What Freedom? What Democracy? What Civilization?
By Aseem Shrivastava
13 February, 2006
“Let us not speak falsely now, the hour is getting late.”
- Bob Dylan
Among the recent incidents following the publication of the cartoons of Mohammed was one which went oddly unreported. In Teheran, the Iranian police managed to catch a few European teenagers who were throwing glasses and plates at the crowd from the windows of the Danish consulate when Danish flags were being burnt on the street outside.
Later, the police took the boys into the premises of the nearest police station and gave the boys a thorough thrashing. One of the boys was kicked in his genitals by a policeman, while some others held him down. Another was held against the wall and given a sound hammering with batons on his back. A third was kicked by several of them as he lay prostrated on the ground. “Naughty little boys!”, and various unmentionable abuses were barked at them by the policemen, who were obviously revelling in the sadistic enterprise.
All this was recorded on video by someone and handed over to the TV channel that broadcast it this morning.
Back to reality.
Of course, I made up the above story, but not really, because all I did was to make the characters involved switch roles, much like in role plays that schoolkids are often asked to do in multicultural neighborhoods around Europe, in order to understand where “others are coming from.”
The above is precisely what could be seen on TV screens across the world a few hours ago, after News of the World released the videoclip of the beating of Iraqi teenage boys carried out by British soldiers some months back.
Let´s have, if only for a change, the same rules for everyone.
Let us not fall into the temptation of the old alibi that it was the work of a few bad men working in an otherwise decent establishment. In the video there are plenty of soldiers passing by, as the beating is going on. None tries to stop what is going on. How many times they must have seen such things, or done them themselves, or seen their superiors do or order them!
When brutalization is banal, it is too boring to talk about, let alone stop.
How many pictures and videos have been banned from the TV screens of the world at the orders of the Pentagon! If there was nothing to hide, we would indeed be living in a free world at the moment.
No. It won´t do to pass the buck back downwards. Brig. Gen. Janis Karpinski, the highest military officer to be punished (“scapegoated”, in her own words) for Abu Ghraib (she was demoted to the rank of a Colonel), in her recent book One Woman´s Army says that the entire chain of command, starting with Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld, must be held accountable for the crimes at the prison since the blame “goes all the way to the top.” Her interview by Amy Goodman on Democracy Now! speaks volumes for the depth of cover-up going on quietly.
The New Standard had reported some months back that an FBI email released by the government at the demand of the American Civil Liberties Union back in December, 2004 revealed that President Bush himself had sent out an Executive Order permitting the use of new interrogation techniques. The White House has neither confirmed nor denied that torture orders were given from the very top.
When the rot is this deep, it is understandable that justice cannot be done: for each finger pointing down at someone who infringed, there will be many times more pointing up towards the bosses who, far from disallowing, actually appear to have encouraged the tortures.
Britain has boasted much about its standards of military justice being some of the highest in the world. Let us see how far up the chain of command investigations are able to reach. Let´s see whether the Defence Secretary is called upon to answer for the crimes.
If we are serious about such matters as peace and security, let us stop denying what is obvious to people living in Muslim countries. Let us not just keep our attention anchored on the silly cartoons and their aftermath on the streets of the Middle East. Let us consider the far graver matters threatening the moral core of civilization itself.
Now the actions last week on the streets of Cairo and Jakarta and Teheran appear in quite a different light. It should have been obvious that the issue – for people living in those countries -did not concern freedom of expression at all. It should have been evident that it wasn´t just a matter of a few cartoons. The actions against the cartoons are only the little rippling surface of surging anger among people living in Muslim countries at the systematic injustices they continue to suffer at the hands of the West, especially the US and the UK. The Muslim clergy is able to make hay only because the blazing sun of foreign injustices refuses to set.
Abu-Ghraib revelations took place almost two years ago. Guantanamo even earlier. More recently, it was learnt that special CIA flights were being routed through Europe to carry suspects to be tortured in places where it would be safe to do so. Illegal detentions and tortures continue in a global archipelago of prisons run by Washington.
No significant (by which I mean proportionate) justice has been done with regards to the torture revelations. Muslims, much more so than others, cannot forget that. Nor has there been any promise that the practices would be stopped. On the contrary Washington has sought to legalize torture.
When one has come to live in such a brutalized global village, when men in suits and ties calmly impose barbarities on others in the name of defending something they call civilization and for passing on the torch of liberty to less fortunate souls in strange lands, the time has come to ask for a clear definition of civilization.
If you reserve your brutality for bar-room brawls and post-soccer angst, or export it abroad in the shape of oil-seeking military missions, masquerading as human rights campaigns, it does not make you any less barbaric than those Muslims who were openly burning European flags and throwing stones at consulates last week. On the contrary, machines kill more effectively than machetes.
Much deeper things than just freedom of speech are at stake these days. The very dignity of human beings is under the sword – everywhere.
Long before the first atom had been split and the first-ever bomb dropped from the air (by the Italians on Libya in 1911), the great 19th century American writer Herman Melville had written with a self-critical honesty that few in this modern world (which, we are assured, is freer today than ever before) would dare to, though the truth is far more grim today:
“the fiend-like skill we display in the invention of all manner of death-dealing engines, the vindictiveness with which we carry on our wars, and the misery and desolation that follow in their train, are enough of themselves to distinguish the white civilized man as the most ferocious animal on the face of the earth...it is needless to multiply the examples of civilized barbarity; they far exceed in the amount of misery they cause the crimes which we regard with such abhorrence in our less enlightened fellow-creature.”
Times have moved on much since Melville. But the world is such that the integrity of a white man still has greater impact on human destinies than the honesty of others (who are by no means exempt from their duty to find and tell the truth). One shudders to imagine what Melville would have written today. But the rest of the world expects exactly such honesty from Western citizens today. And we know, from the example of numerous noble exceptions alive, that they are capable of it. It is for them to terminate their indoctrinated ignorance, seek the truth and make it count.
We are truly scratching the bottom of the barrel of civilization now.
Civilization is not just about good manners, about neat and tidy exteriors which conceal a beastliness that would put animals to shame. At least with the anti-cartoon protests in Islamic countries, the barbarities were on the surface, obvious to onlookers. But how do you detect the insane, well-entrenched barbarism of civilized societies if you are only going to be allowed occasional peeks at the scale of organized evil, if the iceberg of dehumanized depravity pops up but once in a while, staying underground long enough to lull us all into the sleep of drugged babies – till the next set of revelations arrive? When dated defensive ideologies of freedom or human rights are used to defend indefensible state actions?
Freedom is dead. Democracy is dying. There are no human rights for those without power. The example of Iraq should teach us that there are things – loss of human dignity, for one, civil war for another – worse than dictatorship.
It is for the citizens of Europe and America to terminate their shameful silence, resume the struggles for freedom, peace and justice that have been in abeyance since the 1960s, and march in their millions on the streets of Western capitals.
Next month we await a show called “Death to Iran”. If it is allowed to be aired, Westerners will find little left in their pockets after they have paid their rising oil bills.
Aseem Shrivastava is an independent writer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org