November 12, 2004
Iraq: The Unthinkable Becomes Normal
by John Pilger
Edward S. Herman's landmark essay, "The Banality of Evil," has never
seemed more apposite. "Doing terrible things in an organized and systematic
way rests on 'normalization,'" wrote Herman. "There is usually a division of
labor in doing and rationalizing the unthinkable, with the direct
brutalizing and killing done by one set of individuals ... others working on
improving technology (a better crematory gas, a longer burning and more
adhesive napalm, bomb fragments that penetrate flesh in hard-to-trace
patterns). It is the function of the experts, and the mainstream media, to
normalize the unthinkable for the general public."
On Radio 4's Today (Nov. 6), a BBC reporter in Baghdad referred to the
coming attack on the city of Fallujah as "dangerous" and "very dangerous"
for the Americans. When asked about civilians, he said, reassuringly, that
the U.S. Marines were "going about with a Tannoy" telling people to get out.
He omitted to say that tens of thousands of people would be left in the
city. He mentioned in passing the "most intense bombing" of the city with no
suggestion of what that meant for people beneath the bombs.
As for the defenders, those Iraqis who resist in a city that
heroically defied Saddam Hussein; they were merely "insurgents holed up in
the city," as if they were an alien body, a lesser form of life to be
"flushed out" (the Guardian): a suitable quarry for "rat-catchers," which is
the term another BBC reporter told us the Black Watch use. According to a
senior British officer, the Americans view Iraqis as Untermenschen, a term
that Hitler used in Mein Kampf to describe Jews, Romanies, and Slavs as
subhumans. This is how the Nazi army laid siege to Russian cities,
slaughtering combatants and non-combatants alike.
Normalizing colonial crimes like the attack on Fallujah requires such
racism, linking our imagination to "the other." The thrust of the reporting
is that the "insurgents" are led by sinister foreigners of the kind that
behead people: for example, by Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian said to be
al-Qaeda's "top operative" in Iraq. This is what the Americans say; it is
also Blair's latest lie to parliament. Count the times it is parroted at a
camera, at us. No irony is noted that the foreigners in Iraq are
overwhelmingly American and, by all indications, loathed. These indications
come from apparently credible polling organizations, one of which estimates
that of 2,700 attacks every month by the resistance, six can be credited to
the infamous al-Zarqawi.
In a letter sent on Oct. 14 to Kofi Annan, the Fallujah Shura Council,
which administers the city, said: "In Fallujah, [the Americans] have created
a new vague target: al-Zarqawi. Almost a year has elapsed since they created
this new pretext, and whenever they destroy houses, mosques, restaurants,
and kill children and women, they said: 'We have launched a successful
operation against al-Zarqawi.' The people of Fallujah assure you that this
person, if he exists, is not in Fallujah ... and we have no links to any
groups supporting such inhuman behavior. We appeal to you to urge the UN [to
prevent] the new massacre which the Americans and the puppet government are
planning to start soon in Fallujah, as well as many parts of the country."
Not a word of this was reported in the mainstream media in Britain and
"What does it take to shock them out of their baffling silence?" asked
the playwright Ronan Bennett in April after the U.S. Marines, in an act of
collective vengeance for the killing of four American mercenaries, killed
more than 600 people in Fallujah, a figure that was never denied. Then, as
now, they used the ferocious firepower of AC-130 gunships and F-16
fighter-bombers and 500-lb. bombs against slums. They incinerate children;
their snipers boast of killing anyone, as snipers did in Sarajevo.
Bennett was referring to the legion of silent Labour backbenchers,
with honorable exceptions, and lobotomized junior ministers (remember Chris
Mullin?). He might have added those journalists who strain every sinew to
protect "our" side, who normalize the unthinkable by not even gesturing at
the demonstrable immorality and criminality. Of course, to be shocked by
what "we" do is dangerous, because this can lead to a wider understanding of
why "we" are there in the first place and of the grief "we" bring not only
to Iraq, but to so many parts of the world: that the terrorism of al-Qaeda
is puny by comparison with ours.
There is nothing illicit about this cover-up; it happens in daylight.
The most striking recent example followed the announcement, on Oct. 29, by
the prestigious scientific journal, the Lancet, of a study estimating that
100,000 Iraqis had died as a result of the Anglo-American invasion.
Eighty-four percent of the deaths were caused by the actions of the
Americans and the British, and 95 percent of these were killed by air
attacks and artillery fire, most of whom were women and children.
The editors of the excellent MediaLens observed the rush - no,
stampede - to smother this shocking news with "skepticism" and silence. They
reported that, by Nov. 2, the Lancet report had been ignored by the
Observer, the Telegraph, the Sunday Telegraph, the Financial Times, the
Star, the Sun, and many others. The BBC framed the report in terms of the
government's "doubts" and Channel 4 News delivered a hatchet job, based on a
Downing Street briefing. With one exception, none of the scientists who
compiled this rigorously peer-reviewed report was asked to substantiate
their work until ten days later when the pro-war Observer published an
interview with the editor of the Lancet, slanted so that it appeared he was
"answering his critics." David Edwards, a MediaLens editor, asked the
researchers to respond to the media criticism; their meticulous demolition
can be viewed on the alert for Nov. 2. None of this was published in the
mainstream. Thus, the unthinkable that "we" had engaged in such a slaughter
was suppressed - normalized. It is reminiscent of the suppression of the
death of more than a million Iraqis, including half a million infants under
five, as a result of the Anglo-American-driven embargo.
In contrast, there is no media questioning of the methodology of the
Iraqi Special Tribune, which has announced that mass graves contain 300,000
victims of Saddam Hussein. The Special Tribune, a product of the quisling
regime in Baghdad, is run by the Americans; respected scientists want
nothing to do with it. There is no questioning of what the BBC calls "Iraq's
first democratic elections." There is no reporting of how the Americans have
assumed control over the electoral process with two decrees passed in June
that allow an "electoral commission" in effect to eliminate parties
Washington does not like. Time magazine reports that the CIA is buying its
preferred candidates, which is how the agency has fixed elections over the
world. When or if the elections take place, we will be doused in clichés
about the nobility of voting, as America's puppets are "democratically"
The model for this was the "coverage" of the American presidential
election, a blizzard of platitudes normalizing the unthinkable: that what
happened on Nov. 2 was not democracy in action. With one exception, no one
in the flock of pundits flown from London described the circus of Bush and
Kerry as the contrivance of fewer than 1 percent of the population, the
ultra-rich and powerful who control and manage a permanent war economy. That
the losers were not only the Democrats, but the vast majority of Americans,
regardless of whom they voted for, was unmentionable.
No one reported that John Kerry, by contrasting the "war on terror"
with Bush's disastrous attack on Iraq, merely exploited public distrust of
the invasion to build support for American dominance throughout the world.
"I'm not talking about leaving [Iraq]," said Kerry. "I'm talking about
winning!" In this way, both he and Bush shifted the agenda even further to
the right, so that millions of antiwar Democrats might be persuaded that the
U.S. has "the responsibility to finish the job" lest there be "chaos." The
issue in the presidential campaign was neither Bush nor Kerry, but a war
economy aimed at conquest abroad and economic division at home. The silence
on this was comprehensive, both in America and here.
Bush won by invoking, more skillfully than Kerry, the fear of an
ill-defined threat. How was he able to normalize this paranoia? Let's look
at the recent past. Following the end of the cold war, the American elite -
Republican and Democrat - were having great difficulty convincing the public
that the billions of dollars spent on the war economy should not be diverted
to a "peace dividend." A majority of Americans refused to believe that there
was still a "threat" as potent as the red menace. This did not prevent Bill
Clinton sending to Congress the biggest "defense" bill in history in support
of a Pentagon strategy called "full-spectrum dominance." On Sept. 11, 2001,
the threat was given a name: Islam.
Flying into Philadelphia recently, I spotted the Kean congressional
report on Sept. 11 from the 9/11 Commission on sale at the bookstalls. "How
many do you sell?" I asked. "One or two," was the reply. "It'll disappear
soon." Yet, this modest, blue-covered book is a revelation. Like the Butler
report in the UK, which detailed all the incriminating evidence of Blair's
massaging of intelligence before the invasion of Iraq, then pulled its
punches and concluded nobody was responsible, so the Kean report makes
excruciatingly clear what really happened, then fails to draw the
conclusions that stare it in the face. It is a supreme act of normalizing
the unthinkable. This is not surprising, as the conclusions are volcanic.
The most important evidence to the 9/11 Commission came from General
Ralph Eberhart, commander of the North American Aerospace Defense Command
(Norad). "Air Force jet fighters could have intercepted hijacked airliners
roaring towards the World Trade Center and Pentagon," he said, "if only air
traffic controllers had asked for help 13 minutes sooner. ... We would have
been able to shoot down all three ... all four of them."
Why did this not happen?
The Kean report makes clear that "the defense of U.S. aerospace on
9/11 was not conducted in accord with preexisting training and protocols.
... If a hijack was confirmed, procedures called for the hijack coordinator
on duty to contact the Pentagon's National Military Command Center (NMCC).
... The NMCC would then seek approval from the office of the Secretary of
Defense to provide military assistance... "Uniquely, this did not happen.
The commission was told by the deputy administrator of the Federal Aviation
Authority that there was no reason the procedure was not operating that
morning. "For my 30 years of experience ..." said Monte Belger, "the NMCC
was on the net and hearing everything real-time. ... I can tell you I've
lived through dozens of hijackings ... and they were always listening in
with everybody else."
But on this occasion, they were not. The Kean report says the NMCC was
never informed. Why? Again, uniquely, all lines of communication failed, the
commission was told, to America's top military brass. Donald Rumsfeld,
secretary of defense, could not be found; and when he finally spoke to Bush
an hour and a half later, it was, says the Kean report, "a brief call in
which the subject of shoot-down authority was not discussed." As a result,
Norad's commanders were "left in the dark about what their mission was."
The report reveals that the only part of a previously fail-safe
command system that worked was in the White House where Vice President
Cheney was in effective control that day, and in close touch with the NMCC.
Why did he do nothing about the first two hijacked planes? Why was the NMCC,
the vital link, silent for the first time in its existence? Kean
ostentatiously refuses to address this. Of course, it could be due to the
most extraordinary combination of coincidences. Or it could not.
In July 2001, a top secret briefing paper prepared for Bush read: "We
[the CIA and FBI] believe that OBL [Osama bin Laden] will launch a
significant terrorist attack against U.S. and/or Israeli interests in the
coming weeks. The attack will be spectacular and designed to inflict mass
casualties against U.S. facilities or interests. Attack preparations have
been made. Attack will occur with little or no warning."
On the afternoon of Sept. 11, Donald Rumsfeld, having failed to act
against those who had just attacked the United States, told his aides to set
in motion an attack on Iraq - when the evidence was nonexistent. Eighteen
months later, the invasion of Iraq, unprovoked and based on lies now
documented, took place. This epic crime is the greatest political scandal of
our time, the latest chapter in the long 20th-century history of the West's
conquests of other lands and their resources. If we allow it to be
normalized., if we refuse to question and probe the hidden agendas and
unaccountable secret power structures at the heart of "democratic"
governments and if we allow the people of Fallujah to be crushed in our
name, we surrender both democracy and humanity.