Do you believe that some of the world's most despicable dictators could be made to "see the light" if they were offered sensitivity training at a prestigious American university?
The folks at Boston University, which announced last summer that it was creating a residency program to help various African dictators give up their jobs without setting off civil war, apparently do.
The first head of state to take part in the program was Kenneth Kaunda, who led Zambia to independence in 1964 and then ruled the southern African nation for 27 years. Like most dictators, Kaunda didn't have a lot of patience with people who were critical of his regime, and so in 1972 he created the Patriot Act.
No, wait. That was a different regime.
In 1972, Kaunda outlawed opposition parties and declared Zambia a one-party state.
Still, by dictator standards, Kaunda was a swell guy. Nearly two decades later, he called for multi-party elections and stepped down gracefully when he was defeated.
I wish Kaunda the best of luck at Boston University and hope that he succeeds in getting other, nastier African dictators to give up their power without a bloodbath.
Still, I can't help thinking that it would be even better if we could suspend the laws of space and time and assemble some of history's most reprehensible dictators in one room to teach them how to be better people.
Moderator: Good morning. I want to thank all of you gentlemen for taking time out of your busy schedules of exploitation, enslavement and genocide to come here today for the start of the 12-step program we're calling "Getting in Touch With Your Inner Teddy Bear."
Idi Amin: You know, your head would look good on my mantel.
Moderator: Mr. Amin, that is exactly the kind of negative, antisocial attitude we're trying to eliminate here. Let's begin. I'm going to suggest a few hypothetical situations and I'd like you to tell me how you'd respond.
Mr. Stalin, let's say that you are the dictator of a huge but extremely poor country. In order to boost agricultural production, you force all of your peasant farmers to work on state-run collectives. The bureaucracy is greedy and corrupt, however, to the point that the peasants, who were barely getting by before, are now starving to death by the millions. What should you do?
Stalin: Export all of our grain?
Moderator: No, Mr. Stalin. I'm afraid that is incorrect. You should move immediately to take the grain from government storehouses and distribute it, free of charge, to those who need it most.
Stalin: Have you ever visited northern Siberia in winter? I could arrange a 20-year pass.
Moderator (loosening necktie): OK, let's try another one. Nicolae Ceausescu, let's say Romania wants to start distancing itself from the Soviet Union and improve its relationship with the United States. What should it do first?
Ceausescu: Collaborate with Arab terrorists?
Moderator: Ye gads, man! No! It should show its sincerity by instituting democratic reforms like free elections and a free press.
I'm going to give you another chance, Nicolae. How would you revitalize your country's economy?
Ceausescu: Demolish churches and historic buildings in the capital city to make room for a giant shrine to me?
Moderator: No, please try again.
Ceausescu: Er ... bulldoze all the villages in the countryside and force the peasants to move to the city and live in small, dingy, poorly made government apartments?
Moderator (slumping): Let's try someone else. Pol Pot, your country, Cambodia, is one of the poorest in the world and has one of the lowest literacy rates. How do you turn this around?
Pol Pot: Easy. You torture and kill all the intellectuals.
Moderator (sweating profusely): Mr. Pot, I really don't see how doing that would solve any ...
Hitler: Are you a Jew, gypsy or homosexual? Because you sure look like one.
Mussolini: He looks like one to me, too, boss.
Moderator (racing from room): Class dismissed!
David Grimes is a columnist for the Herald-Tribune in Sarasota, Fla. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. The Herald-Tribune is a member of the New York Times Regional Newspapers.
2003 New York Times News Service