The rise of the political “bad guy”

Is it just me, or does the western world seem to have a lot more enemies than usual at the moment? From Al-Qaeda to Ebola, IS to Cyberterrorists, it’s as though all our enemies have got together like an end of series Doctor Who special.

Even villains from the really old series have shown up. Nuke-toting North Koreans and red-flag waving Russians. It’s like an ITV2 countdown of the best dictators from the last 50 years, complete with commentary from Huw Edwards and Keith Lemon.

So where have all these enemies come from, and what exactly is it that makes these “bad guys” so bad?

For a lot of people, a “bad guy” is someone whose actions are so at odds with western values that they could never be considered as a civilised member of our society. Take Kim Jong-Un, leader of North Korea and very much the Davros of the western world. Kim Jong’s callus dictatorial regime has resulted in the suffering of thousands of fellow human beings. From the use of barbaric interrogation techniques to the construction of institutionally approved torture camps, life in North Korea is no holiday. Or at least, if it were a holiday, it would be Butlins.

“Even if we were to ignore our own human rights abuses, we’d still have to admit that similar atrocities are being committed by our allies overseas”

While it’s clear that these actions are unjustifiable within a civilised world, it is much harder to understand why they are at odds with our own western values. As one example, consider the recent Senate Intelligence Committee report on CIA torture. Both Britain and America have been involved in “enhanced interrogation techniques” including physical torture, rectal feedings and mock executions. That all sounds pretty compatible with North Korean values to me, so why judge their actions on different criteria to our own?

In fact, even if we were to ignore our own human rights abuses, we’d still have to admit that similar atrocities are being committed by our various allies overseas. In the last year alone we’ve seen everything from public executions in Saudi Arabia, through to tortured children in Israel. But for some reason, these atrocities don’t fall within the bounds of “bad guy” behaviour.

So that can’t be it. Either we judge everyone (including ourselves) in terms of human rights abuses, or we accept that such abuses aren’t the reason we define certain nations as “the baddies”.

Perhaps then, it‘s their lack of democratic process? Kim Jong-un inherited his power from his father without election and without public endorsement. That must be it.

Then again, if we really had a problem with the undemocratic nature of “power by birthright”, then surely we would have abolished our own royal family by now? Instead we desperately cling to the myth that their economic value outweighs the fact that their very existence undermines our democracy. And as for the American system, as a country in which “anyone can be president”, the echelons of power don’t seem to stretch very far. In the last 25 years alone the people of America have been given the option of a Bush, then a Clinton, followed by another Bush, then another Clinton, and now it looks like it’s time for yet another Bush. Between this institutionalised nepotism and our own reverence for unelected figureheads, I struggle to see why the lack of democratic proceedings in foreign nations really bothers us.

So that can’t be it. Either we disapprove of birthrights to power, or we do not. Our cultural obsession with royalty and wider acceptance of monetary inheritance goes to show that we’re really not that fussed. As such, why would we judge other nations for their lack of democracy?

Once again, this seems particularly odd considering some of our closest allies remain impervious to democracy. If it’s ok for both us and our allies to do it, then it can’t possibly be the reason we brand certain nations as the “bad guys”. That would be hypocritical.

So maybe it’s because these nations are warmongers? Russia invaded Ukraine, Iraq invaded Kuwait. That must be it.

Then again, it’s not as though western countries uphold a state of permanent pacifism. As of the last SOCOM report in early 2014, the United States was involved in conflicts within 134 different countries. In fact, between the various western nations there has rarely been a moment in history where we have not been at war with somebody somewhere in the world.

While it could be argued that those were all ‘justifiable’ wars – although some might be a bit of a stretch – we first need to ask who is it that gets to decide what is and isn’t a justifiable war? Is the war justified by the victor, or the international community? I’m sure many of the world’s so-called “baddies” consider their wars just as justified as we consider our own. Either way, that cannot be the reason why we consider certain nations to be our enemies. We either oppose international acts of aggression or we do not – and all of the evidence suggests that we do not.

So what is the answer then?

Perhaps it’s that we in the West are in fact the bad guys? Perhaps it’s that there are no bad guys at all? Or, perhaps, it’s that the world is just too complex a place to delineate into simple black and white – no matter how much we like to pretend otherwise.

Sometimes we’re the good guys; sometimes we’re the bad guys. Sometimes we do terrible things by accident; sometimes we do them on purpose. The sooner we as a society come to terms with this fact, the sooner we can stop pretending that we are the decisive centre for all morality. One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. One man’s torturer is another man’s “enhanced interrogator”. And sometimes, one man’s democracy is another man’s dictatorship.

Alex Warren
Alex Warren
Miserablist, whiskey-drinker, and general tinpot shambles. Alex Warren has a weary pessimism for all things media, politics and tech.