Growing bored of the carnage … as crime of the century unfolds
Powerplay: Iain Macwhirter on atrocity fatigue in Iraq and sympathy for the first minister over asylum
We’ve all familiar now with “compassion fatigue”, when we become inured to the plight of disaster victims in uncharismatic parts of the world such as Kashmir. Well, I fear we are now developing a kind of “atrocity fatigue” over Iraq.
Last week, we learned that George W Bush had contemplated bombing the offices of Al-Jazeera in Doha. According to a leaked e-mail, which we are not supposed to talk about because of the Official Secrets Act, Tony Blair stayed the Americans’ hands.
Yet this led to a curiously muted public response, as if – heck – we all know that Dubya is crazy; what’s new? It was all a joke, according to one insider. Media wits were saying that Tony Blair actually wanted him to bomb the BBC instead – ho ho.
Well, at least one Al-Jazeera journalist, Tarek Ayoub, has already died laughing. He was killed when the US “accidentally” bombed the satellite station’s offices in Baghdad in April 2003. They also destroyed Al-Jazeera’s Kabul office. And it’s not just Al-Jazeera. More than 70 journalists have been killed in Iraq, most by “friendly fire”.
It has also now been confirmed that the Americans have been using chemical weapons in Iraq. White phosphorus (WP) shells were used against insurgents in the siege of Fallujah last year in defiance of the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention. The shells were used for “shake and bake” operations, in conjunction with high explosives.
There’s no evidence that WP was used against civilians. But since some 50,000 Iraqis remained in Fallujah last November, it seems only a matter of time before we discover that it was. WP works by entering the body though soft exposed tissue and burns down to the bone.
The use of WP by the Saddam Hussein against the Kurds in 1991 was cited by the US Defence Department in 1995 as an example of the dictator’s own infamy, and was one of the justifications for regime change. The US have also used thermobaric or “fuel air” weapons and depleted uranium shells. Really, if they wanted to turn public opinion against them, the occupying forces could not have done better if they tried.
But where was the outrage? The thunderous editorials, the questions in parliament. Prime Minister’s question time last week was dominated by gas prices. Either we have acquired double standards or we have just become so used to hearing about such atrocities that we’ve stopped caring. Allied barbarity is no longer news.
Except, of course, in the Arab world, where the Americans’ conduct is increasingly being compared to that of Saddam Hussein himself. The maltreatment of suspected insurgents by the Americans in Abu Ghraib prison rightly caused an international furore last year. But evidence that torture and abuse is continuing in Iraq emerges almost by the week. The only difference is that the abuse of detainees has been devolved to the Iraqi government – more specifically to the interior minister, Bayan Jabr al-Zubeidi.
He was formerly commander of the militant Shia militia, the Badr Brigade. (I’m tempted to say: “Badr by name Badr by nature,” but such flippancy is one of the means by which we desensitise ourselves.) Bayan has admitted that “a few” of the mainly Sunni detainees at the Jadiriya centre had been maltreated. Opposition and human rights groups say this is widespread and systematic. What is becoming clear is that the US- sponsored Iraqi government has turned into an instrument of sectarian oppression by Iranian-backed Shia cliques.
But the pictures of bruised and beaten bodies have become a macabre cliche. I find my own eyes wandering over accounts of the ongoing tragedy that is post-war Iraq. Moral outrage has given way to cynicism.
This is partly because nothing seems to change. Large numbers of people die every day in suicide bombings – 40 here, 70 there. So what’s new? Even the deaths of four Americans on Wednesday hardly merited a news report. We have become inured to the deaths of our own forces.
Compare the coverage given to the female police officer, Sharon Beshenivsky, killed in Bradford last week, with the perfunctory coverage of the death of the British soldier, Sergeant John Jones, killed the same weekend also in the line of duty. The government’s response was to inform us that the British forces had killed or wounded more than 400 Iraqi insurgents since June 2003, as if this were some kind of result.
It is the stupidity of this war that is most offensive. The stupidity especially of its author, Tony Blair, who is increasingly becoming regarded as the greatest dupe ever to occupy Number 10. Sir Christopher Meyer’s self-regarding and patronising memoirs, DC Confidential, confirmed that Blair was cynically cultivated by his American NeoCon friends.
They coldly identified and exploited his weaknesses: Blair’s vanity, his intellectual shallowness and his susceptibility to being easily led by powerful figures. They ferried him around in Rolls Royces, introduced him to stars, awarded him medals, held him aloft as a true American champion, worthy of ovations in Congress. It was like a Mafia sting.
As the former US diplomat Joseph Wilson remarked on the BBC last week, Tony Blair was “hoodwinked” by Bush into believing that the Iraq war was a kind of disarmament process, when the real objective was regime change. The Republicans used Blair first as a human shield, second as a kind of moral hedge fund, and third as a Trojan horse within the United Nations.
I suppose, again, this is nothing new. We already knew that Blair had signed up to the invasion of Iraq back in 2002, a year before parliament was informed. Sir Christopher Meyer has confirmed what was revealed by the infamous “Downing Street Memo”. Blair believed the Republicans’ distorted and unreliable evidence about weapons of mass destruction as it never occurred to him that the Americans would lie. He didn’t try to establish the truth as that isn’t his way. He’s essentially a political salesman, not a policy analyst. The Americans knew that too.
So, the picture is now pretty much complete. It is beyond doubt that parliament and the British people were misled by Blair, and he by the Americans. The invasion was a miscalculation of heroic proportions which has devastated Iraq, destroyed Britain’s credibility abroad, made this country a target for Islamic terrorism, and may even have corrupted our armed forces through contamination by the torture culture of the US military.
And it doesn’t end there. British democracy has been damaged, the BBC has been undermined, civil rights are under attack by a prime minister who now appears determined to bend the knee before the UK police in the same craven way that he succumbed to the persuaders of Republican America.
Iraq is an extraordinary scandal. It is like Watergate, Suez and Northern Ireland rolled into one. Indeed, the sheer scale of the deception has blinded us to it. It is almost too much to comprehend.
Of course, Blair and his cabinet of supine clones seek to exploit this atrocity fatigue by saying that it’s time to “move on”. That this is an “old story”. That we have “been here before”. And it is true that a weariness is setting in, as this story repeats itself like a Quentin Tarantino remake of Groundhog Day.
But the fact that these things have been said before doesn’t make them any less serious. We can’t allow boredom to dull our moral sensibilities to what is beginning to look like the crime of the century.