'A Monstrous, Ramshackle, Stinking Machine'

In an odd cosmic juxtaposition, Vaclav Havel and Kim Jong Il died at nearly the same time. They bounded the opposite ends of 20th Century moral and political thought: a soaring belief in the power of morality and intellect on one end vs. the degradation of the human spirit that comes with the degradation of economic and social norms on the other.  The possibility of social, economic and political progress for all people vs. the reality of the slow, grinding poverty and starvation of one's own people accompanied by the threat of nuclear annihilation for others.  An international conscience and an international pariah.  

The life of one reproached the life of the other.

On his first day in office, Havel called communism "a monstrous, ramshackle, stinking machine" whose worst legacy was a "spoiled moral environment."  He said, "We have become morally ill because we are used to saying one thing and thinking another," he said. "We have learned not to believe in anything, not to care about each other... Love, friendship, mercy, humility, or forgiveness have lost their depths and dimension... They represent some sort of psychological curiosity, or they appear as long-lost wanderers from faraway times."

Americans generally regard the collapse of communism, if they regard it at all in the 21st Century, in military and security terms, the demise of the Soviet Union as our existential enemy and the end of the Warsaw Pact.  A "peace dividend" for Americans in the form of less defense spending.  It meant the opening of Russia, the Baltics and Central Europe for tourism and business; the countries of Central Asia for energy exploration.  For Jews, it opened records and sites of centuries of pre-Holocaust Jewish life and culture -- there was the strangely wonderful story of a man who visited the small Polish village from which his grandfather fled, expecting nothing but finding records of his lineage back to the fifteenth century.  He felt, he said, complete.  

But for those who lived through the gulags, the purges and the daily "spoiled moral environment" and survived to see their liberation from Russia and communism, being complete meant finding and reattaching themselves to the rest of the moral and intellectual world.  The "captive nations" of Central Europe and Western Russia have spent the last two decades reassimilating the norms of the capitalist, democratic West.  Not always perfectly, not always in a straight line. Havel's passing is a reminder of where they came from and how far they have come.

The passing of Kim Jong Il will likely be a government-orchestrated activity, devoid of intellectual and moral introspection by the people of North Korea.  It is hard to ponder the larger order when you're hungry and under the jackboot, whether it is communism in North Korea (or China and Vietnam), traditional Arab dictators, or the stultifying blanket of Islamic radicalism.

It is the obligation of free people to understand on their behalf that the longing to escape the "monstrous, ramshackle, stinking machine" is not confined to any people on any continent in any decade.  And to shape our policies accordingly.

Shoshana Bryen has more than 30 years' experience as a defense policy analyst and has been taking American military officers and defense professionals to Israel since 1982 and Jordan since 2004.  She was previously senior director for security policy at JINSA.

Update. Fay Voshell adds:


One was a portly, pompadoured shrimp of a man whose ubiquitous, round-faced image adorned every public space and private home.  Kim Jong-Il, devoted to his Hennesy cognac and pleasure girls, inflated himself into a god like his father before him.  Omnipotent, he starved, beat, imprisoned and tortured his people into total submission. 

Upon news of his death, they in turn have reacted as abused people often do, revealing by their ritualistic wailing that an entire folk can suffer from the Stockholm syndrome-reacting as slaves with craven acceptance and adoration of a relentlessly vicious master, mourning on cue.

The darkness that is North Korea is abstractly but truly revealed viewed from outer space. To the South of the Korean peninsula is a land bespangled with galaxies of star lights; to the North, the land is a black hole with one dim twinkle representing the capital city of Pyongyang.  Other lights are extinguished or never lit.

But a down to earth, closer view of the hereditary regime has continually revealed what a view from outer space could never reveal; namely, the incredible suffering of the North Korean people under the tyrannical leadership of Kim Jong Il and his father Kim Jung Il.  The establishment of a national cult characterized by mind control, enslavement and imprisonment reaches its nadir in the North Korean gulag.  The cult's leaders and devotees have continually threatened the entire populace of the country; and now, with the nearly certain development of nuclear weapons, destabilization of the entire far East, if not the globe. 

The hellish country, complete with tortures straight out of Hieronymus Bosch's scenes of Hell is what a godless communist society-to use a much ridiculed but accurate phrase--looks like.  The fact of the matter is that the leaders of North Korea have routinely stamped out Christianity as well as other faiths in order to establish the cult of Kim, viciously and systematically martyring or imprisoning anyone who worships a God other than the Dear Leader.

But that is what communist regimes do.  They create a Hell on earth.

The second world leader who died this week was Vaclav Havel. Havel, his heavily lined face ravaged by smoking, health problems and long periods of imprisonment, was a Czech playwright, renegade Christian and first president of democratic Czechoslovakia. 

He knew something of the hell that is communist oppression, living as he did for decades under a relentless Stalinist regime.  His ambitions quashed during the 1968 Soviet invasion of his homeland, he was driven underground, becoming a symbol of resistance who suffered imprisonment, broken health, and the silencing of his voice.

Nonetheless, due to him, Pope John Paul II, Lech Walesa and others, Soviet communist domination collapsed in 1989. From thence forward, Havel devoted himself to the proclamation of the need for establishing a public morality eroded by communist tenets, starting with his opening speech as the new president of Czechoslovakia:

"We have become morally ill because we are used to saying one thing and thinking another," he said. "We have learned not to believe in anything, not to care about each other. . . . Love, friendship, mercy, humility, or forgiveness have lost their depths and dimension. . . . They represent some sort of psychological curiosity, or they appear as long-lost wanderers from faraway."

Havel articulated the moral rot which is communism and presented the healing way of faith and morality so despised by communist leaders like that of Kim Jong-Il.  He spoke to our own country, warning it about its desertion of God, saying, "The only genuine core of all our actions-if they are to be moral-is responsibility to something higher than my family, my country, my firm, my success."

Our ultimate responsibility, he concluded, is to the transcendent realm above us.

The contrast between the two leaders could not be greater or more instructive as we regard the state of our own nation and its need for moral clarity. 

As always, the choice represented by the two leaders is not a matter of mere words, but a decision fostering either life or death.

Fay Voshell can be reached at fvoshell@yahoo.com