We hear about the ferocity of an Alawite regime trying to stave off a resurgent Sunni majority, as if tribal impulses explain what we need to know about the uses of power. We hear about Iranian influence and backing, as if geo-political pressures explain what we need to know about the uses of military force.
For my part, I look at the headline—“121 massacred”—and what jumps out is the number, 121. Of course journalists will use such numbers to try to convey the magnitude of the crime. They would be irresponsible not to. But if democratic imagination begins anywhere, it is in the refusal to leave things there: the refusal to see individual people—the student with a new girlfriend, the mother with an indifferent husband, the grandfather with an unfinished roof—as nothing but a part of a list.
The cold abstraction implied here is where terrorists, tyrants, and sociopaths meet: seeing human beings in terms of categories—nations, tribes, religious communities, sexes—and supposing that to kill another person is to kill one instance of an ominous general case; that to kill a certain other type at random is to lessen the threat against your own type. What we see exposed in Assad’s troops, or suicide bombers in West Jerusalem, or the droppers of phosphorus bombs in Gaza, are the working of totalitarian imaginations. It is nonsense to believe that good ends justify such means. These means will produce despotic ends.
It may seem a distraction from immediate horrors to say this now, but here, in the streets of Hama, we are actually confronted with a stark choice for the ways to build, or rebuild, the region. Yes, different national homes produce justifiable desires to preserve languages and poetries and concepts of the divine. But all of these ultimately yield to personal experience, where justice begins. There are many ways to configure political systems, national boundaries, and federal agreements, but no enduring way that does not keep democracy’s homage to individuality in sight.
“Why did God create man alone?” one Talmudic sage asks. “To teach thee that whosoever destroys a single soul... destroy[s] a complete world; and whosoever preserves a single soul... scripture ascribes [merit] to him as though he had preserved a complete world.” I would like to think that when Jews decide what of our own is to be preserved, this answer would be first.
(Bernard Avishai is the author, most recently, of The Hebrew Republic. He writes for numerous magazines, including Harper’s, The New Yorker, and The New York Times Magazine. He teaches business at the Hebrew University and blogs at TPM Café and Bernard Avishai Dot Com. He can be reached at: email@example.com)