September 11 - why weren't there similar outcries at earlier atrocities?
4 October 2001This week saw the end of an exhibition I helped put on at the Barbican in London, devoted to photo-journalism that makes sense of terrible events.
Brilliant, subversive pictures from Vietnam show the systematic rape of a country with weapons designed to spread terror. The exhibition ranged from Hiroshima to two final, haunting images of sisters, aged 10 and 12, their bodies engraved in the rubble of the Iraqi city of Basra, where American missiles destroyed their street two years ago: part of a current Anglo-American bombing campaign that is almost never reported.
Since the outrages in America on September 11, the exhibition has been packed, mostly with young people. Many accused the media and politicians of misrepresenting public opinion and of obscuring the reasons behind the fanaticism of the attackers. For them, the most telling pictures are of "unworthy victims". Let me explain. The 6,000 people who died in America on September 11 are worthy victims: that is, they are worthy of our honour and a relentless pursuit of justice, which is right. In contrast, the 6,000 people who die every month in Iraq, the victims of a medieval siege devised and imposed by Washington and Whitehall, are, like the little sisters bombed to death in their sleep in Basra, unworthy victims - unworthy of even acknowledgement in the "civilised" west.
Ten years ago, when 200,000 Iraqis died during and immediately after the slaughter known as the Gulf war, the scale of this massacre was never allowed to enter public consciousness in the west. Many were buried alive at night by armoured American snowploughs and murdered while retreating. Colin Powell, then US military chief, who 22 years earlier was assigned to cover up the My Lai massacre in Vietnam and is currently being elevated to hero status in the western media, said: "It's really not numbers I'm terribly interested in."
An American letter writer to the Guardian last week, in admonishing the writer Arundhati Roy for producing a "laundry list" of American terror around the world, revealed how the blinkered think. The lives of millions of people extinguished as a consequence of American policies, be they Iraqis or Palestinians, Timorese or Congolese, belong not in our living memory, but on a "list". Apply that dismissive abstraction to the Holocaust, and imagine the profanity.
The job of disassociating the September 11 atrocities from the source of half a century of American crusades, economic wars and homicidal adventures, is understandably urgent. For Bush and Blair to "wage war against terrorism", assaulting countries, killing innocents and creating famine, international law must be set aside and a monomania must take over politics and the "free" media. Fortunately public opinion is not yet fully Murdochised and is already uneasy and suspicious; 60% oppose massive bombing, says an Observer poll. And the more Blair, our little Lord Palmerston, opens his mouth on the subject the more suspicions will grow and the crusaders' contortions of intellect and morality will show. When Blair tells David Frost that his war plans are aimed at "the people who gave [the terrorists] the weapons", can he mean we are about to attack America? For it was mostly America that destroyed a moderate regime in Afghanistan and created a fanatical one.
On the day of the twin towers attack, an arms fair, selling weapons of terror to assorted tyrants and human rights abusers, opened in London's Docklands with the backing of the Blair government. Now Bush and Blair have created what the UN calls "the world's worst humanitarian crisis", with up to 7m people facing starvation. The initial American reaction was to demand that Pakistan stop supplying food to the starving who, of course, fail to qualify as worthy victims.
The bombing intelligentsia (the New Humanitarians, as Edward Herman calls them) are doing their bit, blaming September 11 on "an evil hatred of modernity" and something called "apocalyptic nihilism". There are no reasons why; the Barbican pictures are fake. Aside from a few "errors", Anglo-American actions are redeemed, and those who produce the "laundry list" of a blood-soaked historical record are "anti American", which apparently is similar to the "anti-semitism" of those who dare to point out the atrocious activities of the Israeli state.
Phyllis and Orlando Rodriguez lost their son Greg in the World Trade Centre. They said this: "We read enough of the news to sense that our government is heading in the direction of violent revenge, with the prospect of sons, daughters, parents, friends in distant lands dying, suffering, and nursing further grievances against us. It is not the way to go... not in our son's name."