Depending, of course, on where and in what context they occur, atrocities induce acute reactions in two separate camps. The public, or at least a goodly chunk of it, falls, somewhat ostenatiously, into a state of swooning grief. At the same time, those in power exploit that ‘grief’, and others’ suffering, for their own nefarious ends. The West’s response to recent events in Paris serves as a classic demonstration of this regrettable duality.
There can be no denying that tragedy struck the French capital on November 13, when 130 civilians were killed in a number of locations across the city. It is beyond dispute that the perpetrators, men claimed by Daesh as its own, were barbaric individuals who deserve the full strength of our revulsion. But in the wake of these attacks, let us also examine the nature and function of public ‘grief’, as well as the cynical manoeuvres of Western elites, whose disregard for human life far surpasses that shown in Paris by a few deranged gunmen.
In Britain, the massacre of two weeks ago was greeted by a frenzy of collective grieving, the like of which had not been seen since London itself endured a series of bombings one summer’s day in 2005. Of course, the decade that separated the two events was a bloody one, during which many hundreds of thousands of people perished violently all over the world without so much as a hint of lacrimation anywhere in the West. On November 13 alone, dozens of innocent civilians were blown apart in both Baghdad and Beirut, while dozens more were shot by Israeli soldiers in occupied Palestine. For millions of Britons—including plenty who have no connection to France and who otherwise look askance at that country—these most banal of occurrences were so completely overshadowed by the attacks in Paris that they might as well not have happened at all.
Many an attempt has been made to explain away the selective empathy. For instance, we have heard it said that the geographical proximity of Paris accounts for the degree and intensity of our mourning here in Britain. Those who employ this logic are grieving not so much for dead Parisians as pre-emptively and furtively for themselves, who they fear will be the victims of the next inevitable massacre on European soil. Their argument is self-regarding and disingenuous and their sorrow impure. Moreover, if the attacks of a fortnight ago had occurred in Melbourne or Manhattan, we would still be awash in a flood of public ‘grief’, even though each of those places is farther from London than both Baghdad and Beirut. No doubt the argument then would have been from cultural affinity rather than geographical nearness. And so it is that the suffering of those in the Global South is doomed from the start to be met with indifference, or seen as somehow less tragic than that which abides on a far smaller scale in the West. Of course, it helps that we have been conditioned our entire lives to regard those with black and brown skins as a little less human than ourselves.
‘What can be worse than this public grief—what is more horrible, more false!’ cries Gudrun in Women in Love. ‘If grief is not private, and hidden, what is?’ One wonders how this question might be answered by the millions of Facebook users who, in the days following November 13, overlaid their profile pictures with the tricolore. The explosion of social media in red, white and blue is bizarre when one considers what that flag represents. France, like many Western states, was a brutal colonial (now neo-colonial) power, whose history is bespattered with the blood of Haitians and black Africans, Algerians and Vietnamese. The famous motto of the French Republic has never been more than a mere bagatelle, and each of its three constituent terms has been repeatedly disregarded by instances of domestic repression, from the symbolic guillotining of Babeuf to the crushing of the Communards to the state-sanctioned Islamophobia we see today. Surely it cannot be that the millions who have prettified their selfies with the tricolore know about and endorse the various oppressions committed at home and abroad by the French state.
What, then, should we make of the widespread participation in this gimmick, the analogue of ‘Je suis Charlie‘? Indeed, what—if not pure grief—has stirred so many in the West to express solidarity with Parisians? The answer is clear: a total and totally unquestioning acceptance of the narrative which drives the so-called War on Terror. Such a narrative is in many ways the defining political motif of our time, and it has been relentlessly forced down our throats with the effect that we continue staunchly to avoid engaging our long-dormant capacity for critical thought. Instead, by ‘mourning’ selectively, as we have Paris, we effectively supply our consent to whatever murderous policies the moirologists in power—whose grief is even more synthetic than ours—feel are necessary to secure their own nefarious interests.
Indeed, a fortnight ago, the bodies of victims had not gone cold before François Hollande moved to unleash French bombs upon Syria. The British Parliament is days away from officially authorising the United Kingdom’s own violent involvement in that country, which in truth began months and months ago. The United States, meanwhile, has intensified a year-long campaign of air strikes which has already resulted in the deaths of hundreds of civilians. But the reaction of power elites is not limited to dropping bombs. ‘If grief is not private, and hidden,’ said Lawrence’s Gudrun, ‘what is?’ Certainly not our personal communications, as surveillance regimes across the West prepare to expand even further, their already extensive powers having failed to foil an eight-man assault on a European capital still raw and reeling from the similarly unanticipated attacks which took place in January. We have also witnessed among some of our politicians and journalists an unsavoury and quite absurd backlash against refugees, who in most cases are fleeing a land ravaged by some combination of Daesh, the West and Bashar al-Assad.
At any rate, we are told that more military action by the West, and further encroachment on our civil liberties, are necessary in the fight against Daesh. We are led to believe that Daesh itself sits on the highest reaches of the asymptote of Evil (and concomitantly—in subliminal fashion—that the most evil thing imaginable is an ‘Islamic state’, even though Daesh is neither Islamic nor a state). It has also been said that Daesh presents a direct and immediate threat to Britain, presumably on the same order as that which was posed by our one-time ally Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction.
What these shrill pronouncements wilfully omit to mention is that the West has a sordid history of sponsoring the very same ideology by which it says Daesh is guided; of devastating and destabilising the region in which Daesh operates; and, together with its allies in the Gulf, of providing the arms, funds and training that have allowed Daesh to become as brutal as it is. All three of these points are crucially important.
Firstly, if the United States and others were consistent in their opposition to what they like to call ‘Islamism’, they would not have financed or feted Osama Bin Laden and his mujahideen in the Eighties. They would not have seen what they now call ‘Islamism’ as a bulwark in the fight against what they then called Communism. And they would absolutely not continue to regard the appalling Saudi regime as one of their very closest allies.
Secondly, the West bears close to full responsibility for the bloody and desolate state in which the Middle East languishes today. The litany of crimes that Western powers have committed in the region has no end, but perhaps one of the first of just the last one hundred years was the signing of the Sykes-Picot Agreement. Since then they have invaded, occupied and plundered with impunity; imposed sanctions described as genocidal by experts; fomented bloody sectarian chaos; armed and supported savage dictators and monarchies as well as the rogue state Israel; and convinced their own, frightened populations that they do all this out of the purest benevolence, against the dark forces of Evil.
Thirdly, the West—and in particular the United States—not only foresaw the rise of Daesh but actively participated in it, by continuing to provide aid and arms to a resistance movement it knew to be dominated by extremists. Why? As the old radical Norman Pollack has written, Daesh is ‘a blessing to American foreign policy’, the heinousness of which is directed always at consolidating the United States’ hegemonic influence, in the Middle East and beyond. If the West had not wanted the likes of Daesh to gain the ascendancy in Syria, it would simply not have allowed them to.
And certain allies have been shown to prop up Daesh still, by buying its oil and continuing to kill the Kurds who resist it. How glad we should be that Putin showed such restraint when Turkey—itself a serial violator of other nations’ airspace—shot down a Russian plane over Syria. One daren’t imagine what would have happened had the fighter jet been American and its destroyer, say, an ally of Russia’s, or some other enemy of Uncle Sam.
Some commentators, and many members of the public, have cautioned against war by saying that it is exactly ‘what [Daesh] wants’. This argument has come to attain a prominence it doesn’t quite deserve. For it ignores the fact that our elites are also madly desirous of bloodshed in Syria, and have been since at least as far back as September 2013, when they falsely and shrilly accused Bashar al-Assad of using chemical weapons at Ghouta.
Meanwhile, other commentators persist in describing as a ‘mistake’ the Iraq War and stress the importance of ‘learning our lessons’ from the illegal invasion and occupation of that country. What mistake, and what lessons? As Chomsky and others have said, all the strategic objectives of the Iraq War, as envisioned by Western elites, were achieved, and with resounding success too. Chief among those objectives were making sure that the Iraqi people couldn’t govern themselves, and opening up their largely uncharted country—in particular its vast energy reserves—to penetration by Western corporations.
As far as Syria is concerned, the West’s main objective has for years been the overthrow of Assad, which in turn would serve to weaken Russian and Iranian influence in the region. Two years ago, even after the gassing at Ghouta, there was no appetite for war among the public on either side of the Atlantic. But now, the rise of Daesh—abetted, of course, by the West—allows our elites to have a second bite of the cherry.
As war looms, then, we can be confident that a number of certainties will attach to the escalation of Western military action in Syria. Firstly, very many civilians will be killed, in Raqqa—a city of more than 200,000 people—and elsewhere. Secondly, the Middle East will be plunged even deeper into the kind of bloody tumult that consumed Iraq following our invasion of it, leaving the region ripe for more of the same murderous factional conflict. Thirdly, there will be further blowback here in Western countries, in the form of ‘terrorist’ attacks that will continue to be seen as the problem rather than as a symptom of the problem. Fourthly, such blowback will inevitably be exploited by politicians to justify yet more war. Fifthly, the people of the Middle East will, tragically, remain the wretched subjects of Western hegemony. And finally, global capitalism will receive a shot in the arm, because fear and repression will conspire to perpetuate the conditions that are necessary for the continued flourishing of a world economy driven by war.