Where the political shockwave inspired by Tunisia's democratic rebellion will lead we don't yet know. We do know what set Tunisia's revolt in motion: the end of Arab fear. When an oppressed people snap fear's psychological bonds, they shatter the tyrant's most potent weapon.
Muammar Qaddafi's attack against rebels in eastern Libya is an attempt to resuscitate that terrible legacy. Dictators around the world, and their fans, understand that Qaddafi's success is their success.
Dictators have fans. Vogue magazine's latest issue provides a repugnant—and ludicrous—example of petty media kowtowing to murder and secret police surveillance. Vogue features the wife of Syria's dictator, Asma al-Assad. The fashion mag's pro-manacle propagandists describe the tyrant's moll as "glamorous, young, and very chic—the freshest and most magnetic of first ladies." Why, Asma "is on a mission . . . to put a modern face on her husband's regime."
Heaven knows Bashar al-Assad's Syrian prison state needs a face-lift or head transplant. Assad's Alawite minority has perfected divide, kill, and control techniques worthy of North Korea's Kim Il-Sung and Romania's Nicolae Ceausescu.
A Qaddafi victory sends a message that will help keep Asma al-Assad exquisitely dressed: repression works. The strategic implication will please her hubby: It could spell the end of 2011's astonishing democratic surge throughout the world.
This is tragic. Let me put a human face on the tragedy. Thirty years ago I attended school in Germany, and among my friends was a brilliant Arab man. Oh, the friendship took awhile. The first two months he came on hard with the Arab anger and Muslim militant act. He claimed he hated Americans. He filled his diatribes with propaganda buzzwords like imperialist and colonialism. However, he also liked jazz. When I played blues and bop on the piano he'd hang around. Not exactly your hard-core Muslim militant profile.
One afternoon, I was sitting on the piano bench and here he came. He had delivered a particularly voluble anti-American rant earlier in the day. Instead of entertaining him, I told him he'd reached the end of agitprop Easy Street. It was time to put up or shut up. If he hated Americans, well, I'm a Texan. So go for it, if you've got the guts. My militant theatrics puzzled him for the better part of a day, but he'd seen a few John Wayne movies. Once he figured out I intended to play Texas cowboy to his angry Arab, it amused him immensely.
Eventually serious conversation revealed the harsh facts I suspected: The tyranny running his country had threatened members of his family. Everyone lived in his country as he did—in fear—and constant fear is not living.
One August afternoon, my friend and I were sitting in a German cafe (quaint side street, great light) and he finally broke. "How do you do it?" he asked me, meaning: "How does America succeed in so many ways?" I told him his real question was why nations like his had such difficulty altering their hideous conditions—it's complicated, but autocrats fear giving their people choices. So,
"First, you have to off your autocrats," I told him. "But we can't do this," he said. "Then, until you do, you will continue to eat dust," I replied.
I remember the deep anguish in his brown eyes. He knew I'd put the truth out there, unvarnished.
There is a universal hunger for liberty. My friend attested to that hunger. At the time, I thought his occasional bouts of "Sunni militancy" were a response to the particulars of the dictatorship that held a gun to his head. Now I realize he was wrestling with the challenges of personal and cultural identity in a world where there is no "over there" in terms of information that shows creative men like him that political alternatives exist.
Technology has compressed the planet. With the Internet, all gossip is local. Jet travel means everyone lives within a two-day trip of everyone else.
The Tunisians knocked the gun away and the dictator ran. I hope the angry Arab and the Texas cowboy will meet again—over a cup of tea in free Damascus.
Austin Bay is an author and syndicated columnist. His latest book, Ataturk: The Extraordinary Life and Achievements of the Greatest General of the Ottoman Empire (Palgrave MacMillan), will be published in August.