Benjamin Netanyahu is not the first politician or government figure to have taken pleasure in murdering innocent men, women and children. There was Ariel Sharon before him. On Sharon's watch, hundreds of Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps were killed in 1982. And yet Sharon went on to become Israel's prime minister. The world simply forgot that he was a murderer, just as the world today ignores the criminality Netanyahu is applying in Gaza.
Of course, there is the most notorious murderer of modern times in Adolf Hitler. He not only ravaged the countries his army occupied but also made sure that people who did not have what he called Aryan blood in them would have no place in his scheme of things. That was how Kristallnacht happened. That was how books unacceptable to the Nazis were put to the torch. That was how six million Jews died in the gas chambers. In later times, Saddam Hussein gassed thousands of Kurds in Iraq, before meeting a sorry end.
The irony today is that it is the Jewish community in Israel which occupies Arab land, indeed goes around building settlements on territory the state of Israel seized in the Six-Day War of June 1967. Irony, if you remember, has always been part of history. Putatively democratic nations have rained down bombs on other nations. Think of Harry Truman, the man who succeeded Franklin Roosevelt as US president at a time when the Second World War was drawing to a close. The Germans were beginning to crumble; and the collapse of imperial Japan was only a matter of time. None of that, however, prevented President Truman from exercising his powers. He dropped two atomic bombs, in quick succession, on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Tens of thousands of Japanese perished. And tens of thousands were left maimed.
Truman never demonstrated any contrition for his act. Neither has there been any effort on the part of the international community to censure him as a mass murderer or have him tried, even posthumously, for the devastation he wrought on Japan. The Nazis paid a price at Nuremberg. Tojo and his men went to the gallows. Truman remained out of reach. To this day, no American government has deemed it necessary to apologise to Japan for Hiroshima and Nagasaki. That is in sharp contrast to the endless apologizing Japanese governments have been doing, since the end of the war, for their soldiers' behaviour in the 1930s and 1940s.
There have been powerful men who have taken fiendish delight in killing their own people. The leaders of the Khmer Rouge, naively believing that they could create a world of perfection, went ahead and killed a million of their own people in Cambodia. In Indonesia, following the so-called abortive coup d'etat in late September 1965, General Suharto presided over the deaths of a million Indonesians on the basis of his misguided belief that they were communists or communist sympathisers. Chile's Augusto Pinochet ended up killing more than three thousand Chileans following the violent overthrow of President Salvador Allende in September 1973.
One of the most horrific instances of a ruling junta murdering its own people came in March 1971, when General Yahya Khan and General Tikka Khan launched Operation Searchlight in East Pakistan. Three million Bengalis were murdered before the province emerged as a free country through a war of liberation nine months after the genocide began. The state of Pakistan, again, has been engaged for the last many decades in trying to subdue a long-running insurgency in Baluchistan. Thousands of Baluchis have been killed by the army, and justice has simply proved to be elusive. Ayub Khan, Yahya Khan, ZA Bhutto, Ziaul Haq, Pervez Musharraf — not one of them demonstration any compassion for the people of Baluchistan.
Joseph Stalin was certainly a strong leader the Soviet Union needed to consolidate itself after the death of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin. Under Stalin, the communist state achieved an invincibility that swiftly gave rise to a bipolar world. And yet, on the domestic front, the Stalinist purges, beginning in the latter half of the 1930s, left huge dents in the reputation of the man. He had his political rivals killed without compunction. Thousands more died in camps a long way from home. There were others who were shot after trials that were a mockery of justice. Stalin had his henchmen travel all the way to Mexico to have his rival Leon Trotsky murdered.
In more recent times, successive Hutu-led administrations in Rwanda cheerfully presided over well-planned murder in the country. Hundreds of thousands of Tutsis were killed between the late 1950s and until the mid 1990s. It was not until a Tutsi, Paul Kagame, took charge of the country that the killings came to an end. In Sri Lanka, the Mahinda Rajapaksa government has refused to allow international bodies investigate charges of the killing of thousands of Tamils following the collapse of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in 2009. The government has been in a state of denial and does not agree that the army has been behind the plight of the Tamils in these past five years.
The machinery of organized death has been an instrument easily wielded by rulers without scruples. Benjamin Netanyahu is certainly not the last man to employ terror as a weapon. There will be others of his kind. And they will have powerful friends who will speak for them, even as babies die from the fire which rains down from the drones.
In an unjust world, the scales of justice remain carefully bent and blunted.
The writer is Executive Editor, The Daily Star.