The London bombings are unexceptional in a world laid to waste by imperial ambition. Such massacres and criminal murder are commonplace. What made them exceptional (and 9/11, Madrid, Bali) is that they happened to ‘us’. Our tragedies are always capital ‘T’. Rarely is civilian loss of life in Iraq, Afghanistan and other fronts in the ‘War on Terror’ spoken about by leaders of the ‘Coalition of the Willing’. When it is covered on television news, wooden ritualistic expressions of sorrow are offered before programming quickly moves to entertainment news.
In his first speech after the bombings, British Prime Minister Tony Blair looked wounded. It’s as if there was no available script to gloss over the lives of his own subjects. Momentarily, we witnessed a leader feeling pain. The more such bombings occur, and there is no reason to believe that a repressive and security driven campaign can stop them, Blair and leaders will get used to it. A new ritualistic sorrow-script will be written for ‘us’, and delivered with the same sincerity reserved for the collateral damage of some other place.
Thanks to Peter Nicholson at the Australian
When Blair delivered his second speech from the G8 summit, world leaders gathered behind him in a show of solidarity. Some looked like guilty parties in a shabby police line-up. It was as if the London bombings had, with all their murderous flare, illuminated a decade of wrong doing that had, in the famous words of Chalmers Johnson, delivered a payload of ‘Blowback’. You can’t go on a crusade, wrapped up as a war for freedom, to restructure global politics and not expect home causalities. That’s why Prime Minister Howard, who has thrown Australia into this crusade, says it can happen here. He knows it will, unless we are very, very lucky.
A week before the London bombings, US President George Bush, in his address to the nation, looked desperate to regalvanise support for the misnamed ‘War on Terror’. Even his own party is turning. Two years ago, Bush, in one of the most successful manipulations of reality, managed to get people to see connections between terrorists and Iraq, Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden. He managed to wrap up US global ambitions in the comfort blanket of a great war of good against evil.
Now, all these Bushisms are beginning to look every bit as dowdy as propaganda films. After the bombings, Bush, also at the G8, drew attention to what he saw as the difference between his pals at the G8 and the evil-doers: ‘ the contrast couldn’t be clearer between the intentions and the hearts of those of us who care deeply about human rights and human liberty, and those who kill, those who’ve got such evil in their heart that they will take the lives of innocent folks.’
That Bush’s words used to move people to patriotic fervour and collective narcissism can not be denied. Now they flat-line. Now that the lies of Iraq are on the mortuary table, the Bush of 2005 isn’t as bankable as an anchorman for propaganda, nor is his machine as capable of mass deception. As Bush’s moment passes, it’s time to declare a War on Error. The only causalities in this war will be egos, lies, sloppy reporting, and hidden agendas.
In his book Al-Qaeda: The True Story of Radical Islam British journalist Jason Bourke recalls wanting to report on possible sales of enriched uranium in Peshawar by Russian smugglers in 1998. An editor told him that the story would be published only if a ‘bin-Laden’ link was present, presumably to make it newsworthy. These days, establishing a bin-Laden link is as easy as simply asserting one.
The first error is a category error. Terrorists (anyone fighting the US and its allies) are deemed to be sub-human and irrational. To try and understand them and their cause is to risk being labelled an appeaser. But this is not just cynical prejudice, it is deeply rooted.
In a wonderful new book, Imperial Delusions, Carl Boggs notes how Hollywood has mentally prepared us for the War on Terror. Its caricature of mad Arabs seething with existential rage is embedded in the Western psyche. In some ways, we have always known Osama bin-Laden.
We already knew him when we were kids curled up at home watching movies. He was the terrorist that the stars-and-stripes action hero annihilated. We cheered. Well before the attack on the twin towers, the collective West had established a pattern for dealing with the ‘terrorist’.
The second error is to ignore history. By inflating the terrorist threat, we lose so much. Historically, complex conflicts around the world, resulting from legitimate grievances, are interpreted through the prism of the ‘War on Terror’. This makes it easier for governments to crack down.
In Uzbekistan, the government justifies its crackdown on protestors on the basis that Islamic extremists were orchestrating events. In Malaysia, the government attempts to suggest significant links between the political opposition party, PAS, and Al-Qaeda. In Thailand, intra-state contest and violence over resources and territory is often attributed to jihadists. Russia and China are in on the bandwagon. Separatist movements in those countries are seen as just one more expression of terrorism. The War on Terror as it is presently understood promotes repression, not peace and reconciliation.
The third error is to allow a legitimate concern with terrorism to be used to advance other agendas. Under the guise of the War on Terror, the US state has expanded its global presence, establishing military bases in Central Asia and the Middle East. The US has made efforts to reestablish a presence in Southeast Asia, in an effort to respond to China’s overtures to the region. The US now has troops in the Philippines, has established a Counter-Terrorism Intelligence Centre in Thailand and has begun to re-engage with the Indonesian military.
It is important to link the War on Terror with more global foreign policy objectives. In the early 1990s the US state was coming to terms with its sole superpower status. Then Defense official, Paul Wolfowitz, wrote a draft Defense Planning guidance that emphasized the need for the US to ensure that no global or regional rival emerge.
Under the current Bush administration, this basic objective drives foreign policy and the expansion of US bases. There is nothing secretive about this “ a survey of relevant documents, discussions within policy circles, and even the US National Security Strategy of 2002 makes clear the overriding imperative of US global hegemony. Why then, does this objective have to hide under the cloak of the war on terror?
The answer is that foreign policy is beyond the democratic realm. Foreign policy remains one of those areas where mandarins and politicians believe in the necessity of aristocracy. The unwashed masses are not to be trusted with shaping international order. Instead, they are offered whitewashes in a mixture of half-truths and outright lies. Talk of evil is easier than winning majorities with talk of hegemony, balance of power and resource security.
It is true that the London bombings may for a time regalvanise the ‘War on Terror’ – but only as toxic drugs give temporary respite to terminal disease. The War on Error, waged by millions of people who see through the hubris of imperial interest, demands that instead of infantilizing the public with metaphors of good and evil, governments should tell the public what they tell each other behind closed doors. Were it so, the world might be a safer place. After all, if the War on Terror was brought into question most people would not condone the bombing of innocent citizens who happen to live in states judged hostile by the President of the United States. The War on Error can save as many lives as the War on Terror can take.
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