Iraq: The Unthinkable Becomes Normal

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Edward 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.

colonial 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.

“What does
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.

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
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 clichs 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 skillfully 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: Islam.

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

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 happen?

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 . . . ”

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 else.”

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.

12, 2004

was born and educated in Sydney, Australia. He has been
a war correspondent, filmmaker and playwright. Based in London,
he has written from many countries and has twice won British journalism’s
highest award, that of "Journalist of the Year," for his
work in Vietnam and Cambodia. His new book, Tell
Me No Lies: Investigative Journalism and Its Triumphs
, is
published by Jonathan Cape next month. This article was first published
in the New Statesman.

John Pilger 2004

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