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Gagging the Skeptics

The US, founded to protect basic freedoms, is now insisting that its critics are its enemies.

by George Monbiot Guardian October 16, 2001

If satire died on the day Henry Kissinger received the Nobel Peace Prize, then last week its corpse was exhumed for a kicking. As head of the United Nations peacekeeping department, Kofi Annan failed to prevent the genocide in Rwanda or the massacre in Srebrenica. Now, as secretary general, he appears to have interpreted the UN charter as generously as possible to allow the attack on Afghanistan to go ahead.

Article 51 permits states to defend themselves against attack. It says nothing about subsequent retaliation. It offers no license to attack people who might be harboring a nation's enemies. The bombing of Afghanistan, which began before the UN security council gave its approval, is legally contentious. Yet the man and the organization who overlooked this obstacle to facilitate war are honored for their contribution to peace.

Endowments like the Nobel Peace Prize are surely designed to reward self-sacrifice. Nelson Mandela gave up his liberty, FW de Klerk gave up his power, and both were worthy recipients of the prize. But Kofi Annan, the career bureaucrat, has given up nothing. He has been rewarded for doing as he is told, while nobly submitting to a gigantic salary and bottomless expense account.

Among the other nominees for the prize was a group whose qualifications were rather more robust. Members of Women in Black have routinely risked their lives in the hope of preventing war. They have stayed in the homes of Palestinians being shelled by Israeli tanks and have confronted war criminals in the Balkans. They have stood silently while being abused and spat at during vigils all over the world. But now, in this looking-glass world in which war is peace and peace is war, instead of winning the peace prize the Women in Black have been labeled potential terrorists by the FBI and threatened with a grand jury investigation.

They are in good company. Earlier this year the director of the FBI named the chaotic but harmless organizations Reclaim the Streets and Carnival Against Capitalism in the statement on terrorism he presented to the Senate. Now, partly as a result of his representations, the Senate's new terrorism bill, like Britain's Terrorism Act 2000, redefines the crime so broadly that members of Greenpeace are in danger of being treated like members of al-Qaida. The Bush doctrine - if you're not with us, you're against us - is already being applied.

This government by syllogism makes no sense at all. Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida have challenged the US government; ergo anyone who challenges the government is a potential terrorist. That Bin Laden is, according to US officials, a "fascist", while the other groups are progressives is irrelevant: every public hand raised in objection will from now on be treated as a public hand raised in attack. Given that Bin Laden is not a progressive but is a millionaire, it would surely make more sense to round up and interrogate all millionaires.

Lumping Women in Black together with al-Qaida requires just a minor addition to the vocabulary: they have been jointly classified as "anti-American". This term, as used by everyone from the US defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, and the Daily Mail to Tony Blair and several writers on these pages, applies not only to those who hate Americans, but also to those who have challenged US foreign and defense objectives. Implicit in this denunciation is a demand for uncritical support, for a love of government more consonant with the codes of tsarist Russia than with the ideals upon which the United States was founded.

The charge of "anti-Americanism" is itself profoundly anti-American. If the US does not stand for freedom of thought and speech, for diversity and dissent, then we have been deceived as to the nature of the national project. Were the founding fathers to congregate today to discuss the principles enshrined in their declaration of independence, they would be denounced as "anti-American" and investigated as potential terrorists. Anti-American means today precisely what un-American meant in the 1950s. It is an instrument of dismissal, a means of excluding your critics from rational discourse.

Under the new McCarthyism, this dismissal extends to anyone who seeks to promulgate a version of events other than that sanctioned by the US government. On September 20, President Bush told us that "this is the fight of all who believe in progress and pluralism, tolerance and freedom". Two weeks later, his secretary of state, Colin Powell, met the Emir of Qatar to request that progress, pluralism, tolerance and freedom be suppressed. Al-Jazeera is one of the few independent television stations in the Middle East, whose popularity is the result of its uncommon regard for freedom of speech. It is also the only station permitted to operate freely in Kabul. Powell's request that it be squashed was a pre-emptive strike against freedom, which, he hoped, would prevent the world from seeing what was really happening once the bombing began.

Since then, both George Bush and Tony Blair have sought to prevent al-Jazeera from airing video statements by Bin Laden, on the grounds of the preposterous schoolboy intrigue that they "might contain coded messages". Over the weekend the government sought to persuade British broadcasters to restrict their coverage of the war. Blair's spin doctors warned: "You can't trust them [the Taliban] in any way, shape, or form." While true, this applies with equal force to the techniques employed by Downing Street. When Alastair Campbell starts briefing journalists about "Spin Laden", it's a case of the tarantula spinning against the money spider.

If we are to preserve the progress, pluralism, tolerance and freedom which President Bush claims to be defending, then we must question everything we see and hear. Though we know that governments lie to us in wartime, most people seem to believe that this universal rule applies to every conflict except the current one. Many of those who now accept that babies were not thrown out of incubators in Kuwait, and that the Belgrano was fleeing when it was hit, are also prepared to believe everything we are being told about Afghanistan and terrorism in the US.

There are plenty of reasons to be skeptical. The magical appearance of the terrorists' luggage, passports and flight manual looks rather too good to be true. The dossier of "evidence" purporting to establish Bin Laden's guilt consists largely of supposition and conjecture. The ration packs being dropped on Afghanistan have no conceivable purpose other than to create the false impression that starving people are being fed. Even the anthrax scare looks suspiciously convenient. Just as the hawks in Washington were losing the public argument about extending the war to other countries, journalists start receiving envelopes full of bacteria, which might as well have been labeled"a gift from Iraq". This could indeed be the work of terrorists, who may have their own reasons for widening the conflict, but there are plenty of other ruthless operators who would benefit from a shift in public opinion.

Democracy is sustained not by public trust but by public skepticism. Unless we are prepared to question, to expose, to challenge and to dissent, we conspire in the demise of the system for which our governments are supposed to be fighting. The true defenders of America are those who are now being told that they are anti-American.

Guardian Newspapers Limited 2001

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