Al-Ahram Weekly Online   20 - 26 March 2003
Issue No. 630
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Welcome to Tombstone!

In those days of talk of chemical and biological weapons, Haim Bersheeth* remembers an American 'hero' of the past: General Amherst and his smallpox-infested blankets

When you read these lines, the bombs will be falling on Baghdad; they are written few days before the war starts officially, as the British Parliament has to be allowed the appearance of a debate first -- a debate that will reveal nothing, and change nothing. Around the globe millions have made their sentiments clear, in thousands of demonstrations, rallies, candle vigils and mass marches. The only two countries in which a substantial part of the population supports the war are the USA and Israel. It makes you think.

Leadership aside, the people of the planet have made their voice heard, have made their judgment known -- they are against the barbarity of war as a mechanism of conflict resolution, and against this new imperialist war. There may never have been such a test of public opinion across the globe before, where so many nations are voicing their deep disquiet with the powerful of this world and their methods. If nothing else, this has been a valuable lesson of the last few months -- power allows you to do what you will, but cannot persuade anyone that you are right, or justified in your actions. So the B52s will bomb Iraq into the Middle Ages, as a way of "democratising" it. It seems that none of us, alone and together, can stop the madness. But we can, and should try to understand the reasons behind the support given to the war by most Americans, because their might will be turned against others soon, and with as flimsy a justification.

When thinking nowadays about the USA, one tends to forget that despite the myriad forms of progressive politics emanating from North America in the last few decades, this society carries a very damning historical branding. It is the largest and most powerful country, which has been built on the twin injustices: the genocidal destruction of the native population, and the enslavement of tens of millions for centuries. In those days of talk of chemical and biological weapons, it may be useful to remind us of such august heroes of American history as General Amherst, who was resourceful enough to import to the young USA smallpox-infested blankets from Europe, for the purpose of infecting the Amerindian native population.

Amherst, and others like him, succeeded: countless Native Americans perished, and Amherst became a hero, and has a town bearing his name in Massachusetts. The nation which has been less than selective in its methods of obtaining total control of the territory it desired, and in torturing and humiliating millions of African blacks for many generations, is now lecturing the rest of us about democracy and human rights. The same organisations which have toppled Allende in Chile, and tried in vein to murder Castro, are all of a sudden infected with an uncontrollable desire for democracy. You have to laugh. After all, Saddam Hussein is a creature of the West, a Frankensteinian monster on the rampage, out of control.

But that is not all. The USA is now asking us to see it as the only form of law enforcement -- a global gun-totting sheriff, Dubya, with his moralistic deputy Tony, are now riding in front of the posse they raised, and which we all are going to pay for, asking us for support. For most people in the world this farce is seen for what it is, its crude seams showing through the continued cover of spin and propaganda. So why does it work on Americans? Where is the difference which allows them to listen to their president, or to the British PM, without wincing, and with tears of patriotism in their eyes, supposedly?

In order to understand we may have to examine the particularities of American history and culture. Americans have inherited much of their thinking about the law from popular representations of the Wild West, where a gun gives one a voice, where the law is made on a horse's back, where a posse is the strongest argument, and where it takes few loud voices in a saloon-cum-courtroom to get someone strung up a tree.

Stereotypical? Maybe, but try and prove it is not the argument behind this new form of law-making, where nothing is written down, where the strong make the rules, and where the gun speaks loudest. Weapons of mass destruction in Iraq? Has anyone else got them? Ah, but the Sheriff is beyond the law. He is the Law. Welcome to Tombstone, dear citizens of Earth! The global sheriff will decide the rules, will decide who they apply to, when to apply them, where to ignore them, and also when they must change altogether. Welcome to the desert of Dubya the Mighty!

Apart from the Law of the Sheriff and Posse, of the lynch-mob, we have to remember the sanctity of the gun in the USA, and the sacrosanct right to bear arms. Americans have never given up this "right", have never ended their process of expansion and conquest Westward, into new and exciting frontiers, even after arriving at the inevitable shores of the Pacific. There is an enemy lurking somewhere, cries every page of American popular culture. In comics, and in the cinema, the most popular of media in the USA, on television and on the radio, enemies are identified, surrounded and destroyed.

The temporary shortage of enemies after the fall of communism has been resolved by Bush: almost every nation can become an enemy -- the list runs into tens of countries, and keeps growing! France should beware, now that French Fries have been finally liberated into Freedom Fries. Turkey, an ally until this week, has been put on notice, joining the candidates baddy-list, with Russia, Germany and quite a few others. There will only be one gang in this town, and you are either with us or agin' us! Watch out, you have been warned. The language of White House officials now comes straight out of comic books: "This man will not worry us any more" says Superman? Batman? Actually, neither. It is only Secretary Rumsfeld speaking of claimed Al-Qa'eda operative who has been "terminated", borrowing his lines from generations of comics writing, and hence also directly connecting to his public, and their need for uncomplicated, clear solutions, so prevalent in a society which always knows best.

Another part of the historical heritage underpinning this new and terrifying set of developments is the American Mafia, and its methods and morals. While most Americans would resist seeing their actions in this war as those typical of the Mafia, the popular picture of the world confirmed by the media recently is very much based on such understanding, through the simplistic lens of Good Vs Evil, and the language of religious fundamentalism of the most bigoted nature. And so we come to the final leg of this extraordinary positioning of the American society -- its deeply religious, Christian fundamentalism of the Bible-belt and the prayer-mob at the White House.

Against Muslim fundamentalism is arraigned its American counterpart, armed to the teeth with 21st century technology, the most powerful economy the world has known, but with a morality dating back to the Wild West, to gangland Chicago, to the lynching mobs of the South, the slave-traders and murderous posses, the raiding parties wiping out the Native Americans, or the hired killers of the CIA in Chile and Cuba, or the bombers of the Vietnamese peasantry. For all those reasons we can quite understand why Americans in large numbers are still supporting their unelected leader on his new-found crusade.

For similar reasons the war is supported in Israel, despite the fact that in 1991 it was at the receiving end of the Scud missiles. Israelis, like Americans, have won their country by stealing it from its indigenous population by force, stealth and support of the West, and are prone to rely on the law of the gun in a similar way. They have learnt the important lesson -- dead Indians can harm no one -- and are slowly implementing the same methods and morality against the Palestinians. The Bible, with its eye for an eye, did not have to be imported from the USA, or the racist and damaging notion of a "chosen people".

How ironic and sad -- two societies built by immigrants and refugees, fleeing from various forms of racial and religious hatred and victimisation, ended up by constructing two of the most bigoted, racist and fundamentalist countries, ones which will listen to no one but their own voice, which they take to be the voice of god.

* The writer is an Israeli academic living and working in London. He is the co-editor (with Nira Yuval-Davis) of The Gulf War and the New World Order, published by Zed Books, and co-author (with Stuart Hood) of Introduction to the Holocaust, published by Icon Books.

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