April 5, 2005 | Wall Street Journal (Opinion Journal and European Edition)

‘The Truth’: A Simple Demand From the Lebanese and Oppressed People Everywhere

A friend was wondering the other day what frontiers are left to explore, now that scientists have pretty much mapped the planet. The answer, I'd suggest, lies less in the stars than along the frontiers of human freedom–which over the past few decades have been edging out dictatorships from Asia to Latin America to Eastern Europe. Today, sped along by President's Bush's bold move two years ago to break the despotic gridlock of the Middle East by overthrowing Saddam Hussein, that same push for freedom has arrived at the region's palace gates.

Though Saddam has been the only Middle Eastern tyrant so far to fall, there is no question that in the politics of that region a shift is under way. It seems that even in a part of the world the West has long written off as the turf of dictators, oil and not much more, people want freedom. The removal of Saddam is reverberating far beyond Iraq. In recent months the message has become ever clearer, from the astounding election turnout in Iraq, to the demonstrations for democracy in Lebanon, to dissidents raising their voices in Syria, to public demands for pluralism in Egypt–as well as the continuing democratic foment in Iran.

In all this, no where has the clamor for liberty and accountable government been more acute than in Lebanon, a nation that during the last century boasted democratic institutions before there were mutilated by war, then smothered by Syria's occupying forces. And in recent weeks, in their struggle for freedom, the Lebanese people have voiced a vital demand, one that deserves far more attention than even the considerable amount it has already received. They have been telling it in English to the world press, and writing it in Arabic in white-and-black signs across their country, on walls, billboards and banners.

They are demanding, simply: “The Truth.”

Why is this so important? Because the truth–however problematic or undiplomatic–is one of the most effective and underused weapons in the arsenal of democracy. The U.S. State Department, or for that matter the folks at the Quai D'Orsay, the Russian Foreign Ministry and the United Nations, could do worse than to procure and post on their own office walls some of those Lebanese signs that demand “The Truth.”

It bears noting under despotic regimes anywhere, the most common reason for which democratic dissidents are jailed is simply that they have dared to tell the truth. Tyrants depend on fictions, on the lies that all their subjects support them, that they have a legitimate monopoly on power and that what they do is for the best. When that facade cracks, there is an opportunity for genuine liberation.

In Lebanon's case–as widely reported over the past few weeks– the Lebanese want most immediately the truth about who was behind the assassination of a former Lebanese prime minister, Rafik Hariri, killed by a huge bomb in Beirut on Feb. 14. But that murder-mystery is linked to a much broader picture. Most Lebanese believe the culprit was the totalitarian regime of neighboring Syria, which for more than a generation, under the false banner of “stability,” has gotten away with occupying and brutalizing Lebanon. With Hariri's murder, the Lebanese decided they had had enough of threats and cover-ups and lies. Their demand for the truth about Hariri's killers swelled last month into the biggest democratic uprising in the history of the modern Middle East, in which some one million Lebanese staged a protest last month in downtown Beirut to demand that Syrian forces leave their country, and make room for freedom–and truth.

Last month, I was privileged to witness that event. The editor of the New York Sun, Seth Lipsky, asked me to go do some reporting in Lebanon for his newspaper. And though this was a Lebanese story, in watching the flags of the demonstrators, and listening to their demand, over and over, for the truth, I found myself remembering a very different place, where years before I had heard much the same demand.

The place was China, and the time was the spring of 1989, when for a few weeks massive protests broke out, and demonstrators converged by the millions on Tiananmen Square. There has been plenty of debate since then over what, exactly, they wanted. But of this I am sure: After decades of official communist lies, and frightened public silence or forced parroting of absurd fictions, they wanted the truth. They wanted to speak the truth about their despotic government–without fear of punishment. They asked the correspondents who were there to report the truth–that the Chinese did not love marching to the tune of tyranny; that they wanted freedom. In the early hours of June 4, Chinese protesters facing the guns of their country's own army begged reporters to tell the world the truth about China.

There are plenty of differences between Beijing then and Beirut today, not least that the currents of U.S. policy, world politics and the information age are all running broadly in the direction of freer polities. In the Middle East, especially if the U.S., European Union and United Nations sustain their pressure on Syria, not only the Lebanese but perhaps even the Syrian people stand a chance of wresting basic liberties from the Baathist regime in Damascus. But somewhere in this is a reminder that one of the most important things the free world can do for those still living under tyrants, is to simply to tell the truth about the situation.

– Ms. Rosett is a journalist-in-residence with the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. Her column appears here and in The Wall Street Journal Europe on alternate Wednesdays.



Lebanon Syria