TOM HAYDEN, NORMAN LEAR, BLACK PANTHERS
It’s only been a few days since I arrived in Palestine so not much has happened. Well, relatively speaking not much. I was traveling to Nabi Saleh to see my friend Bassem Tamimi. Since I didn’t have a car I had to travel by bus through Qalandia checkpoint to Ramallah then by service cab to the village and back – and on the way back, the girl soldier put down her phone long enough to examine my ID, realize I was Israeli and detain me. Then the next day, I went to the epic “Combat BDS” conference also known as, or rather should be known as “Crazy & Loony Bros. How Do We Kill BDS Circus” in Jerusalem. It was an unforgettable experience. And now, as I sit and write this, a soldier is being tried for murder because he shot a Palestinian who was already dead. So its not the soldier that shot and murdered the young Palestinian that’s on trial, it’s the soldier that shot him for fun after he lay dead, or nearly dead on the ground, ignored by several Israeli ambulances that were driving around him – that’s the soldier that’s being tried. But, as I said, it’s only been a few days.
I grew up here and when I come here I live in the home and in the room where I grew up. Very little has changed in Motza Elite, a quiet and disorganized little place where for the most part houses are surrounded by trees and vegetation. Sure, the trees are taller, their trunks thicker, but it is still a quiet, beautiful little place with no soldiers, police or border guards and of course, no Arabs. It is the perfect white, Jewish, privileged community and it is the perfect place to get away from it all, or as most people who live here do, ignore any of it exists. “It” is the rest of Palestine.
I will start with what seems to me the most bizarre thing going on at this moment. Two young Palestinians, who attacked fully armed soldiers using knives, were killed. Ambulances are on the scene taking care of the soldiers who were slightly wounded and they drive around the bodies of the young Palestinians. Suddenly a shot is heard. A soldier who was not on the scene originally decides to shoot one of the Palestinians lying on the ground, motionless, in the head. He claims he saw some movement and was concerned the victim on the ground might detonate a bomb. Now for some reason this soldier is charged with murder.
It’s a good idea from time to time to travel around the country as Palestinians do. Use buses, service cabs and go through checkpoints. It’s inconvenient, takes a lot of time and is totally unpredictable. So that’s what we did. Fadwa, my better half and I took a bus to East Jerusalem then another bus to Ramallah where we met Bassem Tamimi. We had coffee at “Stars and Bucks Café” and then the three of us took a service cab to Nabi Saleh. Bassem was supposed to be in the US now on a speaking tour. This would have been his third tour since receiving his visa to the US. But suddenly, with no real explanation and no apparent reason he got notice that his visa has been revoked. So American audiences were denied the chance to hear him and he remains here in Palestine trying to help the nearly twenty youth from Nabi Saleh, who are in prison, including his son Wa’ed.
We arrived in Nabi Saleh, spent the afternoon there and then returned to Jerusalem. We took a service cab to Ramallah, a cab to the checkpoint, tried to find our way through the maze that makes up the checkpoint, and thankfully the Palestinian vendors outside pointed us in the right direction. The soldier behind the window rarely takes the trouble to lift their eyes when the ID is presented. So, I press my ID against the window expecting to be waved through when something caught her eye long enough for her to see that mine was an Israeli ID. With nothing better to do she decided to look into this strange phenomenon, an Israeli coming through a Palestinian checkpoint. Thinking I was probably some kind of “human rights” agitator or something she called me from inside, “Are you with human rights?”
“ISRAEL IS FIGHTING FOR YOU”: EXPOSING THE FALSEHOODS IN THE RECENT AND RENEWED ZIONIST PROPAGANDA TECHNIQUE AGAINST THE PALESTINIAN STRUGGLE FOR JUSTICE
G4S CONCEDES TO BDS PRESSURE; SET TO LEAVE ISRAEL
WITCH-HUNTING FOR ISRAEL
MORE ON ISRAEL’S COMBATING BDS
“Are you with B’Tselem”
“Don’t you know Jews are not allowed to cross here?
“What were you doing in Ramallah?”
“We bought strawberries, and had coffee.”
Fadwa is not the problem because she is not Jewish. I am the problem. Still they ask her the same questions and we are “invited” in to a waiting room and sit down.
We sit and wait. The room is maybe three feet by three feet and its freezing cold. We start looking at the graffiti in Arabic that is engraved into the walls. Ten minutes go by and nothing happens.
“What are we waiting for?”
“The police are on their way?’
“To question you?”
“There is an order from the colonel or general that prohibits Jews from crossing here.”
She should read my book, The General’s Son, Journey of an Israeli in Palestine, there is a chapter called, The Commanding General’s Order.
“OK, we wont do it again.”
“The police will be here any minute.”
We wait ten more minutes and the same conversation takes place, then again and again about every ten minutes. Finally, she hands me my ID and says, “You can go now.” No explanation, no nothing.
It was a cold, rainy day as thousands entered the convention center in Jerusalem. Fresh coffee, sandwiches and pastries were free, security was tight and I tried to make myself as un-noticeable as possible. “Just blend in,” I thought to myself when I heard someone say, “look that’s Miko Peled.” Crap! Not the place I want to be recognized. Every kind of Israeli crazy was there. I look over, and it’s Anthony Lowenstein, the Auzzie journalist and Dan Cohen, an American journalist. Both are crazy Jews like me who came to see this circus. We sat down and then it started. The world’s most self-absorbed, self-righteous and criminally insane society was putting on a show, with its best actors playing lead roles. This was the “How To Combat BDS” conference, put on by Israel’s largest newspaper, Yediot Aharonot.
Israeli President Reuven Rivlin was up first. Israel could hardly have selected a better-suited man for the job of representing the state and the people of Israel. Rivlin is a white, European colonizer, constantly patting Israel and himself on the back for being a liberal democratic melting pot. “BDS foundation is de-legitimization of Israel without connection to what Israel does” President Rivlin said and he added that “the world is in awe of Israeli exceptionalism.” He ended his remarks by saying that he sleeps better than ever knowing the Israeli army is the most moral army on earth. Talk about “opium to the masses.”
Anthony Lowenstein wrote a piece about the conference everyone should read, but here is quick review of some of my favorite highlights: Gilad Erdan minister of public security, strategic affairs and Hasbarah (all that is one ministerial office) who has been designated as lead role in the fight against BDS said that it’s all about legitimacy. Indeed this is about legitimacy. Everything Israel does is about claiming it has legitimacy when clearly, being a settler-colonialist project that established a racist system in Palestine, it hasn’t got any legitimacy at all. Erdan went on to say that BDS activists would soon begin to pay for de-legitimization of Israel. He didn’t specify how they would pay, but one can be sure that all dedicated BDS activists expect that the struggle to free Palestine will be a tough one and will readily confront obstacles to achieve this goal.
Then Jewish Billionaire Ron Lauder came up to speak. He said that since anti-Semitic campus groups such as Students for Justice in Palestine and the Muslim Students Association are so well funded, poor Jewish students can’t complete and have no tools to defend themselves. You had to wonder if he is lying or just totally clueless. His remedy is that he will provide the funds for Pro Israeli groups on campus so that the Zionist voice is heard. As president of the World Jewish Congress he works closely with Jewish leaders around the world to push for anti-BDS legislation. Interestingly enough, he was the first one to mention Omar Barghouti, who heads the BDS movement, “why does he want to destroy Israel?” Lauder asked. If they had any sense they would have invited him to explain.
The EU ambassador to Israel was on a panel with some of the worst racist figures in Israel, including Danny Dayan. Dayan who was rejected by the government of Brazil to be Israel’s ambassador was now nominated to be Israel’s Consul General in NY. The EU ambassador said that West Bank settlement products are welcome in the EU, and that the labeling of settlement products is done merely for information purposes. More opium! Dore Good, general director of the Israeli foreign ministry said that we must expose the fact that the Islamic jihad and the Muslim Brotherhood established BDS. He repeated this several times even though it is completely untrue, practicing what was once said about a lie, that if it is repeated enough times, it becomes truth. Well, I doubt that in this case it will work. The day ended shortly after that and the three exhausted Jewish infiltrators drove away to bask in the warmth of Arab East Jerusalem. Who knows what the next few days may bring.
As half a million souls have evaporated into smoke, largely at the hands of the Assad regime, Max Blumenthal instructs his readers to be suspicious of the organizations dedicated to putting a lid on the suffering.
He performs this by making a few salient points about the problematic nature of NGOization, funding channels and influence of big powers which tend to haunt aid organizations everywhere, particularly those operating in desperate situations. He goes on to point out that those organizations are toeing the line of Washington’s foreign policy elites who are calling for an NFZ in order to overthrow the regime. Of course, one needn’t wonder if maybe, just maybe, the countless barrel bombs, cluster bombs, chlorine bombs, thermite bombs and bunker busters may have anything to do with compelling one to calling for an NFZ.
What I’m interested in what went on in his head before he sharpened his pencils. What is the purpose of transforming aid organizations during the time of war and genocide into objects of scrutiny and suspicion? Who does that serve?
The task is made difficult once one recalls that Blumenthal, after all, used to be one of us—that is, on the side of Syria’s democrats and revolutionaries. In 2012, he resigned from al-Akhbar over what he called the “newspaper leadership’s pro-Assad tendency”, pointing out that:
“Yet the mere existence of Western meddling does not automatically make Assad a subaltern anti-imperial hero at the helm of a “frontline resisting state,” as Ghorayeb has sought to paint him. Nor does it offer any legitimate grounds for nickel-and-diming civilian casualty counts, blaming the victims of his regime, or hyping the Muslim Threat Factor to delegitimize the internal opposition . . . Besides exploiting the Palestinian cause, the Assad apologists have eagerly played the Al Qaeda card to stoke fears of an Islamic takeover of Syria . . .In joining the Assad regime’s campaign to delegitimize the Syrian opposition by casting it as a bunch of irrational jihadis (ironically, they seem to have little problem with Hezbollah’s core Islamist values), Assad’s apologists have unwittingly adopted the “war on terror” lexicon introduced by George W. Bush, Ariel Sharon, and the neocon cabal after 9-11. Not only have they invoked the scary specter of The Terrorists (gasp!) to justify morally indefensible acts of violent repression . . . “
What bothers Blumenthal today isn’t the somewhat common silence or apologia for Assad and Putin in alt-journalism and left-wing circles, nor is it the ongoing intervention of Russia, Iran and sectarian militias on behalf of a brutal regime. What bothers him is a hypothetical regime change operation undertaken by the United States. These are classic, even caricatural, tropes that he railed against not too long ago.
Enquiring minds wish to know: how can someone who has stood on the side of justice consistently suddenly barbarize themselves this quickly?
“The great Indian disaster of 1947 has barely entered the public consciousness. Distance, and a sense of helplessness, presumably account nowadays for this seeming indifference, just as they account for the relative calm that greets the news from Nigeria. What can one do about it, and who cares about dead African babies anyway? Certainly not the New Left: its leaders have not uttered a sound on the subject. But then there is no political mileage to be got out of a conflict which opposes Africans (with some foreign backing) to each other. As for morality, we all know by now what the Realpolitiker of the New Left (not to mention the Old Right) think of such sickly bourgeois sentiments.”—George Lichtheim
If it has been said that the institution of slavery is war and can only be defeated by war, the same can be said about the Assad regime. No serious observer thinks that Assad will cede an inch of power to the opposition without military defeat or threat. The regime has made up its mind about a Final Solution a long time ago. “Assad or we burn the country” as a pro-regime graffiti encapsulates the logic.
Blumenthal is forcefully aware of all of this. In fact, he’s written about it and has likely concluded that the war of extermination will continue unabated unless there’s some limited form of foreign intervention.
But he’s grown torn between maintaining an internationalist commitment to Syrian democrats and the fear of being in the bad company of neocons. It’s clear that Blumenthal simply sees no other way—or lacks the confidence to do so—to appear to be in such bad company without compromising himself morally.
Knowing this, he inserts his head and hands into the pillory. Thinking to himself that only by earning the scorn of neoconseratives—whom he could represent as the spear of the backlash—can he turn himself into a victim deserving commiseration and, in his mind, self-exoneration from the guilt of silence. And here’s something he could really believe in. But what he doesn’t know is that in the process he has doubly compromised himself by turning the figure of the neocon into a straw man that can be hung over the head of the defenceless and their advocates in the West.
Hence why I don’t think what he wrote is journalism. It’s an exercise in a sort of secularized Catholic penance for the white man’s burden. In other words, he has contrived an all-too solipsistic performance of self-flaeggelation that has effectively shut Syrians’ voices out, hence why he didn’t interview a single Syrian for his piece. The issue isn’t what Syrians think, the issue is that John McCain happens to agree with some of their demands.
Blumenthal wants to have it both ways. He, and his contemporaries, think they can sustain a politics of Realpolitik while avoiding the impression that they are callous. He wants to maintain the commitment of refusing a compromise with U.S. imperialism in a world far from ideal (such virtue! such courage!) while avoiding an uneasy conscience. Why call for some form of limited intervention when it can fail and perhaps haunt your career forever? After all, it’s only dead Syrians.
“I was right to be wrong, while you and your kind were wrong to be right”—Pierre Coutrade
But he sees a bigger payoff with what he’s written. He’s banking on the likelihood that sooner or later the United States and its European allies will intervene to put a halt to the carnage that is tearing not just the Middle-East apart, but at the very fabric of European democracy. In other words, he wants the United States to intervene.
That is the only way he can be redeemed for what he wrote. And when that happens, he’d like to be there to tell us that despite his Machiavellian cynicism that was fiercely criticized, he was right all along. He has crucified himself on the cross, and like the Christ’s body, he carries within him the prospect of redemption. In his mind, he may be wrong but he’s wrong for the right reasons.
It is worth noting that Christopher Hitchens took such a gamble too when he decided to support the invasion of Iraq—betraying his own principles and friends in the process. Like Hitchens, he carries a violently contemptuous attitude towards his former comrades whom he derides for their naïveté, principle and “idealism.” Despite adopting the symbols of liberation and inverting the signs, Hitchens after all still considered himself a leftist, even a Marxist, as late as 2010. Because isn’t that an effective prophylactic against an uneasy conscience?
By attacking the only groups and individuals who are committed to the protection of civilians in Syria, Blumenthal has found a target to sublimate and project what he called his “anguish” at the carnival of apologia and conspicuous silence from those on the Left After all, we—those who stress political and arms support for Syria’s democrats—have been fighting a lost battle for the hearts and minds of progressives in the West. Not knowing how to help without committing the Great Apostasy of demanding that the liberal democracies pull their weight around Syria’s democrats, Blumenthal has come to be tired of the despair and discomfort of calling for help from the imperium—who wouldn’t? What he wants instead is to make sense of it all. He wants to give his life and its place in History meaning.
That’s why he thinks it’s 2003. Those were simpler times, when the world was divided between the Good and the Neocon. When opposing your government’s war assured you immunity from moral conundrums. And if you buy the thesis that history does indeed repeat itself, you can avoid ruminating on the constantly terrifying novelty of the present.
Shorn of all substance, all that remains is the affect and optics of interrogating imperialism. But if you look past the optics, you realize that the ontology at play remains deeply entrenched in a colonial unconscious. “We are the prime movers of History” is a fairly therapeutic thought amidst the chaos.
While the exercise of military control over an occupied country may be expected to inflict inevitable pain and trauma on the citizens of that country, the history of Israeli policy has far exceeded any “pragmatic” needs of an occupier to dominate and subdue a local population. The Israeli humiliation of Palestinians is an end in itself. Humiliation is thus one of the most important injuries experienced in the Palestinian context and yet, it is under-reported to such a degree that humiliation is viewed as almost normal.
Despite resolutions by the United Nations, the global acquiescence to the occupation of Palestine by the previous colonial powers has denied Palestinians their freedom, their status as citizens, and their exercise of human rights on an international level. At the level of society, the occupation has generated layers of humiliation through the maintenance of inequity within power relationships and perceptions of cultural status. In addition to these broad sources of injury, there are endless repetitive personal experiences of humiliation from which no Palestinian individual is spared.
The omnipresent Israeli forces come into daily contact with Palestinian men, women and children; in these interactions, humiliation and shame are typical. One asks: how can a humiliated man look into the eyes of his wife to make her feel protected and proud? How can a humiliated parent promise a future to a little one who is held in the hands of a human being whose spirit has been broken?
In one such example, Issa, a man who worked as a driver for a medical organisation, had transported a group of health workers to an isolated area affected by political violence (all names have been changed to preserve confidentiality). As he was waiting inside his vehicle for his colleagues to return, soldiers approached to ask what he was doing. He produced the proper documentation demonstrating that he and the medical organisation were authorised to enter this location and explained that he was waiting for colleagues to drive them back. A soldier began to shout at him so that everyone could hear: “You’re here to treat dogs! Come to my house to treat my sick dog!” The driver responded, “I don’t treat anyone. I just drive the car.” In response, the soldier struck Issa in the face.
In another case, my patient Mazen was walking home from work late one night in the Mount Scopus area of Jerusalem. He was stopped by three soldiers who pushed him against a wall for a ceremony of humiliation that included kicking him and stripping off his clothes. They demanded the names of his wife, sisters and mother and insulted these women with filthy epithets. They insisted that Mazen repeat these obscenities until he was finally reduced to tears. At this point, the soldiers burst into laughter.
In another example, the Israeli army attacked a Palestinian prison in the town of Jericho in March and forced both the detainees and the Palestinian correction officers to undress. The Israelis took photographs of the detainees and the prison officers in their underwear and distributed them on social media.
Forcing Palestinians to undress is in fact a common practice, seen regularly at the airport and at the ubiquitous checkpoints. Security guards habitually place the headscarves and the shoes of Palestinian women in the same airport plastic bin for mechanical scanning. In fact, I once requested my shoes and headscarf be placed into separate bins to avoid dirtying my headscarf but was told that if I did not comply with “regulations” I would not be permitted to board my flight.
The internet provides frequent opportunities to expose Palestinians to shame and humiliation, such as the degrading practice of young female soldiers who pose with blindfolded and handcuffed elderly Palestinian men and post these pictures on social media.
These omnipresent acts of personal humiliation are not simply collateral by-products of occupation, but its core policy. An essential feature of the occupation is to target and undermine every facet of Palestinian identity, especially those aspects of identity that are a source of pride for the emerging intellectual and moral development of a Palestinian nation. Humiliation acts to crush the sources of autonomy and independence. It aims to reduce Palestinians to a state of passive silence. At the same time, humiliation of Palestinians is a tool that relieves the anxieties and apprehensions of the Israeli forces and their beneficiaries among the Israeli public.
A yet more painful face of humiliation is experienced when our leaders are pushed to villainy and subservience to Israel. The surrender of the Palestinian leadership to Israeli aggression undermines the strength of the Palestinian people in psychological ways as well as in its concrete effects upon economic production. Such Palestinian leadership projects to the world an image of weak beggars deserving only mendacity and lends a hand to efforts to prosecute Palestinian resistance and opposition, while exhausting the resources of the Palestinian population with fees, taxes and loans. And in the midst of these harms, the Palestinian Authority sent a delegation of 15 high-profile members led by Muhammad Al-Madani, a member of the PLO Executive Committee, to “enumerate the merits” of the deceased in a condolence call to the family of Munir Ammar, the head of the Israeli Civil Administration that had been responsible for supporting the illegal settlements in the West Bank!
These stories should be told, but they are often not.
The enactment of humiliation has a goal: to produce an intense sense of weakness within Palestinian individuals and in the community as a whole. The experience of humiliation is unspeakable; the associated shame prevents people from putting their stories into words and renders these stories resistant to narration. Fear and hypocrisy in turn silence public validation of the experience of humiliation. Expecting a failure of public validation, the humiliated are then further isolated. The experience of humiliation then becomes inaccessible to reprocessing; it becomes impossible to construct a counter claim in which the victim is conceptualised as a protagonist and the events are charged with new meanings that reconnect the victim within a network of supportive relationships.
Recently, Israel’s representative at the United Nations was elected as chairman of the UN Legal Committee on the very week of the anniversary of its illegal occupation of Palestinian lands in 1967 and despite its long history of contempt for UN resolutions and violations of international laws. Events such as these deny the Palestinian people the eligibility to articulate counterclaims on the world stage which report upon our experiences of injustice and humiliation. These events render us more vulnerable to the narrative that our humiliation is necessary, appropriate and just.
It is an unfortunate fact that humiliation sets psychological factors into motion which further impair and harm the humiliated. The emotions of a humiliated person don’t stop further humiliation from occurring, quite the contrary. Many humiliated persons become exquisitely attuned to the feelings and expectations of the perpetrator and vigilantly avoid recognising their own rage. There may be impulses to identify with the perpetrator and to justify the humiliation of others who proudly resist it. We see these dynamics in Palestinians who justify the humiliation of those who dare to resist the occupier; we see these dynamics in those who blame others who complain of humiliation, claiming that these victims are merely vulnerable or weak personalities, as if the experience of humiliation had taken place only in their heads rather than in reality.
From a psychological perspective, the experience of humiliation is highly pathogenic. It undermines the self and leads to states of impotent rage. Indeed, when patients present to a mental health clinic with diagnostic profiles of major depression, anxiety, or even suicidal tendencies, there are often stories of humiliation behind these symptoms. Humiliation can also lead to intense active anger; powerless in the face of the perpetrator, the victim may view anyone as a representation of the “other”. Through group activation of these dynamics, we see a vicious cycle of revenge on the humiliated community itself through the perpetuation of further humiliation and violence; I’m writing these lines just after the killing of five Palestinians today at the hands of Palestinians in Jenin and Nablus.
Humiliation restricts the capacity to trust and to grow. In this way, the tyranny and humiliation that protect the occupation tend to diminish the trust and cooperation between the Palestinian community and its members to the narrowest organic level; the family, the tribe and the political party. This narrowing of the circle of social inclusion often leads to antagonism and black-and-white thinking. These impulses towards revenge are born from humiliation and inequalities of circumstance, not innate or cultural factors. We see these elements at work in Palestine following the elections of 2006, when the process of constructive political evolution was reduced to rubble due to, among other causes, political factionalism and polarisation. Thus Israel was able to erect its flags of victory over the defeated Palestinian collective cause. These dynamics were at play in the forces that resulted in the separation in Gaza nine years ago. Experiences of humiliation change the fabric of society, creating new social facts which are not easy to erase from history; they are recorded in the soul, in memories, in fantasies and in the formation of new social structures.
The therapeutic interventions that prevent people from running away from their stories and help them to comprehend the power dynamic are interventions which reframe the experience in a new appraisal. In therapy, the individual’s capacity to generate a counterclaim is identified, fostered and exercised. The development of a personal counterclaim is a key to restoring the individual’s ownership over his own life and its purpose.
It is often necessary to explore in great detail the victim’s experiences and to recreate the narrative of events. Having clarified the events, it is possible to then examine how the victim understands the mind of the perpetrator: why did the perpetrator need to humiliate, coerce, degrade and violate the victim? When these questions are pondered, the victim often can appraise the perpetrator from the inside out as insecure, anxious, perverted and greedy. The coloniser is seen as bolstering a pretended status in front of the “natives”, a fantasy requiring the coloniser to debase and objectify them. From this perspective, my patient Mazen came to recognise that the Israeli soldiers perceived him to be a masculine and protective husband, and that they then experienced anxieties about their own manhood; their envy and resentment of his adequacy found an outlet in forcing him to enact an obscene betrayal of his wife, mother and sister.
The cause of Palestinian liberation likewise requires a reframing of humiliation in both an individual and a national level. Liberation requires active participation, commitment to the principles of equality and political development. It requires a moral and a cultural maturity that are capable of understanding and containing impulses for revenge. Liberation requires the abandonment of policies of exclusion, deprivation, or submission to tyranny which crushes resistance through inducing passivity or inducing vengeance and social fragmentation. Out of experiences of humiliation and through our insight into these experiences, Palestine can forge a liberated identity focused on human rights and human dignity.
During the Siege of Sarajevo in 1994, when a Bosnian Serb mortar shell landed in a marketplace, killing 68 and wounding 144, US president Bill Clinton, who had campaigned on a promise of “never again” to genocide, threw up his arms. “Until those folks get tired of killing each other over there, bad things will continue to happen,” he said.
Two decades later, confronted with indiscriminate bombings in Aleppo and a starvation siege in Madaya, Barack Obama waxed similarly fatalistic. “The Middle East is going through a transformation that will play out for a generation”; this, he said, was “rooted in conflicts that date back millennia.”
There are no conflicts in the Middle East that date back millennia. The conflict in Syria is just over five years old. Nothing about it is fixed. In its scope and its intensity, in its balance of forces and its cast of characters, the conflict has constantly evolved. The only thing that has remained static, however, is the international response.
In speaking of the horrors unfolding in Syria, it is hard not to get a sense of déjà vu. Everything that can be said about Aleppo has already been said about Homs, Houla, Daraya, Douma. But with each new execration comes a growing sense that, for all the obtrusive violence, for all the pleas and revelations, we are plunging into the deep, smothered by apathy, abandoned by hope.
Syria today is a free fire zone with no check on criminality. The red line that Barack Obama set was blithely crossed. It proved to be a Pavolvian exercise in reverse. In having his bluff called, the constitutionally weak president was himself zapped. Never eager for action in Syria, he has become fearful of setting new limits lest their violation further expose his pusillanimity.
Obama betrayed the people of Syria twice over. First by drawing a line on chemical weapons, at a time when most Syrians were being killed by conventional means; and then by failing to enforce it, giving Assad an unconditional license to kill by all means, including chemical weapons.
For the US, there is no categorical imperative against genocide. “Never again” is retrospective grandstanding. It is easy to take unequivocal positions when the political questions have been settled and there is no price to pay. The US has rarely acted to prevent atrocities in the present and, to the extent that it has, it has been guided entirely by political imperatives.
No one has ever suffered for denouncing the Nazi holocaust. But at the time of the holocaust, few acted to stop it. Leaders then were speaking about political interests, resource limits, and military priorities—same as today. “Never again” they said only afterwards.
Then came Rwanda. “Never again!” Then Srebrenica. “Never again!”
In 1995, when the US finally acted in Bosnia, the conflict was no worse than it had been a year before. But it was an election year and by flexing military muscle, Bill Clinton was able to erase the impression of weakness. Cynical motives notwithstanding, the action put an end to four years of “bad things” even though “those folks…over there” hadn’t yet “tired of killing each other”.
Barack Obama is on his way out. He has nothing to gain politically from confronting Assad. And morally—well, he is “proud of this moment” when he abandoned Syrians to Assad’s inexhaustible appetite for killing. Nearly three times as many people were killed in the two years after Obama’s embarrassing climb-down than had died in the two years before—by “ancient hatreds,” he might say.
Obama has meanwhile taken to encouraging “negotiations” and proclaiming that there is “no military solution” to the conflict. Assad, Putin, and Qassem Soleimani disagree. For them the negotiations are a temporising measures while proceeding with their conquest. But when the Syrian opposition protests against this farce, it is they who get painted as intransigents.
The US is no mere bystander. As in Bosnia, it has actively blocked the transfer of much needed anti-aircraft capacity to Syrian rebels, allowing the regime and Russia to bomb with impunity. And by accepting Russia’s “war on terror” rationale, it has made itself complicit in its crimes. Indeed, the US legitimized Russia and the regime’s ferocious aerial assault when its military spokesman alleged that “It’s primarily al-Nusra who holds Aleppo, and of course, al-Nusra is not part of the cessation of hostilities.” (Nusra has a small presence in the city but it certainly doesn’t “hold Aleppo”).
But if the US hasn’t fared well in Syria, neither has the UN.
In 2005, with much fanfare, the UN had introduced the doctrine of “right to protect” (R2P), codifying “never again” into a norm of international conduct. Its timely application in Syria might have saved hundreds of thousand lives. But even as the UN secretary general Ban Ki-Moon was acknowledging the “shame” of its failure in Rwanda and Srebrenica, the UN was giving cover to the regime’s starvation sieges across Syria, censoring its documents, and obfuscating responsibility with the anodyne language of “both sides”.
But as the Italian writer Primo Levi, a holocaust survivor, noted: “to confuse [perpetrators] with their victims is a moral disease or an aesthetic affectation or a sinister sign of complicity; above all, it is a precious service rendered (intentionally or not) to the negators of truth.”
The negators of truth are myriad. Not just governments, but also people—and above all media institutions (especially the London Review of Books and Democracy Now!, two institutions that have tried to systematically subvert truth).
Levi had observed in 1974 that “every age has its own fascism” and they are enforced “not just through the terror of police intimidation, but by denying and distorting information, by undermining systems of justice, by paralyzing the education system, and by spreading in a myriad subtle ways nostalgia for a world where order reigned.”
Where once “no justice, no peace” was considered a truism, demands for justice are now deemed a threat to “stability”. Peace without justice is the nostalgia the negators of truth hanker after. Preserving truth is therefore the first step toward confronting fascism. But truth alone will not change the imbalance of forces.
In international politics, the power of knowledge is trumped by the knowledge of power. Negotiations without leverage are doomed to fail.
It is by now clear that no power will intervene to aid the Syrian people. But regional powers, unlike the US, will not be shielded from the consequences of a regime victory. In the form of the “refugee crisis”, Europe is already feeling the repercussions. It is time for regional powers to step up and provide vetted rebel groups with MANPADS. Only by revoking the regime’s aerial capacity can it be induced to negotiate in good faith.
R2P and “never again” were false hopes. The new moral order that was struggling to come forth is now dead. But that is no reason to let the monsters reign. People have a right to defend themselves; let’s give them the means.
– A version of this article first appeared at The New Arab.