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I was startled to hear Prime Minister John Howard of Australia exclaim in a BBC interview last night that he could not understand why pictures of starving Jewish interns of Bergen Belsen, Dachau, and Aushwitz had been aired, yet again, by an Australian TV station a few days ago. “I don’t understand what news value there is any longer in showing more pictures of starving Jews, tortured in these prison camps.” He added that the airing at this time was all the more disturbing that “people involved in abusing the Jewish concentration camp interns had been prosecuted and some had even gone to jail” and wondered who benefited from the re-airing of photos that had shocked the civilized world. Mr. Howard was also shocked, but shocked that the photos had been published “unnecessarily”, not revolted at the humiliating, disgraceful, vile acts that they depicted.
This is the same John Howard who ordered his armed forces to abuse Iraqi and Afghan refugees, including young children and old people, and locked them up in the heat of the Australian desert in a jail run by a private American company. The same John Howard who is prime minister of the only Western country which automatically jails all political refugees that land on its shore, a policy he instituted. To be fair to Mr. Howard though, one must state that he did not personally abuse the poor, starving refugees. He let his Army, Navy and police forces do his dirty deeds. Which helped him win the last general election on a wave of xenophobia that did not do those who rode it, nor those who voted for Mr. Howard because of it, any honor. The Howard team’s shameful, casuistic argument against giving shelter to starving refugees was of course that they were nothing but “illegal immigrants” trying to sneak into Australia through the back door, i.e. that they were jumping the line while thousands of “legal” candidates were going through proper channels. Naturally, Mr. Howard has not heard of the international UN conventions on refugees. Indeed, the fourth item in a list returned by a Web search engine reads: “Detention Camps: Australia’s Shameful Breach of The UN Convention.” (www.safecom.org.au/detention.htm)
To think that voters in one of the richest “Western” countries bought Howard’s argumentation lock, stock and barrel, is disheartening. To think that they were so frightened by a few dozen refugees that they cheered when the cynical, immoral Howard team used the might of Australian frigates bedecked with heavy guns and rocket launchers to block access to their shores to a bunch of men, women, and mostly children fleeing death and persecution in a rickety boat that eventually faltered, is distressing. To think that Australia, a country that boasts one of the highest standards of living in the world, could not find it in its heart to open its arms to a few dozen haggard people who were running out of food and water, is offensive to the civilized mind.
Doubtless, Mr. Howard would have approved turning back even the “Exodus” if it suited his election campaign. Imagine the propaganda value he would have derived from turning back a ship carrying more than 4,500 wretched refugees, not merely two or three dozen. Back in 1947, the “Exodus” was prevented from docking in a Palestinian port by the British authorities after they boarded the ship, bludgeoning to death 3 innocent Jewish men, and injuring several dozen in the act of taking control of it. “Exodus” was eventually forced to return to its point of origin near Marseilles before it was taken to Germany where its passengers were forcibly removed. The ordeal suffered by those suffering refugees, facing dwindling supplies of food and water, proved to be one of the most defining iconic images that helped in the establishment of the state of Israel a year later. Of course, had the refugees stood in front of the Australian embassy in Berlin, in a long line stretching from the Brandenburgh Gate to the Reichstag, Mr. Howard might have provided “legal” passage to Australia to a few dozen of them, but only so he could later claim that he too had saved Jews from annihilation. You can imagine him dreaming of being the subject of a film directed by Steven Spielberg, entitled “Howard’s List.”
But to be fair yet again to Mr. Howard, he was neither alone, nor the first, in bemoaning the publication of the heretofore unpublished Abu Ghraib torture photos, further documenting the abuse, abasement, and inhumane treatment of Iraqi detainees by their American jailers. A U.S. State Department spokesman joined the chorus of those who termed the publication of the photos “unfortunate”, though not the acts that the photos depicted. As for his and Mr. Howard’s argument that people (a few lowly scape-goats) had been prosecuted and sent to jail (for a few years) which in their eyes ought to be enough for the world to forget about this affair, this same argument would have seen Himler, Goebles and Goering go scot free for the crimes against humanity that they visited upon innocent Jews, while a handful of SS and Gestapo murderers would have been sent to the “Western Front” for actually carrying out the Nazi genocidal policy.
Now I know that none of you were fooled by the artifice that I used in the first paragraph above: substituting the word “Jewish” for “Iraqi.” Funny, isn’t it, how starkly revealing can be the transposition of a single word. Mr. Howard was of course criticizing the decision of an Australian paper to publish newly leaked photos of the criminal torture that Iraqi detainees were subjected to in Abu Ghraib prison on the hands of their American jailers. The world knows well by now that this torture was officially sanctioned at the highest levels of the American government and military command. People have often wondered why the Wehrmacht’s high-command never rebelled en-masse against Hitler’s illegitimate, murderous orders. The policy of torture that the U.S. army command ordered and instituted at Abu Ghraib, Bagram, and other infamous locations gives us valuable insights into how politicians can utilize propaganda effectively to corrupt the very soul of otherwise honorable people, even in a country like the U.S. where the majority of the people are appalled at what their government is doing to other descent people around the world. By the by, of course not “all” Danes, Norwegians or Dutch are as insensitive, fascist, or right-wing as the editors of Jyllands-Posten or the current Danish Government. The artifice of painting “all” Danes, Dutch and other Scandinavians with the same broad brush was designed to generate the very howls of protests that peppered the 175 responses that I received in response to my article on the Jyllands-Posten’s cartoons. That, folks, is how decent, ordinary, law-abiding, non-violent Muslims (the vast majority of them) feel when they are collectively painted as “potential terrorists.” And, yes, of course not all Danes or Dutch are mindless right-wingers intent on “confronting radical Islam,” an asinine endeavor if ever there was one.
And before I am submerged with further howls of protest, if not worse, at the “unconscionable” juxtaposition of what took place in the Nazi death camps with what happened at Abu Ghraib and other torture centers like Guantanamo Bay, let me be perfectly clear: there is no comparison possible between the two. The Holocaust was a barbaric, horrendous event on a historical scale. Meanwhile, the death, suffering and destruction that the Anglo-American led “International Community” has visited upon Iraq through ill-conceived, inhumane, collective punishment euphemistically described as “sanctions” that killed upward of a million Iraqis, half of them children, and the torture and humiliation of Iraqi men, women and teenagers on the hands of American and British jailers and “interrogators,” are described as an “anomaly” by British prime minister Tony Blair.
I have news for Mr. Blair: an anomaly is when the weather suddenly and unexpectedly changes from bright sunlit sky to thunderous raining clouds, ruining his open-air tea party at Checkers; an anomaly is when fluid traffic on the M1 suddenly turns into a 4 hour long complete traffic stoppage that causes thousands of commuters to miss both dinner with the family and the 10 o’clock news on BBC2; an anomaly is when his government is returned to power with a majority of seats in parliament on the strength of a mere 25% of the popular vote. Those are indeed anomalies. What happened in Dachau and Treblinka were not anomalies but crimes against History itself. What happened in Abu Ghraib and Bagram and other undisclosed locations were not anomalies but crimes ordered and sanctioned at the highest levels of the political and military command of a country that is full of descent, honest, hardworking people who are horrified at the “anomalies” that their government is committing in their name. As for the claim that British forces do not behave as egregiously as their American counterparts, well, the recent video showing the brutal beating of Iraqi teen-agers by British troops lays that argument to rest. Imagine how many more similar incidents took place that were not filmed, or were filmed but the images have not been leaked yet. The British emperor truly hath no clothes, and Mr. Blair must take people the world over for idiots incapable of critical, independent thought.
What I truly do not understand however, is the absence of one particular image, in view of the ignominies suffered by Jews in recent history, and in view of “Never Again, Never Forget.” What’s missing is a video showing all members of the Israeli Knesset, led by the President of Israel, filing in to sign a petition for the world never to forget what’s happening to innocent Iraqis in Abu Ghraib, and demanding that such practices stop immediately. I once wrote a hypothetical letter to President Katsav inviting him to lead the world in declaring: “We are all Iraqis now.” A friend sent it to two well-known and highly respected Israeli journalists, hoping, I guess, that they would do the same: urge their president to recite what must amount to the most moral words that an Israeli president could utter today: “We are all Iraqis Now.” Imagine the effect of such a declaration on Middle East politics. Of course, though my recommendation was meant sincerely, I never expected President Katsav to ever make such a declaration. And the point of my letter was exactly that: to prove that for the political leadership of a people whom Edward Saïd described as “amongst the most moral people in the world,” there’s one standard for them, and another for the “dirty Arabs.”
Too much fantasy? If I had apologized to wombats down under for having described John Howard as one of theirs, now that could have been called a “fantasy.” For the record therefore: Mr. Howard is not a wombat. Personally, I can declare unequivocally that I don’t know and have never read about, met, or heard of, a single bigoted wombat. Cuddly creatures, they.
RACHARD ITANI can be reached at: email@example.com