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Criticising war-mongering is to show true respect for the dead

I wrote this article on September 24th 2001 jointly with Sean Hartnoll for Take Issue! - I still stand by what we said then.


It is difficult to say much about the recent tragedy in New York and Washington that has not already been said. Many people have been shocked by the appearance of criticism of the US or concern about what they will do in response to this event. It is our aim to make clear why this criticism is not the product of a hatred or envy of North American people, nor of a disregard for human life and suffering, but is actually the product of an equal concern for all human life, regardless of nationality.

At the time of writing there has been no reaction to this event by the US or its allies. Our fear, and the fear of all of those who voice concern about what the US will do, is that the reaction will take the form of previous reactions (by the US and others) against terrorist attacks, perhaps even worse. For example, in 1998 the US bombed what later turned out to be a pharmaceutical factory in Sudan (producing half their pharmaceutical supply), thinking that it was a chemical weapons factory, in retaliation for attacks on their embassies in Tanzania and Kenya.

The objective is to analyse the social conditions that contribute to the formation of terrorist groups, not to point the finger at the US, but so as to inform our future actions. This is the intent of the majority who have written articles attacking past US foreign policy. Regardless of the motivations of individual terrorists, a military response would certainly increase existing hostility towards the US. There is a vicious circle of violence; much like the Israeli-Palestinian situation, but played out on the world stage.

A logical objection remains: they will hit us again and soon, perhaps with nuclear or chemical weapons, unless we hit them first. But we have been hitting for years and years through bombs, sanctions and the funding of dictatorships and terrorist organisations (such as the CIA funding bin Laden in the 1980s). In the short term we need to make internal security arrangements, to an extent consistent with maintaining civil liberties, in order to deal with the immanent threat of terrorism. In the long term we need to change the way we relate to other countries and peoples, for instance the US support of Israel.

Our second major concern is the way this event has been used by politicians and the media. Whilst accusing dissenters and critics of being disrespectful to the dead and trying to further their own ideological agenda, they have fallen foul of their own criticisms. Politicians use emotional rhetoric that appeals to genuine human feelings of loss and anger to gloss over unpleasant details of political acts that they would never get away with otherwise.

The language used - "evil", "civilised world", "fanatic", and the like - renders the "enemy" beyond understanding. When combined with what even Bush must know is an untruth - "with us or for terrorism" - it serves to marginalise dissent both across the world and within the US. The Telegraph's "useful idiots" column, a list of writers disagreeing with the "war on terrorism" consensus, similarly uses a natural discomfort about criticism of the US in the wake of the tragedy to tarnish dissenters. This is presumably intended to have the long term effect of discrediting those who regularly challenge the Telegraph's worldview.

The US government has considered pushing through legislation which at other times might have been difficult. Tax cuts, supposedly to boost the economy, are an idea ridiculed even by conservative economists such as Paul Krugman in the New York Times. Other ideas being considered are an increase in military spending, lifting the ban on extra-judicial executions carried out by CIA agents abroad, and so forth. The British government, too, has sought to increase their police powers under the Terrorism Act, previously an unpopular bill. Big business has also used this opportunity. For instance British Airways, experiencing financial difficulties before the events, found an opportune moment to sack 1 in 8 of its workers.

A disturbing aspect of the media coverage, and the three minutes silence, is the elevation of 5,000 North American lives far above untold numbers of lives outside of the West. For instance the largely unreported loss of a million lives in Iraq as a direct result of economic sanctions and the continuing bombing campaign. Or the 5.5 million Afghans, according to the UN, dependent this winter on now non-existent food aid. This is at best disrespectful of human life and at worst profoundly racist. The term "collateral damage" has been used for very similar situations in the past. It was a terrible phrase then, it would be a terrible phrase if anyone were using it now. In the war against terrorism to come, let's make sure we show due respect to all lives.


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