Imperialism And Infinite Guilt
By Asim Srivastava
20 January, 2006
¨But the most terrible of all must be to have guilt, heinous guilt, and to add guilt and more guilt and new guilt day in and day out - and not to become conscious of it, because one´s whole environment, because existence itself had become transformed into an illusion which strengthened one in his view that it was nothing, not only that there was no guilt but that it was something meritorious. O, there are criminals whom the world does not call criminals, whom it rewards and almost honours - and yet, yet I would rather enter eternity with three repented murders on my conscience than as a retired scandalmonger with this horrible, incalculable load of criminality which was heaped up year after year...¨
- Soren Kierkegaard
Imagine a school classroom in which the teacher is conducting a discussion with her students. The problem to be solved is the following one: a suspected murderer is hiding in a village of some few thousand people in a foreign country and the government needs to catch him and bring him to trial. How best is this to be achieved, while giving innocent villagers least headache?
A student responds that the government might ask the government of the country in which the village is located to consider sending a contingent of armed security forces to surround the village, send a team of security men in with an accurate description (and photograph, if one is available) of the suspect, and it should be fairly straightforward to apprehend the person. Some hostile words may be exchanged or perhaps there may be some bullets flying around, possibly putting some innocents at risk in the crossfire. But given enough force, the damage to the village would be minimal and the government should have no trouble getting hold of the man in question. If need be, a contingent of security forces could be sent from the requesting country. The teacher is not satisfied with the answer.
Another student responds that the government may be asked to consider combining an armed siege of the village with an attractive commercial offer to any villager to hand over the suspect to the auhorities. This way the physical risk will be borne by a person willing to do so. The teacher finds this a more viable idea, but still appears to be unhappy.
The students are bewildered. What else could the government do, they wonder aloud, to catch the suspected murderer? The teacher responds that the government could order a military airstrike - a bombing - on the village. It would be far more swift and effective.
The students look even more bewildered than before. They query their teacher. Drop a bomb from the air to kill one suspected murderer in a foreign country, and that too without trial? Who outside a lunatic asylum would contemplate such a solution? Apart from anything else, wouldn´t it be regarded as an unprovoked act of a aggression, if not an outright invasion of a foreign country? Moreover, how can you be sure that the targetted man is even culpable, without a trial? Finally, most importantly, would you not be killing several innocent people, including women and children in the process, destroying their houses and workplaces while you are about it too?
It is the teacher´s turn to look surprised. Haven´t you heard of collateral damage, kiddos? No modern war can be fought without incurring some. If the government is dealing with murderers it is fighting in the war on terror, one must abandon outmoded legal and moral norms. A new kind of war demands new laws to conduct it with success.
The students are beside themselves with indignation by now. At this point, the teacher breaks into a smile, drops the role of playing devil´s advocate and points out quite simply that the lunacy that she has just detailed is what US policy is in practice: air strikes abroad against suspected terrorists. She has only tried to make clear what is involved.
We live today in a numbed state of mind, accustomed to a world increasingly inured to the routine barbarities of an empire, desperate to retain its weakening hold on the world.
Last Saturday (January 14, 2006), an unmanned drone, apparently operated by the CIA, bombed the village of Damadola in Northwestern Pakistan, apparently in an attempt to assassinate the Al-Qaeda leader, Ayman al-Zawahri. He was not among the 18 people who were killed in the attack. There were 8 women and 5 children among those killed. Collateral damage in the global war on terror.
Leaders from both political parties in the US expressed their support for the air attack. Republican Senator John McCain has been quoted by CBS News as saying -- "We apologize, but I can't tell you that we wouldn't do the same thing again."
This is not the first time that the US military has murdered innocent people while trying to assassinate enemies from the air. Here are some recent instances.
On August 30, 2005, the US-led Coalition forces, targetting terrorist ¨infiltrators¨ from neighboring Syria, carried out three airstrikes on the Western Iraqi town of Qaim, killing at least 56 people, including many women and children. The US claimed that there was at least one Al-Qaeda fighter among the victims.
On July 4, 2005, US warplanes killed 17 innocent people, including women and children when they bombed Chichal village in Eastern Afghanistan, trying to hunt down alleged Taliban militants.
On August 12, 2004, US warplanes bombed a neighborhood in the city of Kut in Iraq, killing at least 75 civilians, mostly women and children, while apparently targetting insurgents.
On January 19, 2004, the US military bombed the village of Sawghataq in Uruzgan province in Afghanistan in an attempt to kill Taliban militants. They ended up killing 11 innocent people, including 3 women and 4 children.
And those are just a few samples from what would be an almost endless list of cases in which American imperialism has broken international law and/or the Geneva Conventions of warfare with impunity.
On would imagine that Washington is fighting a successful war on terror when in fact it is busy securing Asian energy reserves and terrorizing the world´s population into obedience to imperial force. As for terrorist attacks, all experts are agreed that they have only increased dramatically since the Iraq war was launched. And that if they really meant to catch Osama Bin Laden, it could have been readily achieved by now, after the biggest, most well-funded man-hunt in history.
Nor is the US the only country to engage in insane, wanton killing from the air.
On March 22, 2004, the Hamas leader Sheikh Yassin was targetted and killed by Israeli helicopter gunships in Palestine. Along with him, eight others lost their lives.
On July 23, 2002, when the Israelis targetted another Hamas leader Salah Shehade in Gaza, one of the most densely populated urban areas in the world, not only was he killed but 13 others, including 9 children died in the attack. Ironically, the attack was condemned even by Washington.
Injustice on an imperial scale
Most of the time, assassinations carried out through airstrikes are not matters for public discussion in America. They are conducted quietly by the CIA or the military, the media reporting them but casually, if at all. When such actions are publicly proposed in the United States, there is all too little debate, if any.
Notoriously, American preacher Pat Robertson called sometime back for the assassination of elected Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. All that the White House did was to dissociate themselves from the call a few days later. Wonder what the reaction might have been if a Muslim Mullah had raised a call for the assassination of Ariel Sharon!
There is an elementary matter of principle involved. We are talking not merely about collateral damage in war, but of collateral damage in ¨peacetime¨ (the distinction between war and peace itself utterly blurred today). The US, after all, did not declare war on Pakistan before ordering the raid on Damadola last week. Even if it is true that ¨terrorists¨ are being trained in the regions of Pakistan bordering Afghanistan, the killing of innocents cannot be justified by the hunt for them.
Why didn´t the British bomb Boston when IRA terrorists were based and found support there?
Imperial mentality today, as always, is premised on catastrophic, criminally racist conduct.
Former US marine Daniel Ellsberg, the whistleblower who exposed the fraud of the Vietnam war in the Pentagon Papers (which he leaked to the New York Times in 1971) revealed in an interview recently that Washington seriously contemplated at one stage of the conflict, nuclear-bombing the North Vietnamese, an action which would, through a series of nuclear reprisals (involving China and the Soviet Union) have accounted for 600 million people´s deaths in Asia and Eastern Europe, according to the wargames that Washington war planners played out!
So, one imagines, as per the crude moral computations of such heads, that if they were willing to sacrifice 600 million people for the sake of sustaining their power, a few hundred (or thousand, or tens of thousands) lives lost as collateral damage would not make them lose much sleep.
Few people know that on January 16, 1966, a US air force jet collided in mid-air with a B-52 bomber, while it was trying to help the latter refuel. The accident occurred above Palomares in Southeastern Spain. 4 hydrogen bombs fell, three on land and one in the Mediterranean. Clean-up operations continued for months afterwards, though the area still reports radioactivity. A little mistake!
What Vietnam revealed in abundance was the ultimate triumph of humanity over weaponry. This time too, Iraq is teaching with unremarkable predictability the same lesson. The question is whether American citizens pick it up faster than they did in the case of Vietnam.
A remark attributed to John Maynard Keynes, the most important economist of the past century, can teach us something not only about Economics, but also about politics. He said: ¨If you owe your bank a hundred pounds, you have a problem. But if you owe a million, it has.¨ Likewise, can it not be said, must it not be said, that if you kill a man you have a problem with the law. But if you can kill a million, the law has a problem?
Such is the nature of our difficulties today.
Washington war planners should pay heed to the fact that it is not legalities (nowadays you can legalize torture or spying on your own citizens after all) but justice (its conspicuous absence) that matters in the end. History does not comfort us as to the long-term results of unwarranted agression, which only fuels the fire of human hate. Since 9/11 we have seen the churning of Anti-American hatred across the world. And the hatred cuts a swath that runs through America itself. It has massive consequences for American people.
It would be apposite to recall Bob Dylan, singing Masters of War in the 1960s:
You've thrown the worst fear
That can ever be hurled
Fear to bring children
Into the world
For threatening my baby
Unborn and unnamed
You ain't worth the blood
That runs in your veins
But there's one thing I know
Though I'm younger than you
Even Jesus would never
Forgive what you do
And I hope that you die
And your death'll come soon
I will follow your casket
In the pale afternoon
And I'll watch while you're lowered
Down to your deathbed
And I'll stand o'er your grave
'Til I'm sure that you're dead
In Hindi, damadol means unstable. The desperate bombing of Damadola in Pakistan only exposes the instability of the American empire.
Aseem Shrivastava is an independent writer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.