocities perpetrated by regime forces.

We saw helpless people being beaten, insulted, even stomped on with boots, all to terrorise and intimidate dissidents - by filming what lay in store for any supporters of the opposition who fell into the hands of the regime.

Condemning the violence perpetrated by the regime does not require us to take into account the behaviour of the opposition. Nothing in this world can justify such violence - physical or psychological. Such would be the moral judgment of any healthy society and any credible political force opposed to tyranny.

The reaction to the slaughter of the 21 Egyptian workers in Libya should be along the same lines, because they were first and foremost fellow human beings.

A pure moral condemnation is based not on "the sanctity of Egyptian blood" but on the sanctity of human life itself; there is no scope there to check the victims' religious, ethnic or other affiliations.

The regime in Egypt is criminal and has engaged in mass murder. Beyond that, leaked recordings have also exposed the folly of leaders who fancy themselves as smart scamsters in a boastful, macho manner often found in the world of military officers.

     To mention the regime's crimes in the context of condemning the slaughter carries hints of justifying the killing.

But to mention the regime's crimes in the context of condemning the slaughter carries hints of justifying the killing, and of attenuating the absoluteness and clarity of a condemnation that should always lack the word "but".

Some who have reservations about absolute condemnation claim that the elucidation that follows "but" is to explain, not to justify. But there is a thin line between the two - a line that politicians blur when they become argumentative analysts, even as blood splatters our television screens.

Hiding behind IS

Since some insist on analysing, then we must analyse too.

First, the vices of the current Arab regimes and counter-revolutions are being covered up by the war on the Islamic State group, which has become a new-found raison d'etre for the regimes.

If anything, this makes IS crimes more heinous, not less.

Second, there is no relation between the self-documented slaughter of innocent people and the nature of the ruling regime in Egypt or the situation in Libya. IS has engaged in the same acts in many other places under different circumstances, in Iraq and Syria.

     The vices of the Arab regimes are being covered up by the war on the Islamic State group.

And IS declares this of its own accord when it speaks of murdering "the worshippers of the cross"- an unIslamic term for Christians, the native inhabitants of the land that early Islam, which the extremists supposedly revere, dealt with as believers and People of the Book.

IS has not hesitated to kill Muslims from different denominations, either; even Salafis have not been spared from its daggers and bombs in Syria. So how does this relate to the regime in Egypt?

It is crucial to use our intellects to understand the emergence of IS following the occupation of Iraq and the ugly marriage between the US forces and the sectarian regime there.

And we can also conclude, through analysis, that the Arab situation is responsible for driving youths on the margins of their communities to join the group. We can also blame the counter-revolution in Egypt for driving middle-class youths who witnessed the coup and the repression of the Sisi regime, or moderate Islamists who experienced democracy only to see a coup against it, into the open arms of IS.

This is all possible, plausible, even necessary analysis. Yet it has nothing to do with having an absolute moral position  vis-à-vis the slaughter of innocents.

In the past, Arab revolutionary forces tolerated such acts, until the day came when they themselves became the victims. I remember, at the start of the Syrian revolution, how the rebels denied atrocities had taken place, instead of denouncing them and bearing the burden of taking a moral position.

Some would attribute the atrocities only to the regime's intelligence services, instead of firmly opposing the phenomenon based on a moral position against all forms of authoritarianism, and an awareness of the latter's roots in the ideology of some in the opposition and of their undemocratic tendencies.

Cairo's neglect

The head of the interim Libyan government is treading the same catastrophic path when he avoids unequivocal condemnation, claiming that the video showing the killing of the Egyptian workers was fabricated, believing this would undermine the Egyptian regime's pretexts for attacking his country.

Indeed, the true democratic position that proves one's eligibility to oppose tyranny would be to condemn the slaughter without hesitation and oppose Egyptian intervention at the same time.

To be sure, the slaughter does not justify Egyptian bombardment of populated Libyan areas, and there are indications that Cairo's intentions in Libya predate the massacre.

The official Egyptian neglect of the fate of these workers after they were abducted does not absolve the killers of responsibility either, it doubles their guilt. The fact that the regime did not care about their fate confirms that they were poor and destitute. It proves they were of no significance to the regime and that killing them would not have harmed the ruling classes in any way.

While the murder of two Western journalists prompted 26 nations to form a coalition to fight IS, the murder of 21 Egyptian workers barely convinced media crews to visit their families in poor villages in Upper Egypt. It barely prompted leaders to offer their condolences.

Families of Egyptian Copts slain in Libya recount their torment: Read Farid Farid's account of meeting the families here

And then there is IS' practice of filming its atrocities, how it has turned the aesthetics of cinematography into sheer grotesqueness.

This is not new or even impressive. It is reminiscent of the fascist cinematography of the 1930s - with one difference perhaps being the fact that the Nazis manufactured their own cameras and weapons.

With martial music playing in the background, the Nazis aggrandised themselves and debased their victims in films that documented their crimes, decades before the proliferation of television sets.

There is nothing new about deploying special effects and appalling aesthetics to manipulate basic human instincts. Hollywood has itself adopted some of the film techniques used by totalitarian regimes, and vice versa.

What is new is that the murder itself is sometimes overlooked, as people become drawn into a discussion of  the imported equipment used in producing the murder scenes. I saw from the clip only what the news bulletins forced us to see; as for the rest, I refuse to watch it or help promote it.

This is an edited translation from our Arabic edition.