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The Semantics of Empire



“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 Visit his webpage at



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

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