Unpleasant Truths

by Stephen Gowans

June 17, 2002


"Mr. Bush, it becomes increasingly evident, is a man of principles -- provided those principles don't obstruct other priorities," said Canada's The Globe and Mail on June 12. "He believes in free trade, unless it upsets U.S. farmers, or steelworkers, or Cuban-American Castro-haters. He believes in clean air, unless factory-owners complain about the cost of cutting emissions. And he believes there should be a Palestinian state, as long as it takes shape in the way Mr. Sharon suggests. Which means no state at all in the foreseeable future, but rather a group of disconnected, impoverished cantons under firm Israeli army control."

In other words, Mr. Bush's market economy principles are subordinated to the naked pursuit of US business interests, and not farmer's interests but agribusiness's interests, and surely not steelworkers' interests -- who Mr. Bush couldn't give a fig about -- but the interests of steel mill owners and steel company shareholders. So too is Bush's limp commitment, even by rhetorical standards, to clean air, subordinate to the imperatives of US capital. Profits first, clean air -- and free trade -- second. Could it be that The Globe and Mail, Canada's establishment newspaper is criticizing, gosh! US capitalism? No, the paper's editors are criticizing Bush specifically, as if Clinton, or any other US president, wasn't equally committed to aggrandizing US capital at the expense of the environment and free trade and much everything and everyone else.

US hypocrisy calls to mind a Tom Lechner cartoon in the May 2002 issue of Z Magazine, depicting an invasion of main street USA by hordes of violent, ugly space invaders. "Citizens of the United States!" the invaders announce. "We come in peace! We bring you democracy and free markets. Do not panic!" The cartoon works on two levels. On the first, it invites Americans to put themselves in the place of victims of US foreign policy -- Serbs or Afghans, for example -- many of whom have been bombed or invaded or economically blockaded by American leaders delivering democracy and free markets. With American "democracy" consisting of a single party under two names, where decisions of grave importance are made by a cabinet comprising mostly unelected officials, and where policy is insulated from public input, the cartoon works on a second level. It suggests that a belligerent, self-serving, and hypocritical mega-power could easily find a pretext in America's laughably thin commitment to real democracy to subordinate the United States through military means. So too could America's laughable commitment to free trade be invoked as a pretext for invasion, given that it consists of free market principles being imposed on the weak, while trade barriers are erected to protect US capital and subsidies are funnelled by Washington from ordinary Americans to American firms. In the meantime, the US controlled IMF shoves the "harsh medicine" of free market principles down the throats of the Third World, making Third World parents pay tuition to send their kids to primary school, while their governments shred social safety nets and sink the country further into poverty. As to the brutal Sharon, the editorial continues: "Unmentioned during the Bush-Sharon talks was Israel's refusal to withdraw to its pre-1967 borders, which Mr. Sharon has vowed will never happen. Also unaddressed was the steadily growing number of Jewish settlements in the West Bank, which (Mr. Bush might recall) is where the future Palestinian state is supposed to be."

"Condemning Palestinian terrorism is easy," the Toronto-based newspaper observes, and then proceeds to take the easy route. Indeed, it is easy to talk of peaceful, non-violent resistance, from comfortable, privileged pews in suburbia, where the only violence you're likely to have to confront is a school yard scuffle, not Israeli bulldozers rumbling over your house; not so easy, when you've been deprived of your rights, driven into squalid refugee camps, imprisoned in a future with little hope, and forced to deal with the daily humiliations meted out by an Israeli army some, including Holocaust survivors, liken to the Nazis. And what of the inaptly named Oslo Peace process? Did years of non-violence lead to the return of refugees to their homes, the dismantling of the illegally built Jewish settlements, the withdrawal of Israel to its pre-1967 borders, and the creation of a Palestinian state? What it led to, if I can parse what's staring me in the face, was the unrelieved expansion of Jewish settlements, undiminished Israeli military brutality, and the expectation that Palestinians willingly offer themselves up as sacrificial lambs in the cause of Zionism by surrendering rights no other people is expected to surrender. That sparked the second Intifada, and ultimately, the horror of Jenin. It makes one wonder on what planet you'll find the comfortable pew of liberals who plead with Arafat to renounce violence and embrace non-violence "to help us build support for the Palestinian cause in the United States" (as if Arafat is a CEO who can issue a ukase to make his employees fall in line and stop strapping bombs to their midriffs and as if the US government would for a moment let foreign policy be dictated by the wishes of liberal Americans, or any Americans for that matter, except those who own and control the economy, and in particular, own and control that section of the economy concerned with oil and hi-tech ways of obliterating anyone who gets in the way.)

While Palestinian "terrorism is morally disgusting," according to the Globe, the broadsheet has nothing to say of the "possible war crimes" and "grave breaches of humanitarian law" Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have criticized Israel for. Surely, these grave breaches are morally disgusting, too, though, it seems an unwritten rule forbids the placing of "morally disgusting" and "Israel" in the same sentence. And there's another rule: The weak are morally disgusting, great powers and their allies aren't, no matter what atrocities they perpetrate (all presumably in the cause of bringing democracy and free markets to backward people. We go to war for lofty reasons, someone once remarked, and somehow manage to capture other people's markets and stumble into their oil wells.)

To prove there's a revolution in international justice afoot, the newspaper has been running a series by its international affairs columnist Marcus Gee, promoting the bizarre view that brutes, dictators, tyrants and war criminals can no longer hide from justice. So why is Ariel Sharon being feted at the White House, while Bill Clinton rakes in millions for showing up at speaking engagements? This view, that war criminals have nowhere to hide, is apparently bolstered by Slobodan Milosevic having been kidnapped and taken to The Hague to stand trial in what a top Canadian criminal lawyer calls a "lynching" ("The first two minutes of the Milosevic trial told me all I need to know. This is a lynching," wrote Edward Greenspan in Canada's National Post, March 13.) That the evidence against Milosevic being a war criminal is risibly thin, while the evidence against Clinton having ordered war crimes is mountainous, is never mentioned, let alone tacitly acknowledged.

I took issue with this view, and told the Globe's editors so, in a June 10th letter.

While Marcus Gee's three part series, Evil on Trial, is said to explore the "revolution in international justice," little has really changed since US General Curtis LeMay, who was responsible for the 1945 fire-bombing of Tokyo, said, "I suppose if I had lost the war, I would have been tried as a war criminal. Fortunately, we were on the winning side." The United States and its NATO allies, on the winning side in the 1999 bombing of Yugoslavia, will not be prosecuted for what Amnesty International called possible war crimes and Human Rights Watch termed grave breaches of humanitarian law. Israel's leaders, condemned by the same human rights groups for the same crimes, will also escape prosecution, as too will Russian President Vladimir Putin, despite widespread reports of atrocities committed by the Russian military in Chechnya. Curiously, the names Clinton, Blair, Sharon, and Putin among other great power leaders, aren't mentioned by Mr. Gee, though they have all been tied to war crimes and crimes against humanity. The "revolution in international justice," Mr. Gee celebrates, is nothing more than a new face on an old corruption: victor's justice and the hypocrisy of great powers.

The letter wasn't published.

Which isn't to say the Toronto newspaper doesn't print views that dissent from the official line. It does. Nick Wright's letter about Abdullah al-Muhajir, the man implicated in the plot to detonate a dirty bomb in Washington, was published June 12th.

"No one knows if the arrested man was planning anything of the kind, and he will be unable to tell the media, his family and friends -- or even a lawyer -- anything to the contrary, since he is being held as an 'enemy combatant.' Very neat, very timely, and no pesky foreign governments and their scruples to worry about, since he is a U.S. citizen. And a dirty nuclear bomb in Washington to boot! Wow! The Bush government -- and especially the FBI and the CIA -- could not have wished for anything more. Makes you wonder."

That's not the only thing that makes you wonder. Points out the Globe's Oliver Moore:

"(Mr. al-Muhajir) was held in a Manhattan jail until last weekend, when U.S. Attorney-General John Ashcroft persuaded President George W. Bush to designate him an 'enemy combatant' and place him under Defence Department custody. As a U.S. citizen, Mr. al-Muhajir is not eligible for trial under the military-tribunal system Washington has set up to deal with foreigners in the so-called war on terrorism. But as an enemy combatant, he can be held 'at least until the end of the war,' a Pentagon spokesman said.

Civil-liberties groups note that while the government routinely uses terms such as 'war against terror' or 'war against evil,' the country has not in fact declared war. In addition, U.S. officials have repeatedly warned that this particular 'war' cannot ever be considered truly over."

In other words, American citizens can be declared "enemy combatants," held indefinitely, and no one has any way of knowing whether the charges are legitimate or fabricated. That there's room for abuse should be evident. If the government decides it doesn't like what you say, if you're asking too many embarrassing questions in too visible a way, that you're agitating too many people, can you be declared an enemy combatant and locked away until the war on terror is over? Hard as it is to believe, that's what the arrest of al-Mahajir appears to mean. And so a precious American principle disappears in a puff of smoke.

"The government may hold (al-Muhajir) as long as it wishes without charge while U.S. officials interrogate him. It means he may be denied access to a lawyer. It means the administration may trumpet his case as an example of a serious threat identified and prevented -- in contrast to its failure to heed reports before Sept. 11 -- while refusing to let the courts examine the man's case and the quality of the evidence against him...Are the nation's beliefs so negotiable?"

This, from the Globe and Mail. The problem here, however, is that the newspaper focuses on the specific, without recognizing the general. It's easy for Americans to dismiss the case as having little to do with them. After all, al-Muhajir is, as the Globe points out, "a nasty piece of goods," and since most Americans don't consider themselves to be a nasty piece of goods they figure this could never apply to them, personally.

The editorial has more relevance, if "him" is replaced by "Americans."

"(The al-Muhajir case) means the government may hold Americans as long as it wishes without charge. It means Americans may be denied access to a lawyer. It means the administration may trumpet a case as an example of a serious threat identified and prevented -- in contrast to its failure to heed reports before Sept. 11 -- while refusing to let the courts examine the case and the quality of the evidence against the accused. Are the nation's beliefs so negotiable?"

Apparently, they are. And yet so many shrink from the charge that the United States is, or is rapidly becoming, fascistic. How high does the mountain of evidence have to be before Americans see that the hateful name -- the F-word, as writer David McGowan calls it -- is no longer an abstraction?

John Trudel, an American Indian, appended a verse to an old Pete Seeger song, The Torn Flag.

(Seeger's song features the lines: "And then I took this striped old piece of cloth, and tried my best to wash the garbage off. But I found it had been used for wrapping lies; it smelled and stank and attracted all the flies.")

Trudel finishes with:

This story is never going to end,
with everybody looking the other way.
Getting lost in let's pretend,
trying to make it through another day.
Comes a time when we must face,
the reality of what's taking place.

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Stephen Gowans is a writer and political activist who lives in Ottawa, Canada.

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Published June 17, 2002
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