What's Left

April 25, 2003

Double Standards in Menken's Land

By Stephen Gowans

It would be considered the height of political incorrectness to wonder whether the United States is home to the largest collection of dunderheads in the world, though American journalist H.L. Menken ("no one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people") seemed to get away with it. Nicer people point to the awesome power of the US propaganda system as explanation for the idiocy of millions of Americans, who are prepared at any moment, as acts of patriotism, to accept the most flagrant lies of their leaders. So it is that the President can boldly declare, without fear of being reduced to a laughing stock, that Saddam for damn sure had weapons of mass destruction, only he cleverly hid them or destroyed them so they'll probably never be found. Bill Clinton had a similar story: Slobo for damn sure killed all those people, only he cleverly hid the corpses or destroyed them, so they'll probably never be found. To be charitable, a lot of bright people, who wanted to believe in something, have been fooled into believing all kinds of nonsense, so it's not the intelligence of Americans that's in question, but their overwhelming need to believe in the goodness of their country and its leaders that make them saps for unscrupulous, lying, thugs.

US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld makes the laughable claim that US bombing of Iraqi cities was so precise that "that people could go out on the streets of those towns during bombing raids." [1] Yet it is only his opposite number, Iraqi information minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf, who is tagged with the pre-nominal adjective "comical" for telling huge whoppers.

What's more, while the self-described skeptics of the American press corps hooted derisively at Comical Ali's increasingly ridiculous spin, the New York Times could run a perfectly absurd story about Iraq having destroyed all of its banned weapons on the eve of the invasion (so that's why they can't be found) and the self-described skeptics utter not a peep of protest. Surely, this story falls into the category of "Do they really think we're so stupid to believe this?" To which the answer must be, one-half the population doesn't, but the other one-half--including the American press corps--does.

War crimes are openly committed by the US and acknowledged in the US press, but they're not called war crimes. In an April 20th article, The New York Times makes repeated references to the targeting of civilian infrastructure during Gulf Wars I and II, a clear war crime. But at no point in the article are the words "war crimes" uttered.

United States military officials here make the point that the precision of the smart-bombs dropped on Baghdad limited damage to the most important infrastructure, including power and water facilities.... [T]he damage this time was far less than during the gulf war in 1991, when power and water plants were direct targets for bombing. But...the limited bombing this time underscores the amount of damage from 1991 that has not been repaired, and the cost of rebuilding it now. Electricity was never fully restored in Baghdad, which had regular power failures. Water filtration plants are not up to modern standards. [2]

It is illegal to attack civilian targets, but US forces regularly bomb power grids, factories, roads, bridges, water treatment facilities, and TV stations.

[A] U.S. warplane fired two missiles at a television station used by Al-Jazeera, the Arabic-language satellite network. The resulting explosion killed a reporter who was doing a live broadcast from the station's roof, and also wounded a member of his crew. A Central Command spokesman said that U.S. forces 'came under significant enemy fire from the building where the Al-Jazeera journalists were working.' Al-Jazeera's chief editor questioned the attack, however, pointing out that the network gave its office's exact co-ordinates to the Pentagon before the war started. And the Committee to Protect Journalists pointed out that Al-Jazeera's offices were on the wrong side of a similar incident in Afghanistan. [3]
The closest the media gets to declaring these US violations to be "war crimes" is when they call them "controversial," as in the "controversial use of cluster bombs," or the "controversial use of depleted uranium munitions," or the "controversial use of overwhelming force in civilian areas," or "the controversial targeting of civilian morale." This is a bit like saying Hitler's invasion of Poland was controversial. Unspoken, is the assumption that US forces don't commit war crimes. Accordingly, the Bush administration can complain bitterly about Iraqi paramilitary forces dressing as civilians, citing this as an act of "perfidy" under the Geneva Conventions, while US special forces troops operate in civilian clothes. Iraq's leaders can be threatened with war crimes trials for allowing Iraqi TV to broadcast videotape of American POWs and war-dead, while videotape of Iraqi prisoners and war-dead is regularly shown on US TV. The rule is: whatever the US does is fine and just and admirable. The same behavior on the part of official enemies is cruel and unjust and odious. The unbridled hypocrisy is justified by insisting there's no moral equivalence between the heinous acts of the US, and the heinous acts of whoever the US is on a mission to conquer.

Seventy-five so-called independent Cuban journalists and dissidents ( independent of the Cuban government, but not independent of Washington) are arrested and thrown into prison for working with the head of the US Interests Section to restore good old American capitalism (and good old American capitalists) to the Caribbean island. That the journalists are openly working with a representative of a hostile foreign power is swept aside as if it is a matter of no moment. An American receiving funding, equipment and logistical support from the representative of an "axis of evil" country to pursue a campaign of toppling the US government would be thrown into the hoosegow and kept there indefinitely, without charge, as an enemy combatant--a perfectly acceptable measure, it would be said, to safeguard the security of America and Americans.

Meanwhile, as Washington thumps its tub over the jailing of the US-backed dissidents, 600 prisoners, including children, rot in tiger cages at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base for the crime of defending their country against invasion by US forces. Bush, who as governor of Texas executed 152 people, expresses outrage over Cuba's execution by firing squad of three hijackers who threatened to kill the passengers of a Cuban ferry. It's the first execution in Cuba in three years. Scores of executions have been carried out in the US over the same period.

A state of emergency has been in effect in Serbia since March 12, following the assassination of Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic. Some two thousand people have been snatched from the streets by police, detained without charge, held incommunicado, without access to family, and without access to a lawyer. Judicial review of the arrests is forbidden. The press is barred from discussing the state of emergency. Industrial strikes and political rallies are outlawed. The Minister of the Interior announces that anyone resisting the police will be "liquidated." If Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez did this, Washington, and reliably, the media, would be outraged. If Castro did this, there would be gales of protest, and complaints about his bad behavior. Meanwhile, the press continues to refer to North Korea, and North Korea alone, as a police state.

According to one newspaper, "the decision by the unpredictable North Korean regime to whip up the rhetoric during the talks on defusing the ongoing nuclear crisis bodes ill for any improvement in relations between Washington and Pyongyang." The newspaper would have got closer to the truth had it said, "the decision by the bellicose Washington regime to issue a virtual declaration of war by adding North Korea to its 'axis of evil' list (this, done, according to ex-Bush speechwriter David Frum, because Pyongyang 'needed to feel a firmer hand'), along with Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld circulating a memorandum to key members of the Bush administration proposing that Washington team up with China to oust the North Korean leadership [4], bodes ill for any improvement in relations between Washington and Pyongyang." It might have been added, as well, that Pyongyang has been importuning Washington for bilateral talks and has proposed a nonaggression pact, both repudiated out of hand by the State Department.

Still, the media are loath to portray the United States in the country's accustomed role of serial aggressor, preferring instead, to speak of US threats as the tough talk of a global gendarme, aimed at bringing a wayward--and dangerous--regime to heel. Thus, US officials can make openly provocative statements---"I would not rule out the same sequence of events for Iran and North Korea as for Iraq" [5]--yet it is Pyongyang's assertion of its right to self-defense that is splashed frighteningly across the pages of newspapers as the "bellicose rhetoric" of an "unpredictable regime."

A specialist in Russian security affairs can write a long essay in a major newspaper in which she accuses Russian President Vladimir Putin of using a tragedy (the bombing of Moscow apartment buildings) as an "excuse" to invade Chechnya. The chances of a major Western newspaper turning over its op-ed section to anyone prepared to accuse US President George Bush of having used a tragedy (Sept. 11) as an excuse to invade Afghanistan (and Iraq) are slim. The same Russian security affairs specialist can go further by suggesting that once motive and opportunity are taken into account, it's not unreasonable to suspect Putin as the brains behind the apartment bombings.  Anyone who says it's not unreasonable to suspect the Bush administration as being implicated in Sept. 11, given motive and opportunity, is dismissed as a loony conspiracy theorist. Foreign leaders being capable of grossly flagitious acts is not beyond contemplation. American leaders being capable of grossly flagitious acts is unthinkable.

Although it is only a privileged minority that has set up a fevered opposition to Hugo Chavez's reforms in Venezuela, the US State Department admonishes Chavez for his "lack of respect for democracy." Meanwhile, Washington marshals support for a war of aggression against Iraq, receiving the backing of such leaders as Spain's Jose Maria Aznar, despite the vast majority of his people being opposed to the war. Rather than being scorned as a de facto dictator, and reproved from his disrespect of  democracy, Aznar is feted and admired for his courage, principles and integrity. Aznar's behavior is part of a hoary tradition in the West. Leaders of vaunted "democracies" say they refuse to govern by opinion polls and focus groups. They say they do what's right, not what's popular. Which is why they back unpopular wars to oust dictators, who refuse to govern by elections and say, "I do what's right, not what's popular."

And so it goes.

1. "The lessons of war and the enduring nature of dissembling," The Globe and Mail, April 23, 2003.
2. "From Power Grid to Schools, Rebuilding a Broken Nation," The New York Times, April 20, 2003.
3.  "Three journalist killed in Baghdad battle," The Globe and Mail, April 9, 2003.
4. "Administration Divided Over North Korea," The New York Times, April 21, 2003.
5. "Pre-emption: Idea With a Lineage Whose Time Has Come," The New York Times,  March 23, 2003.


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