Click amount to donate direct to CounterPunch
  • $25
  • $50
  • $100
  • $500
  • $other
  • use PayPal
Support Our Annual Fund Drive! We only ask one time of year, but when we do, we mean it. Without your support we can’t continue to bring you the very best material, day-in and day-out. CounterPunch is one of the last common spaces on the Internet. Help make sure it stays that way.
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

The Semantics of Empire

by M. SHAHID ALAM

 

“Saddam Hussein is a man who is willing to gas his own people ”
George Bush, March 22, 2002

“As he (George Bush) said, any person that would gas his own people is a threat to the world.”
Scott McClellan, White House spokesperson, March 31, 2002

“Saddam Hussein is a tyrant who has tortured and killed his own people”
Hillary Clinton, October 10, 2002

“He poison-gassed his own people.”
Al Gore, December 16, 1998

We might glean a few insights about the semantics of the global order–and the reality it tries to mask–from the way in which the United States has framed the moral case against Saddam.

Saddam’s unspeakable crime is that he has “tortured his own people.” He has “killed his own people.” He has “gassed his own people.” He has “poison-gassed his own people.” In all the accusations, Saddam stands inseparable from his own people.

Rarely do his accusers charge that Saddam “tortured people,” “gassed people,” “gassed Iraqis,” or “killed Iraqis.” A google search for “gassed his own people” and “Saddam” produced 5980 hits. Another search for “gassed people” and Saddam produced only 276 hits.

It would appear that the indictment of Saddam gathers power, conviction, irrefutability, by adding the possessive, proprietary, emphatic ‘own’ to the people tortured, gassed or killed. What does the grammar of accusations say about the metrics of American values?

It is revealing. For a country that claims to speak in the name of man, abstract man, universal man, the charge is not that Saddam has killed people, that he has committed murders, mass murders. Instead, the prosecution indicts him for killing a people who stand in a specific relation to the killer: they are his own people.

This betrays tribalism. It springs from a perception that fractures the indivisibility of mankind. It divides men into tribes. It divides people into “us” and “them:” “ours” and “theirs.” It elevates “us” above “them:” “our” kind above “their” kind. It reveals a sensibility that can feel horror only over the killing of one’s own kind.

Life is sacred at the Core. In the United States, we have an inalienable right to life. It is protected by law; it cannot be taken away without due process. Americans are proud, sedate, in the illusion that their President never kills his own people; their history is proof of this. An American President would never think of killing his own people.

Saddam’s crimes are most foul because he has tortured his own people; he has killed his own people; he has gassed his own people. He has violated the edict of nature. His actions are un-American.

Saddam’s unnatural crimes trouble us, however, not because we feel empathy for his victims. His crimes predict trouble for us. If he can kill his own kind how much more willingly would he kill us? In Scot McClellan’s version: “any person that would gas his own people is a threat to the world (read the United States).”

Of course, Saddam might plead innocence to this charge. “You’ve got it all wrong about the people I kill. The Kurds I killed are not my own people. They are not even Arabs, and, worse, they wanted to break up Iraq and create their own independent Kurdistan. What would you do to your Blacks, Amerindians, Hispanics or Asians, if they took up arms to carve out independent states of their own? Were not the Southern whites your own people? But you killed a half million of them when they took up arms against you in the 1860s. More recently, you killed your own kind at Waco.”

Now, as the United States prepares to try Saddam for torturing, gassing and killing his own people, does this absolve us of killing the same people because they are not our own? Is the killing of Iraqis a crime only when the perpetrators are local thugs–once in our pay–and not when we take up the killing, and execute it more efficiently, on our account?

In the colonial era, racism inoculated people against feeling empathy towards those other people in the Periphery. Those other people were children, barbarians, savages, if not worse. We had to kill them if they could not be useful to us, or if they stood in the way of our progress. There wasn’t much squeamishness about this. It was good policy.

In the era of the Cold War, we went easy on the language of racism, though not always on its substance. When we sent our men and women to kill hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese and Koreans, we justified this by claiming that we were doing it to protect our freedoms. Of course, it was all right to kill for our freedoms.

However, in the new era, the US learned to contract the killing to thugs in the Periphery. This was a win-win for us. We kept our hands free from bloodstains, so we could smell like roses. At the same time, we could point to colored killers (in our pay), and say, “Look, they are still incapable of civilization.” What is more, we could use their savagery as justification for killing colored peoples on our own account.

More recently, the US has gone back to killing on its own account. Starting in the 1980s, taking advantage of their indebtedness–which we helped create–we began a general economic warfare against the Periphery, stripping down their economies for takeover by Core capital. In this new war, the colonial governors and viceroys have been replaced by two banks–the World Bank and the IMF–and a trade enforcer, the WTO. Like the famines in British India, this war has produced tens of millions of hidden victims, dead from hunger and disease.

In 1990, the US introduced a new, deadlier form of economic warfare: it placed Iraq under a total siege. This instrument was chosen because we knew that Iraq was vulnerable: it imported much of its food, medicines, medical equipment, machinery and spare parts, nearly all paid for by oil exports. Imposed to end Iraqi occupation of Kuwait, the siege ended some thirteen years later only after the US had occupied Iraq. Only after the siege had killed more than a million and a half Iraqis, half of them children.

Once again, the US is the world’s nerve center of reactionary ideologies. The post-War restraints on the use of deadly force now gone, the United States revels in the use of deadly force. Not that alone, it wants to be seen using deadly force. It wants to be feared, even loathed for its magnificent power, raining death from the skies as never before, like no other power before. At manufacturing death, we brook no competition.

Imperialism, militarism and wars create their own rationale. In time, Islamist enemies were elevated and magnified, with help from the Zionists. Rogue states stepped out of the shadows. The swamps began to spawn terrorists. Weapons of mass destruction proliferated. Sagely Orientalists suddenly awoke to an Arab “democracy deficit.” Islam, they declared, is misogynist, anti-modernist and anti-democratic. The civilizing mission was Arabized. The musty odors of jingoism, militarism, racism and religious bigotry infested the air. Like a godsend, the attacks of September 11, 2001, galvanized America. Imperialism and racism rode into town, cheek by jowl, hand in hand.

The new colonization project has now snagged its chief prize. An Arab Ozymandias brought low. The man who tortured, killed and gassed his own people is in American hands. Our civilizing mission displays its trophy. We are repeatedly invited to peep into the oral orifice of this bedraggled Saddam. “Ladies and gentlemen, we got him.”

The images of Saddam the captive, haggard, resigned, defanged, are images of our raw power. Our power to appoint, anoint, finance and arm surrogates in the Periphery: and when they go wrong, our power to wage war against their people; destroy their civilian infrastructure, poison their air, water and soil with uranium; lay siege to their economy; and, finally to invade and occupy their country. We will go to any lengths to save the people of the Periphery from our tyrants.

Come, then, wretched denizens of the Periphery, there is cause to rejoice. Lift your Cokes and offer a toast to the Boy Emperor even as he launches plans to establish a thousand years of Pax Americana. He will bring down all outmoded tyrannies, and root out rogue states, dictatorships and monarchies. He will extirpate all fundamentalists, hunt down all terrorists, track down all drug lords, and scrap all unfriendly WMDs. This will be the great cleansing of all self-created challenges to the Empire. In the end nothing will stand between the Empire and the Periphery, between Capital and Labor, between Thesis and Anti-Thesis.

Rejoice, the Empire is advancing its day of reckoning with history.

M. SHAHID ALAM is professor of economics at Northeastern University. His last book, Poverty from the Wealth of Nations, was published by Palgrave in 2000. He is also a contributor to CounterPunch’s hot new book: The Politics of Anti-Semitism. He may be reached at m.alam@neu.edu. Visit his webpage at http://msalam.net.

© M. SHAHID ALAM

 

M. SHAHID ALAM is professor of economics at Northeastern University. This is an excerpt from his forthcoming book, Israeli Exceptionalism: The Destabilizing Logic of Zionism (Macmillan, November 2009). Contact me at alqalam02760@yahoo.com.

More articles by:

2016 Fund Drive
Smart. Fierce. Uncompromised. Support CounterPunch Now!

  • cp-store
  • donate paypal

CounterPunch Magazine

minimag-edit

September 28, 2016
Eric Draitser
Stop Trump! Stop Clinton!! Stop the Madness (and Let Me Get Off)!
Ted Rall
The Thrilla at Hofstra: How Trump Won the Debate
Patrick Cockburn
Cracks in the Kingdom: Saudi Arabia Rocked by Financial Strains
Lowell Flanders
Donald Trump, Islamophobia and Immigrants
Shane Burley
Defining the Alt Right and the New American Fascism
Jan Oberg
Ukraine as the Border of NATO Expansion
Ramzy Baroud
Ban Ki-Moon’s Legacy in Palestine: Failure in Words and Deeds
David Swanson
How We Could End the Permanent War State
Sam Husseini
Debate Night’s Biggest Lie Was Told by Lester Holt
Laura Carlsen
Ayotzinapa’s Message to the World: Organize!
Binoy Kampmark
The Triumph of Momentum: Re-Electing Jeremy Corbyn
David Macaray
When the Saints Go Marching In
Seth Oelbaum
All Black Lives Will Never Matter for Clinton and Trump
Adam Parsons
Standing in Solidarity for a Humanity Without Borders
Cesar Chelala
The Trump Bubble
September 27, 2016
Louisa Willcox
The Tribal Fight for Nature: From the Grizzly to the Black Snake of the Dakota Pipeline
Paul Street
The Roots are in the System: Charlotte and Beyond
Jeffrey St. Clair
Idiot Winds at Hofstra: Notes on the Not-So-Great Debate
Mark Harris
Clinton, Trump, and the Death of Idealism
Mike Whitney
Putin Ups the Ante: Ceasefire Sabotage Triggers Major Offensive in Aleppo
Anthony DiMaggio
The Debates as Democratic Façade: Voter “Rationality” in American Elections
Binoy Kampmark
Punishing the Punished: the Torments of Chelsea Manning
Paul Buhle
Why “Snowden” is Important (or How Kafka Foresaw the Juggernaut State)
Jack Rasmus
Hillary’s Ghosts
Brian Cloughley
Billions Down the Afghan Drain
Lawrence Davidson
True Believers and the U.S. Election
Matt Peppe
Taking a Knee: Resisting Enforced Patriotism
James McEnteer
Eugene, Oregon and the Rising Cost of Cool
Norman Pollack
The Great Debate: Proto-Fascism vs. the Real Thing
Michael Winship
The Tracks of John Boehner’s Tears
John Steppling
Fear Level Trump
Lawrence Wittner
Where Is That Wasteful Government Spending?
James Russell
Beyond Debate: Interview Styles of the Rich and Famous
September 26, 2016
Diana Johnstone
The Hillary Clinton Presidency has Already Begun as Lame Ducks Promote Her War
Gary Leupp
Hillary Clinton’s Campaign Against Russia
Dave Lindorff
Parking While Black: When Police Shoot as First Resort
Robert Crawford
The Political Rhetoric of Perpetual War
Howard Lisnoff
The Case of One Homeless Person
Michael Howard
The New York Times Endorses Hillary, Scorns the World
Russell Mokhiber
Wells Fargo and the Library of Congress’ National Book Festival
Chad Nelson
The Crime of Going Vegan: the Latest Attack on Angela Davis
Colin Todhunter
A System of Food Production for Human Need, Not Corporate Greed
Brian Cloughley
The United States Wants to Put Russia in a Corner
Guillermo R. Gil
The Clevenger Effect: Exposing Racism in Pro Sports
David Swanson
Turn the Pentagon into a Hospital
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail