It is never too hard to find examples of Orwell’s Newspeak dribbling out of the mouths of the governing classes, but the sewage flows freely this week. The tone was set early on by a thoroughly bellicose column in Wednesday’s Washington Post: “We Must Fight This War”. Its author Robert Kagan is, we are told, a “a “senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace”.

The British media is not too far behind; the editorial pages of today’s Sunday Telegraph rose to the occasion. Exhibit A was an article by Henry Kissinger (“President George W Bush has wisely warned that the attacks on New York and Washington amounted to a declaration of war”, et cetera ad nauseam); Exhibit B was a leader column (“Only two courses of action are open to Nato: appeasement or war. There is no third way…”, ditto), which approvingly quoted Shimon Peres’s recent remark that “every country must now decide whether it wants to be a smoking or nonsmoking country, a country that supports terrorism or one that doesn’t”.

The author of the first piece is reckoned by many of those who think about these things to be an international war criminal of the first magnitude, for his interventions — most of which can be reasonably described as terroristic — in Cambodia, Vietnam, Chile, Cyprus and East Timor; the man quoted in the second is the deputy prime minister and minister for foreign affairs in the government of Israel, i.e., the number two to prime minister Ariel Sharon, the man indirectly responsible (according to Israel’s own inquiry, no less) for the Falangists’ bloody massacres at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in 1982 which left many hundreds of Palestinians dead. (Sharon was the commanding officer in Lebanon, and gave the order which let the militias into the camps, with highly predictable consequences).

We need Robert Fisk in the Independent on Sunday to remind us at a time like this, because no one else will, that today is the nineteenth anniversary of the start of the atrocities at Sabra and Shatila. There was an excellent BBC Panorama programme broadcast on 17 June about Sharon’s role in the massacres: its webpage has a full transcript, and other useful information.


America is a contradictory place to be. Witness Mr Bush on racism: “We must be mindful that, as we seek to win the war, we treat Arab-Americans with the respect they deserve,” Mr Bush said. “There are thousands of Arab-Americans who live in New York City who love their flag,” the President said. “We should not hold one who is a Muslim responsible for an act of terror.”

Compare and contrast with Bush’s white supremacist subtext in the declaration of what CNN is calling “America’s New War”. America’s new war indeed. The US has been fighting racist wars at home and abroad for a while now. Discrimination against Latin@s, through the War on Drugs and more recently Plan Colombia. War against East and South-East Asians with the demonisation first of Vietnam, and now China. The war on African Americans and the poor through “Zero tolerance” and a racist judiciary. The Christian Right’s consistent war on women through pro-life initiatives. The War on Arab Americans has been going on for a while in the media. And now, tragically, America’s New War on the New Enemy Within. America seems to be finding new wars with the frequency and arrogance of Browning’s Duke.

And with equally fatal results.

Oliver wrote [18.9.01]: I was worried by one aspect of your comments about the contents of the Sunday Telegraph. It seems absolutely right to highlight some of the awful truths about Kissinger’s record in government. But when it comes to putting Peres’s quote in context, you have nothing to say about him other than that he is a member of Sharon’s government. You then expound at length on Sharon. It strikes me as unfortunate to taint one with the others actions, especially when they are such different politicians, and especially as so much else on your weblog page concerns bias in the reporting of the terrible racist attacks that have followed in the wake of last week’s tragedy.

Chris replies [18.9.2001]: Peres is not Sharon, true. They aren’t even in the same party. But when Mr Bush talks about refusing to make a distinction between terrorists and those who “harbor” terrorists, I can’t help thinking that the Israeli government is harbouring a rather important one. And while I don’t especially want to get into an argument about whether Israeli government policy amounts to state-sponsored terrorism — given their admitted use of what they euphemistically call “targeted killings” and everyone else calls “assassinations”, and the use of helicopter gunships in reprisals against stone-throwing Palestinians — I tend to think that’s a very plausible construction to place on things. The general point is that it ill becomes any Israeli minister to talk so smugly about a distinction between those countries that sponsor terrorism and those that don’t, because of traditional problems about motes and beams (and barley, O).

New York

The scale of Tuesday’s disaster in New York remains staggering.

I was in living in Boston in December 1999, when six firefighters burned to death in a warehouse fire in Worcester, Massachusetts. The story was reasonably straightforward and gained a certain amount of force from its elemental simplicity: they went into the building believing (falsely) that there were people trapped inside who needed rescuing, and they didn’t come out. The media, local and national, made much of the tragedy: the tabloid Boston Herald, to which I subscribed for its year-round baseball coverage, ran innumerable front pages on the story. It was all very moving, and I was suitably moved. (There was a nasty subtext to some of the media coverage about the relative worth of the lives of the firefighters on the one hand and the homeless people who squatted in the warehouse on the other, but this was, all things considered, only a marginal narrative in the media frenzy). The funeral procession was said to be the largest single gathering of firefighters anywhere in the world, and President Clinton was there, too, and he said a few words.

Six firefighters died in Worcester and big chunks of New England were traumatised. I read today that _two hundred and two_ firefighters were still on the missing list in New York (and they must all be presumed dead by now), together with _fifty-seven_ police officers. They all went into the World Trade Center thinking there was useful work to be done inside, and were crushed to death when the towers came down. And they are only a small fraction of the overall death toll. A hundred other comparisons could be drawn to make the same point: this was, and is, huge; and it was, and is, quite horrible to think about too much.

The comparison with Pearl Harbor is frequently being drawn — America’s “Day of Infamy”. Pearl Harbor did lead to America’s entry into the Second World War, and America did rally around the leadership of its President, FDR, and various other creditable things flowed from the raid, but (lest we forget) America also interned its citizens of Japanese origin in special camps in the months that followed. If this is indeed a second Pearl Harbor it is very important that bigotry towards Arabs, whether American or not, is stamped on very hard. There have already been several reports from the US of violence against Arab-Americans and other Asian-Americans (including Sikhs and Pakistanis), which is disgraceful. For all his palpable faults, Mayor Giuliani has been doing an excellent job in New York in recent days — he has risen to the occasion, unlike W. — and by both speaking and acting promptly to help defuse anti-Arab bigotry, he deserves yet more praise.

Right-wing pundit (and Magdalen graduate) Andrew Sullivan found these words to go in his own weblog. They suit his disreputable political agenda a little better than they suit mine, but I still think they are both haunting and apposite, and I’ll repost them here:

“I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade;
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night.”

— From W. H. Auden: “September 1, 1939”

There is a good article in today’s Times (how rarely can you say that!) by military historian Michael Howard. It makes the point that over the last hundred years the three main goals of terrorists have been (i) self-advertisement, (ii) to demoralise governments, and (iii) “to provoke the government into such savage acts of suppression that it forfeited public support and awoke popular and international sympathy for the revolutionary cause.” Given the rhetoric of the US Government and its various allies as they talk of pursuing the people behind this enormity — for once, the word is not being misused by the media — it will be a something of a surprise if they don’t go overboard on the provocation front. Do the American politicians really think that their interests are best served, and that their cities will be made safer in the long run, with all this talk of dividing the world again into “us” and “them” and then waging unceasing “war” on the latter? Let us hope they calm down; and let us hope still more fervently that yet more civilians do not die as a result of the American-led military action which now seems depressingly inevitable.