The Golden Rule of State Violence

Dec 21st, 2012 | By | Category: Articles

In discussion of international relations, the fundamental principle is that ‘we are good’ – ‘we’ being the government, on the totalitarian principle that state and people are one. ‘We’ are benevolent, seeking peace and justice, though there may be errors in practice. ‘We’ are foiled by villains who can’t rise to our exalted level. - Noam Chomsky

A defining feature of state power is rhetoric about a ‘moral’ or ‘ethical’ role in world affairs. Errors of judgement, blunders and tactical mistakes can, and do, occur. But the motivation underlying state policy is fundamentally benign; democratic governments try to do good, or at least as little harm as possible. Reporters and commentators, trained or selected for professional ‘reliability,’ tend to slavishly adopt this prevailing ideology.

So, for example, on the ten-year anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, an editorial in the Independent on Sunday gushed about ‘Bush’s desire to spread democracy as an end in itself.’ It had been, the paper said, ‘the germ of a noble idea.’ There had also been ‘an idealism’ about Blair’s support for Bush. The regret was that the execution of the righteous vision had been ‘naive, arrogant and morally compromised by torture and the abrogation of the very values for which the US-led coalition claimed to fight.’

But, by late 2011, we had Nato’s ‘successful’ mission in Libya, with tens of thousands killed and its leader Gaddafi brutally deposed, to help wipe the slate clean. The paper wrote that ‘the deserts of North Africa ... turned out to be more fertile soil for democracy than could have been imagined.’ Libya was the great cause ‘where the idea of liberal intervention could be rescued and to an extent redeemed from the terrible mistake of Iraq.’

Note that the invasion-occupation of Iraq was described merely as a ‘mistake.’ In fact, many people, including then UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan and numerous specialists in international law, have stated that the invasion of Iraq was ‘illegal,’ a war of aggression. This is deeply significant and with terrible historical resonance. The prosecutors at the Nuremberg trials after the Second World War declared that the launching of a war of aggression is ‘the supreme international crime.’

As Noam Chomsky, the US linguist and political writer, often reminds his audiences, the crime was defined clearly by Justice Robert Jackson, Chief of Counsel for the United States, at Nuremberg: ‘An “aggressor,” Jackson proposed to the Tribunal in his opening statement, is a state that is the first to commit such actions as “[i]nvasion of its armed forces, with or without a declaration of war, of the territory of another State ....” No one, even the most extreme supporter of the aggression, denies that Bush and associates did just that.’

Chomsky continues: ‘We might also do well to recall Jackson’s eloquent words at Nuremberg on the principle of universality: “If certain acts in violation of treaties are crimes, they are crimes whether the United States does them or whether Germany does them, and we are not prepared to lay down a rule of criminal conduct against others which we would not be willing to have invoked against us.”’

The principle seems obvious, yet is routinely buried or ignored by Western politicians and the corporate media today.

Meanwhile, the horrendous murder of the Iraqi civilian Baha Mousa by British soldiers was, said the Independent on Sunday, ‘a reminder of how much the Iraq war tarnished Britain’s reputation abroad.’ The implication was that Britain’s ‘reputation’ is at root decent, and only occasionally ‘tarnished.’ The paper concluded: ‘there is a hope that Britain, with a more realistic understanding of its capability, could regain some of the ethical role in the world that it lost after its mistaken response to 9/11.’

Again, we note the rhetoric about ‘mistakes’ committed, not crimes. And how accurate is it to proclaim Britain’s ‘ethical role in the world’?

In several powerful books, based on careful research of formerly secret UK government documents, historian Mark Curtis has laid bare the motivations and realpolitik of British foreign policy. Ethics and morality are notable in these internal state records by their absence. Curtis observes: ‘a basic principle is that humanitarian concerns do not figure at all in the rationale behind British foreign policy. In the thousands of government files I have looked through for this and other books, I have barely seen any reference to human rights at all. Where such concerns are evoked, they are only for public-relations purposes.’

But the myth of benevolence must be maintained, even to the extent of active deception of the British public: ‘in every case I have ever researched on past British foreign policy, the files show that ministers and officials have systematically misled the public. The culture of lying to and misleading the electorate is deeply embedded in British policy-making.’

Chomsky often cites a definition of terrorism from a US army manual as: ‘the calculated use of violence or threat of violence to attain goals that are political, religious, or ideological in nature. This is done through intimidation, coercion, or instilling fear.’ By this definition, the major source of international terrorism is the West, notably the United States.

As for Britain, Curtis writes in Web of Deceit: ‘The idea that Britain is a supporter of terrorism is an oxymoron in the mainstream political culture, as ridiculous as suggesting that Tony Blair should be indicted for war crimes. Yet state-sponsored terrorism is by far the most serious category of terrorism in the world today, responsible for far more deaths in many more countries than the “private” terrorism of groups like Al Qaida. Many of the worst offenders are key British allies. Indeed, by any rational consideration, Britain is one of the leading supporters of terrorism in the world today. But this simple fact is never mentioned in the mainstream political culture.’

In a more recent book, Secret Affairs, Curtis notes on the basis of extensive research that Britain has long colluded with radical Islamic groups, including terrorist organisations, in pursuance of ‘national interests’ abroad. Both Labour and Conservative governments have connived with these forces, sometimes funding and training them, in order to promote specific foreign policy objectives. Such secretive government collusion constitutes ‘desperate attempts to maintain Britain’s global power in the face of increasing weakness in key regions of the world, being unable to unilaterally impose their will and lacking other local allies. Thus the story is intimately related to that of Britain’s imperial decline and the attempt to maintain influence in the world.’

In Unpeople, Curtis estimates the number of deaths in the post-WW2 period for which Britain bears significant responsibility, whether directly or indirectly. He tabulates mortality estimates for all the wars and conflicts in which Britain participated or otherwise played a significant role; for example, in covert operations or diplomatic support for other governments’ violence. The examples include: Malaya (1948-1960), Kenya (1952-1960), the Shah’s regime in Iran (1953-1979), Indonesian army slaughters (1965-1966), the Indonesian invasion of East Timor (1975), US aggression in Latin America (1980s), the Falklands War (1982), the bombing of Yugoslavia (1999), the invasion of Afghanistan (2001) and the invasion of Iraq (2003).

As Curtis acknowledges, estimates of deaths in any conflict often vary widely and he does not pretend to be offering a fully scientific analysis. But erring on the side of caution, he arrives at a figure of around ten million deaths in the post-WW2 period for which Britain bears ‘significant responsibility.’ Of these, Britain has ‘direct responsibility’ for between four and six million deaths. These are shocking figures, and essentially unmentionable in corporate news and debate.

But then, one of the golden rules propping up the required self-deception of the West’s fundamental goodness is that whenever violence is inflicted by the state it is only in retaliation for violence perpetrated by our enemies. This is straight out of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. The US writer Edward Herman explains: ‘[An] important doublespeak device for rationalizing one’s own and friendly terrorism is to describe it as “retaliation” and “counter-terror.” The trick here is arbitrary word assignment: that is, any violence engaged in by ourselves or our friends is ipso facto retaliation and counter-terrorism; whatever the enemy does is terrorism, irrespective of facts.’ We might say, then, that the golden rule of state violence is: terrorism is what they do, and counter-terrorism is what we do. As Orwell himself observed in his essay, ‘Notes on Nationalism’: ‘Actions are held to be good or bad, not on their own merits, but according to who does them, and there is almost no kind of outrage – torture, the use of hostages, forced labour, mass deportations, imprisonment without trial, forgery, assassination, the bombing of civilians – which does not change its moral colour when it is committed by “our” side.’

The notion is so pervasive in news reporting that it is virtually invisible, like the oxygen breathed by the journalist; it is simply taken for granted. Even raising the topic for discussion in mainstream circles is beyond the pale, as this book will show.

Why Are We The Good Guys? - Reclaiming Your Mind From The Delusions Of Propaganda, David Cromwell

A provocative challenge to the standard ideology that Western power is a benevolent force in the world.

One of the unspoken assumptions of the Western world is that we are great defenders of human rights, a free press and the benefits of market economics. Mistakes might be made along the way, perhaps even tragic errors of judgement such as the 2003 invasion of Iraq. But the prevailing view is that the West is essentially a force for good in the wider world. Why Are We The Good Guys? is a provocative challenge of this false ideology. David Cromwell digs beneath standard accounts of crucial issues such as foreign policy, climate change and the constant struggle between state-corporate power and genuine democracy. The powerful evidence-based analysis of current affairs is leavened by some of the formative experiences that led the author to question the basic myth of Western benevolence: from schoolroom experiments in democracy, exposure to radical ideas at home, and a mercy mission while at sea; to an unexpected encounter with former Foreign Secretary Robin Cook, the struggles to publish hard-hitting journalism, and the founding of Media Lens in 2001.

ISBN: 978-1-78099-365-2, $26.95 / £15.99, paperback, 329pp

EISBN: 978-1-78099-366-9, $9.99 /£6.99, eBook

Author: David Cromwell is co-editor of Media Lens, a UK-based media analysis website, which he co-founded in 2001. In 2007, Media Lens received the Gandhi Foundation International Peace Award. David is also the co-founder of the Crisis Forum which he set up with a colleague at the University of Southampton, UK.

David has a PhD (1987) in solar physics from the University of Glasgow. Following postdoctoral research in Boulder, Colorado, and a four-year stint working for Shell in the Netherlands, David returned to the UK in 1993. In 2010, he left his research position at the National Oceanography Centre, Southampton, to work full-time on Media Lens.


If you enjoy the Zero Books podcast consider listening to the Inside Zero books podcast on Patreon!
Tags: , ,

Leave a Comment