There's a lot of enthusiasm building in Washington for the "winds of change" blowing through the Middle East. We have seen the durable regime of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt toppled in recent days. Gaddafi seems to be toppling in Libya. The long-time ruler of Tunisia was ousted in December, having ruled that North African country for twenty-three years.
For most of us, only when he was given the boot did we learn the name of Tunisia's President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Prior to 2010, he would probably have stumped even Ken Jennings on Jeopardy. So what did Ben Ali the former world statesman actually do in Tunisia all those years? TV in Tunis has given us this picture:
Ben Ali hid his treasures behind curtains, paintings and book shelves in the palace library, according to a video broadcast by state television, which showed millions of U.S. dollars and euros, diamonds and gold found in the palace in the Carthage district near the capital Tunis.
His Excellency did manage to skip town to Saudi Arabia. Doubtless he held on to his Tunis Express Card ("Don't leave home without it"). That card's magnetic strip and personal identification number will allow Ben Ali to access his hoarded millions in that most respected Geneva banking establishment -- The Deposed Despots House of Deposit.
Now, we are told, democracy is on the rise in the Middle East. It was fashionable some years ago to say that doubting the prospects for democracy in the Middle East was an example of "the soft bigotry of low expectations." So let us state, for the record, that no racial or ethnic group is incapable of democracy or unworthy of liberty. That doesn't mean the Middle East is going to be free anytime soon.
Let's start with religious liberty. Twenty years ago, Rothman and Lichter did a seminal study of the media elites. They found that more than 90% of top journalists never attend a religious service of any kind. As CNN's Bill Schneider acknowledged, the media doesn't "get religion."
So, if religion is not important to them, does that mean journalists cannot understand its importance to others? It shouldn't. Harvard's great scholar Perry Miller understood the Puritans better, perhaps, than any professor at any American university. But Miller himself was an atheist.
Still, the democracy boosters seem blissfully unaware that 84% of Egyptians say anyone who departs from Islam should be killed. This is a killer stat. It means, bluntly, that Egyptians are not going to see political liberty any time soon. And there is a real danger they will come under the sway of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Democracy is not just a matter of voting and showing off purple fingers. Respect for religious differences must come before anyone can accept the right of a neighbor to hold different opinions on political and social matters.
Democracy requires not only religious liberty, but representative institutions, a vibrant civil society, respect for property rights, the rule of law, and a free and open press. The Middle East has no history of these building blocks of democracy.
There are other cultural practices that bode ill for democracy. Take a closer look at those rebels who are being likened to the embattled farmers at Concord Bridge. They all are firing their rifles and pistols into the air. The bullets from those rifles can rise, perhaps, a mile into the sky.
All of those bullets will return to earth. Their speed upon impact will be the same as they were as they left the muzzles of those guns. Or, they may hit the men, women, or children unlucky enough to get in their way.
This practice is justly described as "a depraved indifference to human life." It speaks to a profound cultural problem in the Middle East. We have a legal doctrine in the West that speaks to this repugnant and barbaric practice:
To constitute depraved indifference, the defendant's conduct must be 'so wanton, so deficient in a moral sense of concern, so lacking in regard for the life or lives of others, and so blameworthy as to warrant the same criminal liability as that which the law imposes upon a person who intentionally causes a crime. Depraved indifference focuses on the risk created by the defendant's conduct, not the injuries actually resulting.
It will not do to say all this will come in time, provided that they get to vote, showing off their famous purple fingers. Edmund Burke said it well: "Men of intemperate minds cannot be free; their passions forge their fetters." There's a reason no state in the Middle East--except Israel -- has been free thus far.