Iraq: The Unthinkable
By John Pilger
12 November, 2004
S Herman's landmark essay, "The
Banality of Evil", has never seemed more apposite. "Doing
terrible things in an organised and systematic way rests on 'normalisation',"
wrote Herman. "There is usually a division of labour in doing and
rationalising the unthinkable, with the direct brutalising and killing
done by one set of individuals . . . others working on improving technology
(a better crematory gas, a longer burning and more adhesive napalm,
bomb fragments that penetrate flesh in hard-to-trace patterns). It is
the function of the experts, and the mainstream media, to normalise
the unthinkable for the general public."
On Radio 4's Today
(6 November), a BBC reporter in Baghdad referred to the coming attack
on the city of Fallujah as "dangerous" and "very dangerous"
for the Americans. When asked about civilians, he said, reassuringly,
that the US marines were "going about with a Tannoy" telling
people to get out. He omitted to say that tens of thousands of people
would be left in the city. He mentioned in passing the "most intense
bombing" of the city with no suggestion of what that meant for
people beneath the bombs.
As for the defenders,
those Iraqis who resist in a city that heroically defied Saddam Hussein;
they were merely "insurgents holed up in the city", as if
they were an alien body, a lesser form of life to be "flushed out"
(the Guardian): a suitable quarry for "rat-catchers", which
is the term another BBC reporter told us the Black Watch use. According
to a senior British officer, the Americans view Iraqis as Untermenschen,
a term that Hitler used in Mein Kampf to describe Jews, Romanies and
Slavs as sub-humans. This is how the Nazi army laid siege to Russian
cities, slaughtering combatants and non-combatants alike.
crimes like the attack on Fallujah requires such racism, linking our
imagination to "the other". The thrust of the reporting is
that the "insurgents" are led by sinister foreigners of the
kind that behead people: for example, by Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian
said to be al-Qaeda's "top operative" in Iraq. This is what
the Americans say; it is also Blair's latest lie to parliament. Count
the times it is parroted at a camera, at us. No irony is noted that
the foreigners in Iraq are overwhelmingly American and, by all indications,
loathed. These indications come from apparently credible polling organisations,
one of which estimates that of 2,700 attacks every month by the resistance,
six can be credited to the infamous al-Zarqawi.
In a letter sent
on 14 October to Kofi Annan, the Fallujah Shura Council, which administers
the city, said: "In Fallujah, [the Americans] have created a new
vague target: al-Zarqawi. Almost a year has elapsed since they created
this new pretext and whenever they destroy houses, mosques, restaurants,
and kill children and women, they said: 'We have launched a successful
operation against al-Zarqawi.' The people of Fallujah assure you that
this person, if he exists, is not in Fallujah . . . and we have no links
to any groups supporting such inhuman behaviour. We appeal to you to
urge the UN [to prevent] the new massacre which the Americans and the
puppet government are planning to start soon in Fallujah, as well as
many parts of the country."
Not a word of this
was reported in the mainstream media in Britain and America.
it take to shock them out of their baffling silence?" asked the
playwright Ronan Bennett in April after the US marines, in an act of
collective vengeance for the killing of four American mercenaries, killed
more than 600 people in Fallujah, a figure that was never denied. Then,
as now, they used the ferocious firepower of AC-130 gunships and F-16
fighter-bombers and 500lb bombs against slums. They incinerate children;
their snipers boast of killing anyone, as snipers did in Sarajevo.
Bennett was referring
to the legion of silent Labour backbenchers, with honourable exceptions,
and lobotomised junior ministers (remember Chris Mullin?). He might
have added those journalists who strain every sinew to protect "our"
side, who normalise the unthinkable by not even gesturing at the demonstrable
immorality and criminality. Of course, to be shocked by what "we"
do is dangerous, because this can lead to a wider understanding of why
"we" are there in the first place and of the grief "we"
bring not only to Iraq, but to so many parts of the world: that the
terrorism of al-Qaeda is puny by comparison with ours.
There is nothing
illicit about this cover-up; it happens in daylight. The most striking
recent example followed the announcement, on 29 October, by the prestigious
scientific journal, the Lancet, of a study estimating that 100,000 Iraqis
had died as a result of the Anglo-American invasion. Eighty-four per
cent of the deaths were caused by the actions of the Americans and the
British, and 95 per cent of these were killed by air attacks and artillery
fire, most of whom were women and children.
The editors of the
excellent MediaLens observed the rush - no, stampede - to smother this
shocking news with "scepticism" and silence. They reported
that, by 2 November, the Lancet report had been ignored by the Observer,
the Telegraph, the Sunday Telegraph, the Financial Times, the Star,
the Sun and many others. The BBC framed the report in terms of the government's
"doubts" and Channel 4 News delivered a hatchet job, based
on a Downing Street briefing. With one exception, none of the scientists
who compiled this rigorously peer-reviewed report was asked to substantiate
their work until ten days later when the pro-war Observer published
an interview with the editor of the Lancet, slanted so that it appeared
he was "answering his critics". David Edwards, a MediaLens
editor, asked the researchers to respond to the media criticism; their
meticulous demolition can be viewed on the [http://www.medialens.org]
alert for 2 November. None of this was published in the mainstream.
Thus, the unthinkable that "we" had engaged in such a slaughter
was suppressed - normalised. It is reminiscent of the suppression of
the death of more than a million Iraqis, including half a million infants
under five, as a result of the Anglo-American-driven embargo.
In contrast, there
is no media questioning of the methodology of the Iraqi Special Tribune,
which has announced that mass graves contain 300,000 victims of Saddam
Hussein. The Special Tribune, a product of the quisling regime in Baghdad,
is run by the Americans; respected scientists want nothing to do with
it. There is no questioning of what the BBC calls "Iraq's first
democratic elections". There is no reporting of how the Americans
have assumed control over the electoral process with two decrees passed
in June that allow an "electoral commission" in effect to
eliminate parties Washington does not like. Time magazine reports that
the CIA is buying its preferred candidates, which is how the agency
has fixed elections over the world. When or if the elections take place,
we will be doused in cliches about the nobility of voting, as America's
puppets are "democratically" chosen.
The model for this
was the "coverage" of the American presidential election,
a blizzard of platitudes normalising the unthinkable: that what happened
on 2 November was not democracy in action. With one exception, no one
in the flock of pundits flown from London described the circus of Bush
and Kerry as the contrivance of fewer than 1 per cent of the population,
the ultra-rich and powerful who control and manage a permanent war economy.
That the losers were not only the Democrats, but the vast majority of
Americans, regardless of whom they voted for, was unmentionable.
No one reported
that John Kerry, by contrasting the "war on terror" with Bush's
disastrous attack on Iraq, merely exploited public distrust of the invasion
to build support for American dominance throughout the world. "I'm
not talking about leaving [Iraq]," said Kerry. "I'm talking
about winning!" In this way, both he and Bush shifted the agenda
even further to the right, so that millions of anti-war Democrats might
be persuaded that the US has "the responsibility to finish the
job" lest there be "chaos". The issue in the presidential
campaign was neither Bush nor Kerry, but a war economy aimed at conquest
abroad and economic division at home. The silence on this was comprehensive,
both in America and here.
Bush won by invoking,
more skilfully than Kerry, the fear of an ill-defined threat. How was
he able to normalise this paranoia? Let's look at the recent past. Following
the end of the cold war, the American elite - Republican and Democrat
- were having great difficulty convincing the public that the billions
of dollars spent on the war economy should not be diverted to a "peace
dividend". A majority of Americans refused to believe that there
was still a "threat" as potent as the red menace. This did
not prevent Bill Clinton sending to Congress the biggest "defence"
bill in history in support of a Pentagon strategy called "full-spectrum
dominance". On 11 September 2001, the threat was given a name:
Flying into Philadelphia
recently, I spotted the Kean congressional report on 11 September from
the 9/11 Commission on sale at the bookstalls. "How many do you
sell?" I asked. "One or two," was the reply. "It'll
disappear soon." Yet, this modest, blue-covered book is a revelation.
Like the Butler report in the UK, which detailed all the incriminating
evidence of Blair's massaging of intelligence before the invasion of
Iraq, then pulled its punches and concluded nobody was responsible,
so the Kean report makes excruciatingly clear what really happened,
then fails to draw the conclusions that stare it in the face. It is
a supreme act of normalising the unthinkable. This is not surprising,
as the conclusions are volcanic.
The most important
evidence to the 9/11 Commission came from General Ralph Eberhart, commander
of the North American Aerospace Defence Command (Norad). "Air force
jet fighters could have intercepted hijacked airliners roaring towards
the World Trade Center and Pentagon," he said, "if only air
traffic controllers had asked for help 13 minutes sooner . . . We would
have been able to shoot down all three . . . all four of them."
Why did this not
The Kean report
makes clear that "the defence of US aerospace on 9/11 was not conducted
in accord with pre-existing training and protocols . . . If a hijack
was confirmed, procedures called for the hijack coordinator on duty
to contact the Pentagon's National Military Command Center (NMCC) .
. . The NMCC would then seek approval from the office of the Secretary
of Defence to provide military assistance . . . "
Uniquely, this did
not happen. The commission was told by the deputy administrator of the
Federal Aviation Authority that there was no reason the procedure was
not operating that morning. "For my 30 years of experience . .
." said Monte Belger, "the NMCC was on the net and hearing
everything real-time . . . I can tell you I've lived through dozens
of hijackings . . . and they were always listening in with everybody
But on this occasion,
they were not. The Kean report says the NMCC was never informed. Why?
Again, uniquely, all lines of communication failed, the commission was
told, to America's top military brass. Donald Rumsfeld, secretary of
defence, could not be found; and when he finally spoke to Bush an hour
and a half later, it was, says the Kean report, "a brief call in
which the subject of shoot-down authority was not discussed". As
a result, Norad's commanders were "left in the dark about what
their mission was".
The report reveals
that the only part of a previously fail-safe command system that worked
was in the White House where Vice-President Cheney was in effective
control that day, and in close touch with the NMCC. Why did he do nothing
about the first two hijacked planes? Why was the NMCC, the vital link,
silent for the first time in its existence? Kean ostentatiously refuses
to address this. Of course, it could be due to the most extraordinary
combination of coincidences. Or it could not.
In July 2001, a
top secret briefing paper prepared for Bush read: "We [the CIA
and FBI] believe that OBL [Osama Bin Laden] will launch a significant
terrorist attack against US and/or Israeli interests in the coming weeks.
The attack will be spectacular and designed to inflict mass casualties
against US facilities or interests. Attack preparations have been made.
Attack will occur with little or no warning."
On the afternoon
of 11 September, Donald Rumsfeld, having failed to act against those
who had just attacked the United States, told his aides to set in motion
an attack on Iraq - when the evidence was non-existent. Eighteen months
later, the invasion of Iraq, unprovoked and based on lies now documented,
took place. This epic crime is the greatest political scandal of our
time, the latest chapter in the long 20th-century history of the west's
conquests of other lands and their resources. If we allow it to be normalised,
if we refuse to question and probe the hidden agendas and unaccountable
secret power structures at the heart of "democratic" governments
and if we allow the people of Fallujah to be crushed in our name, we
surrender both democracy and humanity.
John Pilger is currently
a visiting professor at Cornell University, New York. His latest book,
Tell Me No Lies: investigative journalism and its triumphs, is published
by Jonathan Cape
This article first
appeared in the New Statesman. For the latest in current and cultural
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