The New McCarthyism
Charges of anti-Americanism are themselves anti-American
by George Monbiot
Guardian 16th October 2001
If satire died on the day Henry Kissinger received the Nobel
Peace Prize, then last week its corpse was exhumed for a kicking.
As head of the United Nations' peacekeeping department, Kofi Annan
failed to prevent the genocide in Rwanda or the massacre in Srebenica.
Now, as Secretary General, he appears to have intepreted the UN
charter as generously as possible to allow the attack on Afghanistan
to go ahead.
Article 51 permits states to defend themselves against attack.
It says nothing about subsequent retaliation. It offers no licence
to attack people who might be harbouring a nation's enemies. The
bombing of Afghanistan, which began before the UN security council
gave its approval, is legally contentious. Yet the man and the
organisation who overlooked this obstacle to facilitate war are
honoured for their contribution to peace.
Endowments like the Nobel Peace Prize are surely designed
to reward self-sacrifice. Nelson Mandela gave up his liberty,
FW de Clerk gave up his power, and both were worthy recipients
of the prize. But Kofi Annan, the career bureaucrat, has given
up nothing. He has been rewarded for doing as he is told, while
nobly submitting to a gigantic salary and bottomless expense account.
Among the other nominees for the prize was a group whose qualifications
were rather more robust. Members of Women in Black have routinely
risked their lives in the hope of preventing war. They have stayed
in the homes of Palestinians being shelled by Israeli tanks and
have confronted war criminals in the Balkans. They have stood
silently while being abused and spat at during vigils all over
the world. But now, in this looking glass world in which war is
peace and peace is war, instead of winning the peace prize the
Women in Black have been labelled potential terrorists by the
FBI and threatened with a grand jury investigation.
They are in good company. Earlier this year the director of
the FBI named the chaotic but harmless organisations Reclaim the
Streets and Carnival Against Capitalism in the statement on terrorism
he presented to the Senate. Now, partly as a result of his representations,
the senate's new terrorism bill, like Britain's Terrorism Act
2000, redefines the crime so broadly that members of Greenpeace
are in danger of being treated like members of Al-Qaeda. The Bush
doctrine -- if you're not with us, you're against us -- is already
This government by syllogism makes no sense at all. Osama
Bin Laden and Al-Qaeda have challenged the US government; ergo
anyone who challenges the government is a potential terrorist.
That Bin Laden is, according to US officials, a "fascist",
while the other groups are progressives is irrelevant: every public
hand raised in objection will from now on be treated as a public
hand raised in attack. Given that OBL is not a progressive but
is a millionaire, it would surely make more sense to round up
and interrogate all millionaires.
Lumping Women in Black together with Al-Qaeda requires just
a minor addition to the vocabulary: they have been jointly classified
as "anti-American". This term, as used by everyone from
Donald Rumsfeld and the Daily Mail to Tony Blair and several contributers
to the Guardian, applies not only to those who hate Americans,
but also to those who have challenged US foreign and defence objectives.
Implicit in this denunciation is a demand for uncritical support,
for a love of government more consonant with the codes of Tsarist
Russia than with the ideals upon which the United States were
The charge of "anti-Americanism" is itself profoundly
anti-American. If the United States does not stand for freedom
of thought and speech, for diversity and dissent, then we have
been deceived as to the nature of the national project. Were the
founding fathers to congregate today to discuss the principles
enshrined in their declaration of independence, they would be
denounced as "anti-American" and investigated as potential
terrorists. Anti-American means today precisely what un-American
meant in the 1950s. It is an instrument of dismissal, a means
of excluding your critics from rational discourse.
Under the new McCarthyism, this dismissal extends to anyone
who seeks to promulgate a version of events other than that sanctioned
by the US government. On September 20, President Bush told us
that "this is the fight of all who believe in progress and
pluralism, tolerance and freedom." Two weeks later, Colin
Powell met the emir of Qatar, to request that progress, pluralism,
tolerance and freedom be suppressed. Al-Jazeera is one of the
few independent television stations in the Middle East, whose
popularity is the result of its uncommon regard for freedom of
speech. It is also the only station permitted to operate freely
in Kabul: many of the images of the bombing of Afghanistan we've
seen on TV were recorded by its cameramen. Powell's request that
it be squashed was a pre-emptive strike against freedom, which,
he hoped, would prevent the world from seeing what was really
happening once the bombing began.
Since then, both George Bush and Tony Blair have sought to
prevent Al-Jazeera from airing video statements by Bin Laden,
on the grounds of the preposterous schoolboy intrigue that they
"might contain coded messages". Over the weekend the
government sought to persuade British broadcasters to restrict
their coverage of the war. Blair's spin doctors warned "You
can't trust them [the Taliban] in any way, shape, or form."
While true, this applies with equal force to the techniques employed
by Downing Street. When Alastair Campbell starts briefing journalists
about "Spin Laden", it's a case of the tarantula spinning
against the money spider.
If we are to preserve the progress, pluralism, tolerance and
freedom which President Bush claims to be defending, then we must
question everything we see and hear. Though we know that governments
lie to us in wartime, most people seem to believe that this universal
rule applies to every conflict except the current one. Many of
those who now accept that babies were not thrown out of incubators
in Kuwait, and that the Belgrano was fleeing when she was hit,
are also prepared to believe everything we are being told about
Afghanistan and the terrorism in the United States.
There are plenty of reasons to be skeptical. The magical appearance
of the terrorists' luggage, passports and flight manual looks
rather too good to be true. The dossier of "evidence"
purporting to establish Bin Laden's guilt consists largely of
supposition and conjecture. The ration packs being dropped on
Afghanistan have no conceivable purpose other than to create the
false impression that starving people are being fed. Even the
anthrax scare looks suspiciously convenient. Just as the hawks
in Washington were losing the public argument about extending
the war to other countries, journalists start receiving envelopes
full of bacteria, which might as well have been labeled "a
gift from Iraq". This could indeed be the work of terrorists,
who may have their own reasons for widening the conflict, but
there are plenty of other ruthless operators who would benefit
from a shift in public opinion.
Democracy is sustained not by public trust but by public skepticism.
Unless we are prepared to question, to expose, to challenge and
to dissent, we conspire in the demise of the system for which
our governments are supposed to be fighting. The true defenders
of America are those who are now being told that they are anti-American.
Captive State: the corporate takeover of Britain is now out
in paperback. Around 400 of George Monbiot's essays and articles
are now online at http://www.monbiot.com