“Peoples of Egypt, you will be told that I have come to destroy your religion. Do not believe it! Reply that I have come to restore your rights!” (Napoleon Bonaparte, 1798)
“Our armies do not come into your cities and lands as conquerors or enemies, but as liberators. Your wealth has been stripped of you by unjust men… The people of Baghdad shall flourish under institutions which are in consonance with their sacred laws.” (General F.S. Maude, commander of British forces in Iraq, 1917)
Introduction – Laughing At The New Generation
Anyone who has seen the footage of Hitler giving his rasping, demonic speeches must surely wonder how anyone could have taken him seriously. Now, of course, Hitler strikes us as plainly mad, a case study in egomania – we feel sure we have grown beyond the gullibility of the past.
But established power never loses its capacity to mesmerise. Psychologist Stanley Milgram noted the disturbing fact that there is “a propensity for people to accept definitions provided by legitimate authority”, not because those definitions are rooted in reason, but because “those in authority acquire, for some, a suprahuman character”. Philosopher Henry Thoreau identified one interesting consequence:
“Every generation laughs at the old generation, but follows religiously the new.”
Thus, while we casually mock the lunacies of the past, some people, notably mainstream journalists, nod soberly at the lunacies of the present. Consider, for example, the media response to Tony Blair’s March 18 speech to parliament.
Impassioned And Impressive – How To Fool The Press
Blair is no Hitler, but in his speech he deployed a classic combination of impassioned rhetoric and breathtaking distortion. The response of the free press was as uniform as it was lamentable. Consider, for example, the next day’s editorial in the Daily Telegraph:
“Any fair-minded person who listened to [Tuesday's] debate, having been genuinely unable to make up his mind about military action against Saddam Hussein, must surely have concluded that Mr Blair was right, and his opponents were wrong.”
The Sun declared:
“With passion in his voice and fire in his belly, Tony Blair won his place in history alongside Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher. In the most momentous speech of his political life he set out the pressing reasons why there must now be war on President Saddam.”
The Guardian described how historians, “will look back to read an impassioned and impressive speech by the prime minister which may give future generations some inkling of how, when so many of his own party opposed his policy so vehemently, Tony Blair nevertheless managed to retain their respect and support”.
The Independent’s editors wrote:
“Even those who most disagree with war on Iraq have to salute the leadership qualities of the man who is about to commit British forces to it. If there was one occasion in his premiership to which Tony Blair needed to rise, it was yesterday’s critical Commons debate. He did so. Tony Blair’s capacities as a performer and an advocate have never been in doubt. But this was something much more… this was the most persuasive case yet made by the man who has emerged as the most formidable persuader for war on either side of the Atlantic. The case against President Saddam’s 12-year history of obstructing the United Nation’s attempts at disarmament has never been better made.”
Even the profoundly anti-war Mirror wrote:
“Even though the Mirror disagrees strongly with Tony Blair over his determination to wage war on Iraq, we do not question his belief in the rightness of what he is doing. It is one thing to have principles others disagree with, another altogether to have no principles.
“Mr Blair and Robin Cook have helped to restore the integrity of parliament at this crucial stage in the nation’s history. Both have made compelling arguments on each side of this debate – and both have been listened to with respect.”
All of these reports focused heavily on the emotional intensity of Blair’s speech. What is so remarkable is that none of them, on the eve of surely one of the most cynical, barbaric and outrageous war crimes in all history, were able to expose the fraudulence of what Blair actually had to say.
In his speech Blair said:
“We are asked now seriously to accept that in the last few years, contrary to all history and intelligence, [Saddam] decided unilaterally to destroy these weapons. I say such a claim is palpably absurd.”
It is, however, as we have described many times in our Media Alerts, the claim of UNSCOM weapons inspectors, who say that Iraq was “fundamentally disarmed” (90-95%) of its weapons of mass destruction (WMD) between 1991-98 without the threatening ‘stick’ of war – cooperation was in response to the ‘carrot’ of lifted sanctions. Amazingly, on the very brink of war, the resignation speech by Robin Cook, leader of the House of Commons, contained the first ever mention we have seen in the media of this forbidden truth:
“Iraq probably has no weapons of mass destruction in the commonly understood sense of the term.”
This, from a former foreign secretary and cabinet insider with access to Blair’s much vaunted intelligence information, undermined still further the government’s pitiful case for war. The Guardian, however, chose not to mention the claim in its reports on the resignation, instead allowing Cook to repeat himself deep inside the paper on page 26. In response to a complaint from Media Lens, Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger responded:
“doing much more tomorrow..” (Email to Media Lens, March 18)
Nothing appeared – the entire mass media passed over Cook’s claim as somehow irrelevant. Interestingly, now that it no longer matters, we notice that journalists have, as if by magic, started openly questioning whether Iraq actually possesses any WMD. Now that it’s too late, journalists will perhaps at last be able to ask themselves why Saddam Hussein would prefer to hang on to weapons of minimal strategic value rather than avert a massive invasion by 250,000 troops almost certain to end in his own death.
Blair went on:
“Looking back over 12 years, we have been victims of our own desire to placate the implacable, to persuade towards the utterly reasonable.”
We have been the victims! Not the million Iraqi civilians who have died under US/UK sanctions, which we can now presume were a decade-long murderous mistake, given that the current action could have been taken in 1991 and is allegedly mandated by UN resolutions stretching back to 1990. We are the victims – we, the enforcers of policy of which Denis Halliday (who ran the UN oil for food programme in Iraq), has said:
“I’ve been using the word ‘genocide’, because this is a deliberate policy to destroy the people of Iraq. I’m afraid I have no other view at this late stage.” (Interview with David Edwards, May 2000)
We are the victims, not the Iraqi people, of whom Hans von Sponeck, Halliday’s successor at the UN, said:
“How long should the civilian population of Iraq be exposed to such punishment for something they have never done?” (Letter of resignation, February 13, 2000)
We are the victims of our own reasonableness, with Iraq refusing ever to do anything to cooperate to disarm. Former chief UNSCOM inspector, Scott Ritter, takes a different view, one that has been effectively banned from the media:
“If this were argued in a court of law, the weight of evidence would go the other way. Iraq has in fact demonstrated over and over a willingness to cooperate with weapons inspectors.” (Ritter and William Rivers Pitt, War On Iraq, Profile, 2002, p.25)
Blair went on:
“That is why this indulgence has to stop. Because it is dangerous.”
Is it an indulgence to seek to stop US power on the rampage? Is it indulgence to challenge the likes of Bush, Rumsfeld, Cheney, Wolfowitz and Perle? Chief UN weapons inspector, Hans Blix, has his own answer:
“I do not think it is reasonable to close the door on inspections after three and a half months. I would have welcomed more time.” (Gary Younge, ‘Sad Blix says he wanted more time for inspections’, the Guardian, March 20, 2003)
Blix added that Iraq had been providing more cooperation in recent months than it had in 10 years.
Would it really have been dangerous to persevere with inspections for three or four more months, as France, Germany, Russia, China and many others proposed? Tell that to the civilian population of Iraq dying now with shock and awe etched on their faces. Tell it to the high-level task force of the Council on Foreign Relations which recently warned of likely terrorist attacks far worse than September 11, including possible use of weapons of mass destruction within the US, dangers that become “more urgent by the prospect of the US going to war with Iraq”. (Quoted, Noam Chomsky, ‘Confronting The Empire’, ZNet, February 1, 2003)
According to Douglas Hurd, former Conservative foreign secretary, war on Iraq runs “the risk of turning the Middle East into an inexhaustible recruiting ground for anti-western terrorism”. (Financial Times, January 3, 2003)
There are many similar voices because there can be no doubt that the attack on Iraq is exactly the kind of abuse of power that resulted in September 11. Blair’s insane talk of ‘danger’ recalls Howard Zinn’s comment on political propaganda:
“The truth is so often the reverse of what has been told us by our culture that we cannot turn our heads far enough around to see it.”
With no limits on his willingness to distort the truth, Blair insisted in his speech that an assault on Iraq will not generate more terrorism – al-Qaeda attacked the US, not the other way around. But as Osama bin Laden himself tells us, al-Qaeda’s violence was a direct response to the horrors the US has visited on the Iraqi and Palestinian peoples. Blair, though, dismisses the idea that the West has caused the mass death of Iraqis, claiming Saddam is solely to blame for suffering under sanctions. Again, the people who actually ran the sanctions programme, and who resigned in protest, say this is just not true.
What is so shocking is that Blair is able to lie in this way and is greeted, not even with whispers of dissent, but with thunderous applause and praise.
Blair then talked of the need to free Iraqi people “groaning under years of dictatorship”. But they have also, above all, been groaning under years of US/UK sanctions while Clinton, Blair and Bush did nothing to act to stop the mass death. And what of the people around the world groaning under other dictatorships – tyrants who, like Saddam Hussein, are armed and supported by Britain and the US? What about the 50,000 Kurdish dead and 3 million refugees, some reduced to living in caves, groaning under Turkey’s onslaught, with 80% of the arms supplied by the US? What about the people of Colombia? What about the Chechen people groaning under the merciless Russian onslaught? Of that misery Blair said in 2000:
“Well, they have been taking their action for the reasons they’ve set out because of the terrorism that has happened in Chechnya. We’ve been calling for restraint in the Russian action, but this is a fight that has been going on – a civil war within Russia.” (The Guardian, March 15, 2000)
Blair tells us everything will be done to minimise civilian casualties in Iraq – the vice-admiral of the US fifth fleet tells us, “It’s hammer time.” Donald Rumsfeld tells us that the ferocity of the onslaught will be beyond anything seen before in military combat.
Blair’s March 18 speech was packed with breathtaking lies, and yet Blair has “helped to restore the integrity of parliament at this crucial stage in the nation’s history”, according to the Mirror. It is of this cynic that the Independent can say: “his patent sincerity has impressed, banishing his reputation as a fickle politician without convictions”.
These editors, we believe, have been deceived by Blair’s manic intensity and by his affectation of impassioned sincerity. But it takes the conscious selection and omission of facts to manipulate the truth in this way – it can’t be done honestly. Future generations will surely look back and laugh grimly at this catastrophic moral and intellectual failure.
The goal of Media Lens is to promote rationality, compassion and respect for others. In writing letters to journalists, we strongly urge readers to maintain a polite, non-aggressive and non-abusive tone.
Write to the heads of BBC news and ITN expressing your views:
Richard Sambrook, BBC director of news. Email: [email protected]
Jonathan Munro, head of ITN newsgathering. Email: [email protected]
Write to the editors of The Guardian and The Observer: Alan Rusbridger, Guardian editor Email: [email protected]
Roger Alton, Observer editor Email: [email protected]
Simon Kelner, Independent editor Email: [email protected]