“THE little screaming fact that sounds through all history”, John Steinbeck wrote, is that “repression works only to strengthen and knit the repressed.” The standard Western critique of skull-crackers on the streets of Cairo, Moscow or Tehran is “You will regret it.” But will they? History’s lessons regarding protests and violence are more complex. Bloodshed sometimes works for autocrats, at least temporarily. But for protesters themselves, taking up arms is usually a mistake.
Massacres do indeed leave the culprits isolated on the international stage and reviled at home, as citizens lose any illusions they might have harboured about their rulers. But, at least in the short term, they often keep regimes in power. China’s Communist rulers see the deaths on Tiananmen Square in 1989 as blood well spilled. Doubtless Iran’s have few regrets about the people they killed in 2009. Bashar Assad may feel that his atrocities in Syria have been vindicated. In this narrow sense—even if observers might wish otherwise—violence often succeeds.
History’s consolation is that, in the end, such brutality can backfire. Research by Christian Davenport of the University of Michigan and Benjamin Appel of Michigan State University suggests that, on average, harsh repression shortens leaders’ tenure. In Mr Davenport’s formulation, violence “sets in motion a process that can result in their removal.”