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The barbaric and the civilized

(Professor Chandra Muzaffar is President of International Movement for a Just World (JUST) located in Selangor Daul Ehsan, Malaysia.  )


It is unanimous that the dastardly bomb attacks in London on July 7, 2005 were a barbaric act. There is no other way of describing the planned, premeditated targeting of civilians. It is political violence of this sort that constitutes stark, naked terrorism.

While all of us would regard the terrorist act that occurred on 7/7 as barbaric, some of us would be deeply disturbed by statements attributed to British and American leaders in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy which sought to present themselves as men upholding the canons of civilized conduct. In their view—and in the sight of the media—they were “defenders of civilization” under siege from barbaric elements.

Nothing can be further from the truth. If it is barbaric to murder 52 civilians in London, is it civilized to kill 100,000 civilians in Iraq? For that is the number of civilians who have died in Iraq as a result of the Anglo-American occupation of that land since March 2003, according to a Johns Hopkins University study.

Is it civilized to use cluster munitions, incendiary bombs, depleted uranium (DU) and chemical weapons against a civilian population? As a member of the Jury of Conscience of the World Tribunal on Iraq (WTI) which sat in Istanbul from 23 to 27 June 2005, I was presented detailed evidence by expert witnesses on “how leukemia has risen sharply in children under the age of five residing in those areas which had been targeted by DU.” I heard accounts of how the occupying forces deliberately directed attacks upon hospitals, residential neighborhoods, electricity stations and water purification plants. The total destruction of the city of Falluja is testimony to this. It is a city where even children, pregnant women, elderly persons and wounded civilians were sprayed with bullets.

And lest we forget, what about the cruel, degrading torture of prisoners in not only Abu Ghraib but also in Mosul, Camp Bucca and Basra? Is that a mark of civilization? Do civilized people desecrate the cultural and archaeological heritage of one of the oldest civilizations on earth? Is the massive environmental and ecological devastation of Iraq brought about by the occupation an act of civilization?

The “civilized” destruction of Iraq did not begin with its occupation in 2003. The severe inhuman economic sanctions against the people of Iraq over a period of 12 years beginning in August 1990 had already killed at least 650,000 children. How can civilized leaders preside over such inhumanity?

But Iraq is only the latest victim of the “civilized” embrace of the great centers of Western imperial power. We still remember Vietnam, whose soil is soaked with the blood of millions of men, women, and children who were slaughtered mercilessly as they first resisted French and then American aggression. The latter had no qualms about using such “civilized” weapons as Agent Orange and napalm as it attempted to crush the “barbaric” Vietcong.

Other “barbaric” nations in Asia and Africa have their own tragic tales to tell of the colossal price they had to pay when they came face to face with the “civilized” marauders from the West. It has been estimated that in the decades of Western colonial subjugation of the two continents some 40 million lives were lost. But the continent that has suffered most at the hands of Western civilization is of course Latin America. From the extermination of the indigenous peoples from the 15th century onwards (perhaps some 30 million people were killed) to the elimination of opponents of U.S.  imperialism in the 20th century, it is a continent which has borne the full brunt of the “civilizing mission” of powerful aggressors.

The point is simple. Leaders in the West, specifically those in London and Washington in the present context, have no moral authority to talk of civilized standards. One should realize that when these leaders kill civilians it is invariably part of some nefarious plan to conquer someone else’s land, or to control someone else’s resources, or to establish one’s hegemonic power. In other words, civilian slaughter has been an integral dimension of the numerous wars of aggression that the centers of power in the West have undertaken in the course of the last one thousand years, the Iraq adventure being the latest . Of course, non-Western states have also embarked upon wars of aggression. Whoever the perpetrator, a war of aggression by its very nature is a far greater evil than any other violence we know, as the Nuremberg Trial observed. It follows from this that the killing of civilians in such wars is, from a moral perspective, more barbaric than the senseless, mindless violence that those who are fighting subjugation and occupation sometimes engage in. Thus, in specific language, the occupiers of Iraq have been more barbaric than the London bombers.

Why is it that most people are not aware of this? Why is it that the barbaric deeds of those who claim to be civilized are not part of the popular consciousness? The main reason is the reality of global power. Those who have donned the robe of civilization happen to be the rulers of the world at this juncture of history. They are in a position to shape the global discourse on what is right and what is wrong, who is good and who is evil. Their power is so overwhelming that they have transformed oppressor into liberator; aggressor into victim; warmonger into peacemaker.

Which is why the barbaric masquerade as the civilized today.


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