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Bliss Was It In This Dawn

The television images last night and this morning bring tears to one’s eyes. The people pouring into the streets of Tripoli to celebrate the end of the Qaddafi regime, the shockingly quick collapse of resistance to the advance of the patriot forces, the look of befuddlement on the faces of the government’s handlers at the hotel where the media was holed up, all makes one feel in one’s bones something of that feeling that inspired Wordsworth to pen, “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive/ But to be young was very Heaven!”

The liberation of Tripoli now joins a list of other such great moments similarly carried to our living rooms and pubs by brave reporters: The day Mubarak’s resignation was announced, the day the coup plotters in Moscow abandoned their effort to remove Mikhail Gorbachev, the day the Berlin Wall came crashing down. There have been other, darker days, to be sure such as the massacre at Tiananmen Square and the election “victory” of Ahmadinejad. (If I were feeling churlish I would add the day of America’s great judicial putsch, Bush v. Gore, but I recognize that decision, outrageous though it was, to be of a different order and, second, I am not feeling churlish on a morning such as this.)

I had intended to be writing this morning on some other topic but the magnitude of the joy on the faces we see on television in the streets of Libya makes it impossible to write of anything else. What is always most stunning about these revolutions is the ordinariness of the revolutionaries. This morning, the great scholar of Arab politics, Fouad Ajami, noted that the revolutionaries were X-ray technicians, and mechanics, and farmers, and school teachers who got in their Toyota Corollas and drove to the front lines. This was no clash of rival factions but a clash between a tyrant and the people he had victimized. “Twas in truth an hour/ Of universal ferment; mildest men/ Were agitated;” wrote Wordsworth in that same poem. Last night, the mildest men of Libya, so long agitated by Qaddafi, reached the heart of Tripoli and knew their country was once again in the hands of the people.

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Of course, when we consider the context of Wordsworth’s couplet, it is easy to entertain second thoughts. His enthusiasm for the French Revolution – shared by many other artists of the day – would be dimmed as it, too, took a turn towards dictatorship. Indeed, with the advantages of time, we can see that Wordsworth was wrong to mock “the meagre, stale, forbidding ways/ Of custom, law, and statute.” We recognize that law and statute and custom are not “meager” things, that indeed they can protect our freedoms as well as they can assault them. We know that it took the French five republics to make their Revolution stick, whereas our American revolution, precisely because it contained both liberalizing and conservative elements, did not descend into dictatorship but was able to establish a constitutional government that is with us to this day.

Still, this is not a morning for cautious assessment unless you work at the CIA or State Department. We do not know how many republics it will take Libya to make their revolution stick. We do not know if the victors in the street will unleash their own reign of terror. We do not know if some new colonel will exploit the chaotic situation to introduce his own brand of tyranny. But, we do know this. The revolution in Libya is their revolution. NATO helped, to be sure. But the victory and the day belong to the people of Libya. I hope they can achieve a stable government. But, I know that whatever the future holds, the fall of a tyrant is a thing to be celebrated.

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