After the Smoke of New York

Edward George ebgeorge at
Sun Sep 16 13:34:35 MDT 2001

After the Smoke of New York

Watching the remarkable events of last Tuesday unfold on television, it was
difficult not to be gripped by the feeling that what one was watching was
not in fact real.  Perhaps this explains the difficulty that the left has
had in coming up with a balanced and adequate assessment of  what had
actually happened.  Now that the dust, in more senses than one, begins to
settle, it is both possible and important to begin to take stock of events
and how they have been interpreted.

First of all, it is necessary to ask the question as to why Tuesday's events
had such a profound and transfixing effect on so many people around the
world: not in my lifetime at least can I recall a single series of events
monopolising the international media like this.  Clearly, the scale of the
material destruction, and the manner in which it was brought about, could
not have been more dramatic; moreover, the sequence of events was televised
live, and then repeated on peak time television ad nauseum.  Simple
voyeurism surely played a role here.  In addition, the particular targets of
the attack-the twin towers of the World Trade Centre, one of the best known
and most easily recognised buildings in the world, and the Pentagon itself,
the seat of the United States war machine-themselves guaranteed maximum
exposure and interest.

But these facts alone do not explain the way in which the events of last
Tuesday gripped the world's attention.  No: two other factors have to
considered, the one political, the other humanitarian.

Politically, the attack on the WTC and the Pentagon has been interpreted and
largely accepted as an attack on 'democracy' and 'freedom', that is to say,
an attack on the fundamental values that underlie all that is good and
worthy in western societies.  The United States is presented, and presents
itself, as a champion of such values, as a champion of all that is good in
the world against all that is bad, in such a way that an attack on core
United States institutions is understood as an attack on all freedom-loving,
tolerant and forward-looking people.

This interpretation is, of course, tommyrot.  Underlying it is a hefty dose
of good old-fashioned racist imperial ideology-the conception of the
civilising influence of the west on the backward and unenlightened peoples
of the rest of the world.  Socialists can have nothing to do with this, the
justification for countless wars, untrammelled colonisation, slavery and the
almost unimaginable suffering inflicted on peoples of a different colour
skin.  Moreover, the United States' claim to be in the vanguard of the fight
for liberty and democracy itself rings rather hollow if the rhetoric is
compared with the reality of the life in the United States, a country, let
us remember, in which, in the recent presidential elections, aside from the
fact that the vote itself was openly rigged, four million adults-two per
cent of potential voters but fifteen per cent of African-American adult
males-were disenfranchised due to the loss of their civil rights as a result
of felony convictions; in which African-American men, who make up only seven
per cent of the adult population account for fifty-five per cent of prison
admissions; in which the mentally ill and children are routinely judicially
murdered.   Socialists, least of anybody, forget this at their peril.

Yet the empty rhetoric of 'freedom' and 'democracy' and the racist ideology
of civilising imperialism have had such a captivating effect that in good
part the phenomenal international resonance of Tuesday's events can be
explained by the fact that the targets of the attack were Washington and New
York, rather than Madrid, Bombay, Beijing, Johannesburg or Rio de Janeiro.
The false assumptions that lie behind all this need to be challenged more
effectively than they have been up till now.

Of course, additional to the pivotal symbolic role that the United States
plays in the self-justification and self-preservation of western bourgeois
democracy, also critical in explaining the impact of Tuesday's events across
the world was their humanitarian aspect: crudely put, what has appalled
people is the body count.

Again, socialists have to resist being pulled on board this bandwagon.
Although at the time of writing the number of dead is still unknown,
estimates seem to be settling around a figure of 5,000.  We need to be
brutally honest here: how important is this really?  Five thousand dead
people in a single series of events is a tragedy-to say otherwise would be
to distort the very meanings of words-but on the scale of things it is not a
terribly big tragedy.  Hiroshima and Nagasaki it is not.  Nor the
carpet-bombing of South Vietnam or Cambodia.  Nor is it the road to Basra.
Nor Rwanda.  (And let us not forget that, coincidentally, 11 September was
the anniversary of another event in which we saw buildings blow up: the 1973
CIA-backed coup in Chile, in which thirty thousand people 'disappeared' in
the very first few days.)  In human terms, tragic though it was, what
happened on Tuesday does not compare with these events.  It does not even
come close.  Of course, the victims of these other tragedies-the
yellow-skinned Japanese and Vietnamese, the swarthy Iraqis, the
black-skinned Africans-had already been blessed with a prior demonisation as
the bulk (although not all) of the citizens of the USA have not.  Another
whiff of civilising imperialism with its undertones of uber- and
untermenschen competes with the smell of smoke in our nostrils.  It is
incumbent on socialists to make comparisons such as these; to begin to blow
away these webs of hypocrisy.

But there is an even more serious catalogue of human suffering and tragedy
with which what happened on Tuesday needs to be compared.  For we live in a
world, as the World Bank and the United Nations themselves inform us (and
the World Bank and the United Nations have no interest in over-inflating the
figures), in which in 1999 ten million (ten million!) children under the age
of five died of preventable diseases, that is to say, of institutionalised
poverty.  (The five principle causes of preventable infant mortality being,
according to the United Nations, 'pneumonia, diarrhoea, measles, malaria and
malnutrition'.)  In which an estimated 174 million under-five children in
the so-called developing world are malnourished, and 230 million are what
the UN starkly and shockingly calls 'stunted' as a result of a simple lack
of food.  In which over 800 million people still cannot meet basic needs for
energy and protein.  When socialists speak of 'socialism and barbarism',
they often forget to point out that 'barbarism' is not the armageddon of
tomorrow but the cruel daily reality of hundreds of millions of our fellow
human beings.  Yet this state of affairs is not just tolerated by the
leaders of those states that are today lining up to inveigh themselves
against the 'barbarism' of Islamic terrorism: they organise it, protect it,
and deepen it.  For these people, the effective annual cull of hundreds of
millions of (largely non-white) people through systematically organised and
institutionalised poverty and famine is OK.  (When were the three minutes
silence for these unsung victims of the barbarity of global capitalism?)
What price therefore the tears that these leaders shed for the victims of
last Tuesday?

None of this is to say  of course that the five thousand or however many it
turns out to be that died last Tuesday do not matter.  There is no sin in
being shocked and saddened by this human destruction-in the main of ordinary
working people (although we do have to point out that an northern American
life carries no more weight, feels no more pain, than an African or an Iraqi
one).  This is not the problem.  The problem is that by falling in line
behind Bush and Powell, behind Blair and (Lord!) Robertson and their
crocodile tears for the victims a good part of the left have placed
themselves in the same fake humanitarian camp of these people against those
who carried out the attack.  Is this really the side that we want to be on?
Do we line up shoulder-to-shoulder with the apologists of imperialism
against the oppressed of this world until the latter find methods of
struggle that we western socialists with our Saturday morning paper sales in
our colleges and shopping malls find more palatable to our more cultured and
civilised tastes?

Neither can we allow ourselves to be blinded by the fact that there is a
good chance that the attacks were carried out by those who are casually
defined as 'Muslim fundamentalists' (and of course often defined this way by
'Christian fundamentalists').  The ideology of the oppressed can take-has
taken-many strange forms in the past.  To abstain from a real critique of
what has actually happened on the grounds that we do not like the political
ideas of the perpetrators smacks of churlishness.  If the attack turns out
to have been committed by socialist revolutionaries would we change our
oh-so humanitarian opinions?  The attack on Islam visible in many of the
commentaries of the left is nothing more than a smokescreen, an alibi for
chauvinism.  Of course, that so many of the oppressed of this world-in the
Middle East and elsewhere-take their cue from radical forms of Islam rather
than from socialism is a cause for deep concern for socialists; but in very
good part the fact that this is the case is a consequence of the way in
which socialism has let these people down, of the way in which socialism has
discredited itself in the eyes of these people as an effective tool for
their liberation.  It is difficult to imagine that lining up with the
spokespersons of imperialism will place in a good position to win a new
hearing for our ideas among these people.

In case anyone suggests that I am overstating my case, let me now quote from
the statement from the self-avowed revolutionary socialists of Alliance for
Workers' Liberty (admittedly the very worst example of the kind of thing I
am talking about), on Tuesday's events:

'To use civilian planes, full of people, to attack buildings full of
civilians, mostly ordinary workers, is a crime against humanity,  whatever
the supposed aims.  What cause could the hijackers have been serving when
they massacre thousands of workers in New York?  Only on the basis of a
dehumanised, backward-looking world-view could they have planned and carried
out such a massacre.  Such people are enemies for the working class and the
labour movement as much as the US government is.  In fact, more so.  [...]
We have no solidarity with Islamic  fundamentalists, Palestinian or
otherwise, who might carry out  attacks like the one in New York [...]  We
must create social structures which nurture  solidarity, democracy and
equality [...].'

And so on.  The hijackers of last Tuesday a greater danger for the working
class than the US government?  Really?  This racist ('dehumanised,
backward-looking') rubbish is something that socialists can have nothing to
do with.

What are the practical consequences of all this?  Since there is likely to
be a war-and remember that in the last day or so there has been open talk of
the use of nuclear weapons-it is clear what the duty of socialists is to be.
  We have to say with the utmost clarity that the United States, that Nato,
have absolutely no right whatsoever to take action to avenge this attack, to
seek justice for this attack, to bring people to book for this attack.  We
can have absolutely no confidence whatsoever in these people to pay a
progressive role in the world in relation to this event as with any other.
(It is for this reason incidentally that debate on who was really
responsible for Tuesday's events is not really our priority: that bin Laden
was singled out as prime suspect number one just hours after the attack
should be sufficient evidence that the 'police-work' element of the response
of the United States is itself nothing more than a false alibi, a put-up
job.  But our priority is to hinder the room for manoeuvre of the 'police',
not help them catch the 'criminal').

The next task for socialists is clear.  An anti-war movement needs to be
built.  And this movement needs to be founded on the understanding that the
biggest enemy to peace, the greatest enemy of justice, is not an old man who
lives in a tent in Afghanistan but the imperialist monster that counts its
money in New York and plans its military operations in Washington.  (That at
least we held in common with last Tuesday's 'terrorists'.)  And since this
is the burningly necessary task for us in the present, I politely suggest
that we move the discussion on to this very point.

domingo, 16 de septiembre de 2001

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