All was going well. Serbia, on its knees, had just sold Milosevic to the International Criminal Tribunal in The Hague for a fistful of dollars (some of which, it was learned later, went to pay debts accumulated since the time of Tito). NATO was stretching eastward as Russia looked on helplessly. Whenever one wished, one could, in all impunity, “bomb Saddam Hussein” (that is, the Iraqi population). The Palestinian territories were under tight police control and their leaders assassinated by smart bombs. In recent years, stockholders had made record profits. The political left no longer existed, all parties having rallied to neo-liberalism and “humanitarian” military intervention. In short, even if we had not yet arrived at the “end of history”; its course was well under control and its “happy ending” in sight.
And then — shock, surprise, horror — the greatest power of all time struck in the very center of its wealth and strength. A sophisticaled electronic spy network had been unable to do anything to prevent the catastrophe.
I do not, of course; share the “values” of Ms. Albright who, when asked if the death of a half million Iraqi children is “worth it”, replies: “I think this is a very hard choice, but the price—we think the price is worth it” . The massacre of innocent civilians does not ever seem to me to be worth it. This does not prevent me from considering it necessary, on the occasion of that tragedy, to ask a few questions.
An American pacifist, A.J. Muste, once observed that the big problem after a war is the winning side: it has learned that violence pays. All of post-World War II history illustrates the pertinence of that remark. In the United States; the War Department was renamed Defense Department, although in reality there was no direct danger threatening the country, and successive American governments embarked on campaigns of military intervention and political destabilization. It takes a large dose of good will to see all that as a mere attempt to contain communism. But let us stick to current events and try to see how they look outside West — without trying to think in terms of another culture or another religion, but simply asking ourselves how we would react if we were confronted with certain situations:
The Kyoto protocol: The American objections are not primarily scientific, but of the type: “it would hurt our economy”. How does that reaction sound to people who work twelve hours per day for starvation wages?
The Durban conference — [ i.e., the World Conference against racism, held in Durban (South Africa), from August 31 to September 7 2001. It was widely criticized in the West for its support of Palestinians.]
The West rejects any suggestion of reparations for slavery and colonialism. But how is it possible not to see that the State of Israel functions as a reparation for anti-Semitic persecutions, except that, in this case, the price is paid by Arabs for the crimes committed by Europeans? And how is it possible not to understand that, to the victims of colonialism, this shift of responsibility looks like a manifestation of racism?
Afghanistan: The Americans did not hesitate to train and arm bin Laden to destabilize the Soviet Union, according to a scenario developed by President Carter’s advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski. How many lives are lost in the game that Brzezinski called “the Great Chessboard”? And how many terrorists, in Asia, in Central America, in the Balkans or in the Middle East, are left to their own devices after having served the “free world”?
Iraq: For ten years the population has been strangled by an embargo that has cost hundreds of thousands of lives — of people who are also civilian victims, even if they are not shown on television. All that because Iraq attempted to recuperate oil wells that had been de facto confiscated by the British. Compare this to the treatment of Israel which occupies, in perfect illegality, territories conquered in 1967. Does one really think that the idea, generally accepted in the West, that Saddam Hussein is to blame for everything, makes a big impression in the Arab-Muslim world?
China: When an American spy plane is shot down along the Chinese coast on April 1, 2001, and its crew is briefly held prisoner, there is indignation: how dare the Chinese? But how many Chinese or Indian spy planes venture to fly along American coasts?
USA: Is it really of foremost importance to squander the planet’s rare resources, including brains, to build an antiballistic shield that will not protect the United States from terrorist attacks and, eventually, not even from nuclear attacks?
All that doesn’t excuse terrorism, they will say. Agreed, but it does make it possible to undertand why the reaction outside the United States is often mixed: sympathy for the victims, yes; for the American government that tries to play on emotions to legitmatize its policies and is getting ready to violate international law once again, no.
By a pure coincidence; the attacks took place on September 11, anniversary of the overthrow of Allende (1973), which marked not only the installation of the first neo-liberal government, that of Pinochet, but also the beginning of the end of the national and independent movements in the Third World — roughly speaking, those that emerged from the Bandung Conference — which would all soon bend to the dictates of the United States and the IMF. That coincidence recalls that the West’s victory over independent political movements in the Third World has been achieved by methods that are far from democratic: Pinochet, obviously, but also the assassination of Lumumba, terrorist armies in Central America, and, last but not least, support to “good” Islamic fundamentalists in Saudi Arabia and in Afghanistan. In fact, so long as the obscurantist and feudalist forces could be used against the political left, they were employed profusely. If the accusations against those forces turn out to be true, it will be appropriate to meditate on that curious irony of history.
Marx thought that a political struggle against oppression would cause religious obscurantism to recede. For the past twenty years, the trend is in the opposite direction: the more the political left loses ground; the more obscurantism asserts itself, and not only in the Muslim world. And this is largely because it has become the only possible form of protest against this “vale of tears” on earth.
In the West; the “firm responses” will of course be applauded when they come. Numerous intellectuals will be found to link those attacks to whatever they don’t like in the world: Saddam Hussein, Western pacifists, the Palestine liberation movement, and, while they are at it, the “anti-globalization” movement. Spy networks will be built. Citizens will be watched more closely. Edifying stories will be told about the struggle between Good and Evil and the wicked people who attack us because they don’t like democracy; or women’s liberation, or multiculturalism. It will be explained that we have nothing to do with such barbarism — indeed, we prefer to bomb from on high or use embargoes to kill people gradually. But none of that will solve any basic problem. Terrorism grows in the soil of revolt which is itself nourished by injustice in the world.
For the immediate future, it is to be feared that those attacks will have at least two negative political consequences. On the one hand, the American population, which in its vast majority displays a disturbing nationalism, risks “rallying around the flag”, as they put it, and supporting their government’s policy, no matter how barbarous it is. It wants, more than ever, to “protect its way of life”, without asking the price paid by the rest of the planet. The timid movements of dissent that have appeared since Seattle will no doubt be marginalized or even criminalized. On the other hand, millions of people, who have been defeated, humiliated and crushed by the United States all around the world, will be tempted to see in terrorism the only weapon that can really strike the Empire. That is why a political — and not terrorist — struggle against the cultural, economic and especially military domination of a tiny minority of the human race over the vast majority is more necessary than ever.
Jean Bricmont sat down and wrote this essay a few days after the attacks of September 11, 2001. It was published in Europe in French in a number of venues including Le Monde, on September 27, 2001, under the title “Quelques questions à l’empire et aux autres”. This is the first time it has appeared in English, with very minor changes.
Jean Bricmont teaches physics in Belgium. He is a member of the Brussells Tribunal. His new book, Humanitarian Imperialism, will be published by Monthly Review Press.
He can be reached at : firstname.lastname@example.org