A disease is eating away at the Middle East. It afflicts the Syrians, the Iraqis, the Lebanese, even the Israelis. It is the idea that the only political determinant in the Arab world is raw force -- the power of physical intimidation. It is politics as assassination.
This week saw another sickening instance of this law of brute force, with the murder of Pierre Gemayel, a Lebanese cabinet minister who had been a strong critic of Syria. Given the brutal history of Syria's involvement in Lebanon, there's an instant temptation to blame Damascus. But in this land of death, there are so many killers and so few means of holding them to account that we can only guess at who pulled the trigger.
I fell in love with Lebanon the first time I visited the country 26 years ago. Part of its appeal, inevitably, was the sense of living on the edge -- in a land of charming, piratical characters who cherish their freedom. Lebanon has great newspapers, outspoken intellectuals, a wide-open democracy. It has almost everything a great society needs, in fact, except the rule of law.
Many of the assassins' victims have been colleagues or people I knew as a reporter: Bashir Gemayel, Rafiq al-Hariri, Samir Kassir, Gebran Tueni. I pick up the paper some days wondering who will be next. Among my Lebanese friends, it's commonplace to speak of an assassinated father or son. These brave people live every day in the sights of the assassins. They inhabit a culture of death, yet they go on bravely, robustly -- heroically, to my eyes.
The sickness must end. The people of the Middle East are destroying themselves, literally and figuratively, with the politics of assassination. So many things are going right in the modern world -- until we reach the boundaries of the Middle East, where the gunmen hide in wait. Those who imagined they could stop the assassins' little guns with their big guns -- the United States and Israel come to mind -- have been undone by the howling gale of violence. In trying to fight the killers, they began to make their own arguments for assassination and torture. That should have been a sign that something had gone wrong.
This is a time of convulsive change in the region, and many doors are being pushed open. Syria has an opportunity to leave behind its drab Cold War trench coat and become a modern, prosperous Mediterranean nation; Hezbollah, the militia that represents Lebanon's dispossessed Shiite population, has a chance to lead its followers into political power and prosperity. But they won't realize these opportunities so long as the politics of assassination rules the region. If Syria and Hezbollah keep brandishing their power like a grenade, it will ultimately blow apart in their hands.
The Middle East needs the rule of law -- not an order preached by outsiders but one demanded by Arabs who will not tolerate more of this killing. Any leader or nation who aspires to play a constructive role in the region's future must embrace this idea of legal accountability. That is what the United Nations insisted this week, with a unanimous Security Council resolution demanding that the murderers be brought to justice.
Now the United Nations must find a way to make the rule of law real. It has chartered a special investigator, Serge Brammertz, to gather the facts and has called for an international tribunal to try the cases. It must make this rule of law stick.
But the killers always seem to win in Lebanon. That's the cynics' rejoinder, and, looking at the record of the past quarter-century, it's hard to argue otherwise. The healthy parts of Arab life keep being overwhelmed by the sickness. The more the United States and its allies try to support the forces of moderation, the more they seem to undermine them. Western ideas about democratic progress instantly produce deadly antibodies in the Arab body. The disease keeps winning.
The idea that America is going to save the Arab world from itself is seductive, but it's wrong. We have watched in Iraq an excruciating demonstration of our inability to stop the killers. We aren't tough enough for it or smart enough -- and in the end it isn't our problem. The hard work of building a new Middle East will be done by the Arabs, or it won't happen. What would be unforgivable would be to assume that, in this part of the world, the rule of law is inherently impossible.
The writer co-hosts, with Newsweek's Fareed Zakaria, PostGlobal, an online discussion of international issues athttp:/