That which we call monomania by any other name would still be as dangerous… Our Man for Monday, John Calder, discusses where terrorism and patriotism converge and the consequences of governments, the press and militants – to paraphrase George Santayana – redoubling their efforts when they have forgotten their aim.
We use words as mind-set clichés and usually without much thought. George Washington was called a terrorist by the British parliament and, not that long ago, that was what Margaret Thatcher called Nelson Mandela, whose statue now stands proudly in Parliament Square along with Churchill, Abraham Lincoln, Disraeli, Gladstone and so many others, including Mandela’s one-time compatriot, although on the other side of the ideological fence, Jan Smuts. Those who are terrorists to some are patriots or freedom fighters to others, and this applies as much to the wars, invasions and resistance to invasion today, as to yesteryear. We ourselves are terrorists of the most cruel and inhumane stamp in Iraq and Afghanistan, fighting an enemy we have never tried to understand, that is totally muddled up in our public statements with others whom we have wanted to describe as fanatically evil.
Even those whose tendency is to see things in moderate terms can quite easily turn towards fanaticism under the barrage of one-sided news stories, official pronouncements and stirred-up prejudice that is aimed at once, once those in power make a decision and involve us in violence. Not only do we not know how many innocent civilians were killed by American and British bombardments and later by ground activities, but we don’t care or bother to count. It was well over two million. Every death of a British soldier gets wide and sympathetic press coverage and those professional soldiers (who are really hired killers) are seen as patriots by those who dare not show themselves as anything but patriotic. The situation is even worse in America, where unthinking and uncritical patriotism is the first of civic virtues. Not for nothing did Dr. Johnson observe in connection with a criminal pleading for his life that ‘patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.’
Real fanaticism is of course a slightly different matter. It underlies all deep religious belief and is open to no argument. Fanatics believe what they believe and everyone else must be totally wrong and probably seen as dangerously evil as well, deserving the worst fate the law can provide. Often it is carried out, not by the law, but by the fanatics themselves. They range from the Mongols of Genghis Khan to the Nazi Gestapo and Hitler Youth, to the Klu Klux Klan, some African tribes and a minority of Taliban Muslims. There are always agitators to stir things up and, unfortunately they are often not far removed from wrong-headed politicians, who once they have embarked on a military adventure cannot admit their mistakes and get ever deeper in justifying their actions and issuing denials that are increasingly seen for what they are. Claud Cockburn’s adage that nothing should be believed until it has been officially denied rings ever truer.
Fortunately there are a few sane and honest voices willing to risk their careers to speak out. The inevitable increase in humiliating disasters will, in time, bring public opinion around to pressure, and hopefully push out of office those whose criminal behaviour is irresponsible. Brown is obviously going to cling to his public office until the last moment and his career will end then. There may be pressure to prosecute him, as Pinochet ultimately was, and perhaps Blair as well. Bush, Rumsfeld and Cheney will always be seen as patriots by the larger American population, but history will ultimately put them into the back pages of their time which they so disgraced.
There is hope in the current depression, which is really only starting. As unemployment keeps mounting, protests become violent and national and private debt bring their inevitable consequence a revolution in social thinking is bound to follow. The wealth created by artificial intelligence and manufacturing and commerce generally will have to be diverted from profit and the rich, to pay for a giant new leisure class, using its time in creative or physical activity. There will be a great resistance, but it should happen. The alternative is a world war that will probably wipe us all out.
John Calder 10/9/09