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Dictators And Us, The West Falls Back Into Appeasement Trap

Assad and Putin in 2015
Assad and Putin in 2015
Maurizio Molinari


TURIN — Fifty years ago, in January 1968, the reformist leader Alexander Dubcek rose to power in Czechoslovakia. His ascent began a brief era known as the Prague Spring, which ended when peaceful protests against the presence of Soviet troops in the country were violently put down by Russian tanks as the West passively looked on.

Leaders in Europe and the United States justified the decision to not intervene in Prague by invoking the Cold War, which put countries on both sides of the Iron Curtain perennially on the brink of nuclear apocalypse. It remains one of the darkest moments in Western history, as enlightened as it may be by the values and rights produced by the British, French, and American revolutions.

The decision to turn our backs on the protesters demanding freedom in Prague was a moment of collective blindness, much like the 1938 Munich Agreement that handed Czech territory to Hitler in exchange for the dictator's ill-fated promise not to go to war. In Munich in 1938 and again in Prague in 1968, the West's absolute faith in appeasement led it to fall for the dictators' traps and abandon its defense of democratic rights and freedoms.

European leaders remained quiet.

Western leaders today need to remember those moral and political failures — and learn from them — to avoid making the same mistakes. They need to hold fast to the values that distinguish democracies from dictatorships, to keep respecting and defending every citizen's fundamental rights to life, liberty, and prosperity.

This can be done in symbolic ways, the way President Kennedy did in the German capital in 1963, when he spoke the words Ich bin ein Berliner ("I am a Berliner") to denounce Soviet oppression in the East, or President Reagan did 24 years later when he implored Moscow to "tear down" the Berlin wall, helping spark the collapse of communist regimes in Eastern Europe.

Kennedy delivering his speech in Berlin — Photo: Robert Knudsen, White House

We live in a generation where the West is once again wavering in the face of widespread human rights violations around the globe. For six years it stood by as Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad slaughtered almost 400,000 of his citizens in his country's civil war. In the last three months, it stayed on the sidelines as Iraq, Turkey, and Iran cracked down on the Kurdish dream of statehood after an overwhelming vote in favor of independence.

During two weeks of nationwide revolts in Iran earlier this year, European leaders remained quiet as dozens were killed protesting Tehran's spending on military adventures abroad. They are quiet as 30 million Venezuelans suffer from the hunger, poverty, and violence of the Maduro regime. And they too easily forget the pain of 24 million North Koreans who are brutally oppressed by a leader obsessed with amassing nuclear warheads.

The silence is deafening.

It's legitimate to wonder whether the millions of Syrians, Kurds, Iranians, Venezuelans, and North Koreans today feel the same bitterness and delusion towards the West that many Czechoslovaks felt in 1968, when they waited in vain for Western support as Soviet tanks advanced on them. We must ask ourselves if we aren't making the same mistake today by failing to extend a hand to those yearning for freedom in Damascus, Tehran, Pyongyang, and Caracas.

The appeasement of 2018 isn't rooted in the dangers of the Cold War. This time it's justified by vaguely defined Western interests. And yet, once again it is pushing the West into the same trap set by dictators who only have one interest: laying bare the fragility of Western values of freedom and democracy.

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A Refuge From China's Rat Race: The Young People Flocking To Buddhist Monasteries

Unemployment, stress in the workplace, economic difficulties: more and more young Chinese graduates are flocking to monasteries to find "another school of life."

Photograph of a girl praying at a temple during Chinese Lunar New Year. She is burning incense.

Feb 20, 2015 - Huaibei, China - Chinese worshippers pray at a temple during the Lunar New Yeat

Frédéric Schaeffer

JIAXING — It's already dawn at Xianghai Temple when Lin, 26, goes to the Hall of 10,000 Buddhas for the 5:30 a.m. prayer.

Still half-asleep, the young woman joins the monks in chanting mantras and reciting sacred texts for an hour. Kneeling, she bows three times to Vairocana, also known as the Great Sun Buddha, who dominates the 42-meter-high hall representing the cosmos.

Before grabbing a vegetarian breakfast in the adjacent refectory, monks and devotees chant around the hall to the sound of drums and gongs.

"I resigned last October from the e-commerce company where I had been working for the past two years in Nanjing, and joined the temple in January, where I am now a volunteer in residence," explains the young woman, soberly dressed in black pants and a cream linen jacket.

Located in the city of Jiaxing, over a hundred kilometers from Shanghai, in eastern China, the Xianghai temple is home to some 20 permanent volunteers.

Unlike Lin, most of them only stay for a couple days or a few weeks. But for Lin, who spends most of her free time studying Buddhist texts in the temple library, the change in her life has been radical. "I used to do the same job every day, sometimes until very late at night, writing all kinds of reports for my boss. I was exhausted physically and mentally. I felt my life had no meaning," she says.

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