The afternoon of Oct. 20 was not too different than any other Friday in my admittedly juvenile Harvard career. I woke up rather late, checked the news, learned of the death of Muammar Gaddafi, went to class, and then settled down in the Canaday common room until crew practice. During the interim between class and practice, however, I realized that one of the events in my day had had a significant impact on someone I interact with on a daily basis.
It is not particularly difficult to guess that the death of the Libyan autocrat was the salient event. The MSNBC broadcast in the common room evoked the most emotion from the man who takes care of my entryway’s maintenance—a man who is not from Libya, but from Haiti.
Americans are generally pleased with the ousting of Gaddafi from his brutal rule on the Barbary Coast. Granted, there are those who question the potential human rights abuse if Gaddafi was indeed executed. There are also those who question the legality and the rationality of investing time and money into a civil war in Libya—without Congressional approval—that yields few ostensible benefits for citizens of the United States.
This is one of the tragedies of a world inhabited by seven billion people. We tend to feel dissociated by events that do not affect us. Watching the video of the Libyan ruler’s death is like watching a film: Of course we connect with the plot, which is meant to evoke strong opinions or emotions. Most of us have walked out of the cinema with critiques of the character’s actions and opinions on what would have been the optimal course to take.
My Haitian friend proves that life does not always have to be this way. He compared the plight of Libyans under Gaddafi to life for him, his family, and his friends in Latin America under the dictatorship of Duvalier. He related stories of how his friends would make anti-government statements and disappear the next day. In America, such a situation is impossible to imagine. Think about all of those who disagree with Obama’s policies or those who were critical of Bush before that. Under the situation previously described, the country’s population would soon be cut in half.
It is easy for Americans to be happy for the Libyan people. We value democracy while we abhor dictatorships and the absence of civil liberties. However, we cannot actually relate to the Libyan people. We cannot understand their buildup of emotion. The Haitian maintenance worker elatedly explained to me how he wished he could be in Misrata, rejoicing alongside his Libyan brothers. From his viewpoint, Libyans and Haitians are one and the same. A free Libya can now reach the same heights achieved by a free Haiti after escaping the Baby Doc brutality into the friendly confines of the United States.
Much remains to be seen about the ultimate outcome of the Libyan experience. Al-Qaeda planted its flag on the Benghazi courthouse, and it will be difficult for the West to accept that an Islamist-led Libya will ultimately be preferable to a Libya run by a patrimonial dictator. We can certainly believe that the Gaddafi regime was preferable to the interests of the American people than a regime helmed by the ideology of radical Islam. The West spent the last several decades taming Libya’s “Brotherly leader.” Gaddafi relinquished his nuclear weapons and atoned for the Lockerbie bombing. To some extent, he became an ally of the Bush administration in the War on Terror. One would be remiss if one were not at least slightly skeptical as to the future of the government. The West may have performed an act inherently detrimental to its own interests.
Our gut reactions and analyses have foundations in what we have been taught. However, we actually cannot know. We cannot relate. No matter how many tweets we read that end in #libya, we cannot tangibly understand the thoughts of Libyan citizens. We can merely infer, just as we try to determine the motives of characters or predict a story’s conclusion. While some American citizens are experts on or are more aware of the conditions in the Middle East, the rest of us—the majority of us—have to guess.
Following international relations is an enjoyable pastime. Pundits make their living by relating the happenings abroad to opportunities back home. However, after making a new friend last Friday, I now understand that no amount of research will expose me to the colossus that just occurred. The only solution is to live life to the fullest and hopefully accumulate as many experiences as possible. The more we do, the more with which we can relate. Such a lifestyle would make the world easier to understand.
John F. M. Kocsis ’15, a Crimson editorial comper, lives in Canaday Hall.