The WTC Attack, Sep 11 2001

Commentary and Analysis

Robert Fisk on the tragedy of historical forgetfulness


The awesome cruelty of a doomed people
By Robert Fisk
12 September 2001

So it has come to this. The entire modern history of the Middle East -
the collapse of the Ottoman empire , the Balfour declaration, Lawrence
of Arabia's lies, the Arab revolt, the foundation of the state of
Israel, four Arab-Israeli wars and the 34 years of Israel's brutal
occupation of Arab land - all erased within hours as those who claim to
represent a crushed, humiliated population struck back with the
wickedness and awesome cruelty of a doomed people. Is it fair - is it
moral - to write this so soon, without proof, without a shred of
evidence, when the last act of barbarism in Oklahoma turned out to be
the work of home-grown Americans? I fear it is. America is at war and,
unless I am grotesquely mistaken, many thousands more are now scheduled
to die in the Middle East, perhaps in America too. Some of us warned of
"the explosion to come''. But we never dreamed this nightmare.

And yes, Osama bin Laden comes to mind, his money, his theology, his
frightening dedication to destroy American power. I have sat in front of
bin Laden as he described how his men helped to destroy the Russian army
in Afghanistan and thus the Soviet Union. Their boundless confidence
allowed them to declare war on America. But this is not the war of
democracy vs terror that the world will be asked to believe in the
coming hours and days. It is also about American missiles smashing into
Palestinian homes and US helicopters firing missiles into a Lebanese
ambulance in 1996 and American shells crashing into a village called
Qana a few days later and about a Lebanese militia - paid and uniformed
by America's Israeli ally - hacking and raping and murdering their way
through refugee camps.

No, there is no doubting the utter, indescribable evil of what has
happened in the United States. That Palestinians could celebrate the
massacre of 20,000, perhaps 35,000 innocent people is not only a symbol
of their despair but of their political immaturity, of their failure to
grasp what they had always been accusing their Israeli enemies of doing:
acting disproportionately. But we were warned. All the years of
rhetoric, all the promises to strike at the heart of America, to cut off
the head of "the American snake'' we took for empty threats. How could a
backward, conservative, undemocratic and corrupt group of regimes and
small, violent organisations fulfil such preposterous promises? Now we know.

And in the hours that followed yesterday's annihilation, I began to
remember those other extraordinary, unbelievable assaults upon the US
and its allies, miniature now by comparison with yesterdays' casualties.
Did not the suicide bombers who killed 241 American servicemen and
almost 100 french paratroops in Beirut on 23 October 1983, time their
attacks with unthinkable precision?

It was just 7 seconds between the Marine bombing and the destruction of
the French three miles away. Then there were the attacks on US bases in
Saudi Arabia, and last year's attempt - almost successful it now turns
out - to sink the USS Cole in Aiden. And then how easy was our failure
to recognise the new weapon of the Middle East which neither Americans
or any other Westerners could equal: the despair-driven, desperate
suicide bomber.

All America's power, wealth - and arrogance, the Arabs will be saying -
could not defend the greatest power the world has ever known from this

For journalists, even those who have literally walked through the blood
of the Middle East, words dry up here. Awesome, terrible, unspeakable,
unforgivable; in the coming days, these words will become water in the
desert. And there will be, naturally and inevitably, and quite
immorally, an attempt to obscure the historical wrongs and the blood and
the injustices that lie behind yesterday's firestorms. We will be told
about "mindless terrorism'', the "mindless" bit being essential if we
are not to realise how hated America has become in the land of the birth
of three great religions.

Ask an Arab how he responds to 20 or 30 thousand innocent deaths and he
or she will respond as good and decent people should, that it is an
unspeakable crime. But they will ask why we did not use such words about
the sanctions that have destroyed the lives of perhaps half a million
children in Iraq, why we did not rage about the 17,500 civilians killed
in Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon, why we allowed one nation in the
Middle East to ignore UN Security Council resolutions but bombed and
sanctioned all others who did. And those basic reasons why the Middle
East caught fire last September - the Israeli occupation of Arab land,
the dispossession of Palestinians, the bombardments and state sponsored
executions, the Israeli tortures ... all these must be obscured lest
they provide the smallest fractional reason for yesterday's mass savagery.

No, Israel was not to blame - that we can be sure that Saddam Hussein
and the other grotesque dictators will claim so - but the malign
influence of history and our share in its burden must surely stand in
the dark with the suicide bombers. Our broken promises, perhaps even our
destruction of the Ottoman Empire, led inevitably to this tragedy.
America has bankrolled Israel's wars for so many years that it believed
this would be cost-free. No longer so. It would be an act of
extraordinary courage and wisdom if the United States was to pause for a
moment and reflect upon its role in the world, the indifference of its
government to the suffering of Arabs, the indolence of its current

But of course, the United States will want to strike back against "world
terror'', who can blame them? Indeed, who could ever point the finger at
Americans now for using that pejorative and sometimes racist word
"terrorism''? There will be those swift to condemn any suggestion that
we should look for real historical reasons for an act of violence on
this world-war scale. But unless we do so, then we are facing a conflict
the like of which we have not seen since Hitler's death and the
surrender of Japan. Korea, Vietnam, is beginning to fade away in comparison.

Eight years ago, I helped to make a television series that tried to
explain why so many Muslims had come to hate the West. Last night, I
remembered some of those Muslims in that film, their families burnt by
American-made bombs and weapons. They talked about how no one would help
them but God. Theology vs technology, the suicide bomber against the
nuclear power. Now we have learnt what this means.

"Civil disobedience is not our problem. Our problem is civil obedience.
Our problem is that numbers of people all over the world have obeyed
the dictates of the leaders of their government and have gone to war,
and millions have been killed because of this obedience. . . Our problem
is that people are obedient all over the world in the face of poverty and
starvation and stupidity, and war, and cruelty. Our problem is that people
are obedient while the jails are full of petty thieves, and all the while
the grand thieves are running the country. That's our problem."

Howard Zinn, "Failure to Quit", p. 45

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