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Why We Kill People

Television news programs are suddenly a-flutter over accounts of the Bush administration’s negotiations with (and threats to) the Taliban about oil, long before September 11. It’s an indication of how insular the US media are that these reports were discussed two months ago in the European press. But the US attack on Afghanistan wasn’t exclusively — or even primarily — about oil. Of course oil is always in the background in US foreign policy, the control of world energy resources being a major instrument in US control of its principal economic rivals, the EU and East Asia. But the war in Afghanistan, like all of America’s wars for generations, is not in the first place about acquiring territory or resources: it’s about demonstrating to the world at large that — as the elder Bush said in his school-boy argot at the time of the Gulf War — “What we say goes!”

Since the Second World War, the US has launched a series of “demonstration wars,” insisting with murder and torture that no country in what used to be called the Third World was to be allowed to employ its resources independently, and not incorporate them into the world-wide American economic empire. That was the primary motive behind even the Vietnam War, which was only incidentally about southeast Asian resources. So long as the Soviet Union existed, this policy could be presented as “fighting communism,” but that increasingly transparent excuse disappeared entirely with the fall of the Soviet Union a decade ago — and, remarkably enough, the disappearance of the Evil Empire affected US “defense” spending not a whit — because of course it was never the real issue. The USSR was a bete noir, useful to cover US hegemony.

And America’s demonstration wars didn’t cease with the Soviet Union. In fact, it can be argued that without the partially restraining influence of the other “superpower” (whose economy barely approached half the size of that of the US), they increased. First to feel America’s post-Soviet wrath was Panama, where Bush I sent bombers to kill perhaps thousands of people in what could no longer be called an anti-communist crusade — so it was called “Operation Just Cause.” (Some at the time suggested that meant, “Just ‘Cause We Want To.”) The ostensible reason was the apprehension of a former CIA operative, now Panama’s military ruler. Like a Mafia godfather, the US finds itself often attempting to whack former clients — Noriega, Saddam Hussein, indeed the entire Al-Qaeda network. All of these and others had been beneficiaries of the largesse of a remarkably inept CIA, and then had chosen to stop obeying orders. It was therefore necessary to make an example of them, so that other clients wouldn’t get the wrong idea, the idea that they can act independently. Hence another demonstration war is required.

In the 1990s the Bush/Clinton/Bush administrations went to war with Iraq, rejecting that country’s offer to negotiate; with Somalia (where the US military may have killed 7-10,000 Somalis, but commanding Gen. Anthony Zinni — now negotiating “peace” in Palestine — said, “I’m not counting bodies … I’m not interested”); and with Serbia, again rejecting negotiations, so that US might could be demonstrated. In the wake of the vicious Reagan wars in Latin America in the 1980s, the US has sponsored a major and on-going demonstration war in Colombia. It has supplied weapons and materiel for genocidal ethnic cleansing by its allies in Turkey and East Timor. And it has supported most of all its regional enforcer, Israel, in its brutal occupation and attacks on its neighbors. Even a largely incidental US bombing of Sudan accounted for more deaths that the attacks of September 11.

The serious flaw in the American government’s presentation of its “War On Terrorism” — popular as that phrase is with governments that want an excuse to attack their own dissidents — is that it is impossible to craft a definition of terrorism — generally, killing civilians in furtherance of a political goal — that doesn’t include these demonstration wars. But British writer Tariq Ali explains how the problem is overcome. “If you see what passes as the news on the networks in the United States, there’s virtually no coverage of the rest of the world, not even of neighboring countries like Mexico or neighboring continents like Latin America. It’s essentially a very provincial culture, and that breeds ignorance. This ignorance is very useful in times of war because you can whip up a rapid rage in ill-informed populations and go to war against almost any country. That is a very frightening process.”

Paying some attention to recent history — accurate history, not propaganda — may counter the rage that leads us to acquiesce in the plans that the killers who run our government propose.