The English writer Colin Wilson once wrote of America that “No country is more eager to hail celebrity; none more delighted to see its downfall”. Perhaps this description applies to US General David Petraeus, who recently resigned as head of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) following revelations about an extramarital affair. It would have been possible for these revelations to pass by without much public notice were it not for the fact that the star of the story was, until recently, considered an American hero.
There is no need to examine the facts of the story; they have been covered extensively in the media. Whether you think Petraeus deserves what happened to him given his marital infidelity, or you recognize his records and accomplishments as a military figure, the debate about what happened will continue for some time. If it is proven that Petraeus did nothing wrong security-wise, except for this destructive relationship, then it is likely the incident will be forgotten about and society will be content with their former hero having to endure the pain of his ordeals.
Perhaps the most important issue here is not the scandals and their aftermath, but the way in which heroes are manufactured and glorified. If Petraeus was an unknown general, we would not have seen such media clamor, but since he ascended to heroic status, the revelation of his personal mistake casts a shadow of disappointment and shame upon those who held him in such high regard. It is necessary to draw attention to the role played by some in the media who portray certain personalities outside of the normal human framework, and elevate them to the ranks of supreme beings. There is a terrible temptation for society to distort figures like Petraeus, or to transform any successful person into a public figure, burdening them with titles and descriptions – sometimes exaggerated – to satisfy an audience thirsty for heroes.
Colin Wilson tried to separate between repute and fame. He noted that there is a fine line that distinguishes between repute, which is often based on personal talents and accomplishments, and celebrity, which is associated with someone’s transformation from an unknown figure to an icon of public focus, be it for scandalous or noble reasons.
Perhaps Petraeus, having moved from a military to a civilian office, fell into this predicament without realizing. A US official close to him remarked that he always placed significant emphasis on his personal image during his military service (Washington Post, 12 November 2012).
Here the Petraeus incident merits a wider comparison between societal behavior in the US and societal behavior in the countries of our region. If Petraeus was an Arab, a Kurd or a Persian, would he receive compassion, or would he be dealt a penalty that far outweighs what he did wrong?
Here we can make two observations: Firstly, a society such as America’s may be guilty of exaggeration when it manufactures these heroic icons, but the society itself has the mechanisms to correct mistakes. When a sin is committed or when power is abused, the wrongdoer is required to resign. Secondly, the society may be morally disappointed, but it still leaves the door open for the wrongdoer to redeem themselves.
Unfortunately, in the Middle East the exaggerations in manufacturing false and imaginary heroes go beyond normal limits. No one apologizes for their mistakes, and certain personalities are placed on a pedestal whereby they are beyond criticism. This phenomenon is not confined to presidents and leaders, indeed certain members of extremist parties are glorified and labeled as heroes, with a magical aura around them, despite the fact that they adopt violent and bloody methods.
In the wake of the 1967 defeat, President Gamal Abdel Nasser theatrically announced he was resigning. Crowds gathered and beseeched the president – whose policies had caused the defeat and the loss of Egyptian land – not to leave. Abdel Nasser is viewed as a hero in some circles even to this day.
Certain Arab presidents who came to power via military coups found their societies to be particularly susceptible to exaggerated glorifications. Take, for example, Saddam Hussein in Iraq, Hafez al-Assad and his son Bashar in Syria, Muammar Gaddafi and his sons in Libya, and many others.
In Iran, Ayatollah Khomeini accused the Shah of authoritarianism and arrogance, but after the Shah left power Khomeini himself assumed both a religious and earthly authority, and his aura could not contested by any of his contemporaries.
This is not all. The societies of our region unfortunately not only celebrate false heroes, but also ignore real achievements if they are not commensurate with those illusions. Anwar Sadat regained the Sinai territories, and was able to achieve a sincere and arduous peace treaty with Israel, yet he was assassinated in both the physical and moral sense. The former Tunisian President Habib Bourguiba, oversaw a scientific and cultural renaissance in his country, but his life is never discussed without distortion and disparagement.
No doubt there are Arab political figures like Petraeus, whose good work mingles with personal wrongdoings, but American culture, which forgives those who atone for their sins and does not ignore their achievements, is very different from the dominant culture in our region, which presents illusions over facts, and forgives criminals but shows no mercy to those who make mistakes.
Saddam Hussein started wars, brought a siege upon Iraq, and sent his citizens into exile, yet there are still those who consider him a hero. Likewise, Hassan Nasrallah burdened Lebanon with an unequal war with Israel, has used unarmed citizens as human shields, and even recently stood by the Syrian regime, which is committing war crimes against its citizens, but there are those who still see him as a hero.
Perhaps the most striking evidence of this misguided approach is that you can hardly find an objective account of anyone; everyone is either a hero or a villain. There is no space for people like Petraeus, who made mistakes but was also responsible for noble work.