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19 Feb, 2003

Whatever happened to “There is No Justification for Killing Innocent Civilians”?

Originally published: 19 Feb 2003

Hands up those who agree: There is no justification for killing innocent civilians.

That statement resounded vigorously after 9/11 and rises in volume each time Palestinian suicide bombers strike in the streets of Israeli cities. I stress the words “no justification”, free of any ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’.

Now, according to Messrs Bush, Blair and Howard, there IS a justification. A few thousand innocent Iraqi civilians have to fry in order to free the rest from a ruthless dictator with weapons of mass destruction (WMD). This war is ‘moral’ and ‘just.’

So what’s the difference between a moral/just war that will kill innocent civilians and a holy war by Osama bin Laden that does the same?

Oh yes, I get it. The “international community” will not be targeting innocent civilians and will be doing everything possible to “minimise civilian deaths” whereas OBL, the Palestinians and others deliberately target them. That makes the former “liberators” and the latter “terrorists.”

So, the new, improved version of that statement now reads: “There is no justification for killing innocent civilians — if they are “deliberately targeted”, but it’s “moral and just” to wage a war that will kill innocent civilians if their deaths will help eliminate dictators with WMD, if the civilians are not “deliberately targeted”, if “every effort is made” to minimise their deaths, and if the killers are not suicide bombers but high-tech missiles launched from hundreds of miles away.”

Inserting the if’s makes it ever so nice and kosher. When spun and spoken with power and conviction, it becomes policy. It’s legal when the Anglo-Saxon paragons of an allegedly progressive Western civilisation do it, with UN approval. It’s illegal when rag-tag Arabs or Indonesians do it. The former walks free; the latter must be hunted down and prosecuted.

The bottom-line is the same, however. Both sides really don’t mind killing innocent people for their respective twisted causes.

The millions of anti-war protestors last weekend realise the troubling ramifications of those double standards, especially as governments will be using tax money for the hardware that will kill innocent people. They know that an eye for an eye will lead to more violence. Hence the slogan: Not In My Name.

They are not convinced that Saddam Hussein is a threat, especially as he faces some of the most lethal military hardware money can buy. If the conflict spreads, it could severely hit global economies, societies and, at a very grassroots level, jobs and livelihoods.

Before I venture another forecast on what next, allow me a little space to indicate that my record is not too bad so far.

In September 2001, just days after the 9/11 attacks, I wrote: “Just as moderate, clear-thinking Muslims are now soul-searching about the role of their misguided minority in global violence, and seeking ways to defuse the fundamentalists, so too do Americans need to ponder how the biased actions of their own government is contributing to global conflict. (Proved true: Many patriot Americans have joined the anti-war movement and see the Bush II administration as part of the problem rather than part of the solution. To them, my profound thanks).

In October 2001, I wrote: “In the Internet age, it is becoming virtually impossible to fool all the people all the time.” Proved true: The anti-war demonstrations gained strength and credibility largely because website-publicity and email spread the word, not the mainstream media.

In March 2002, I wrote: “An unjust ruler always falls, always.” Proving true: Opposition to the Bush administration’s dictatorship is rising. Countries and movements are resisting the self-appointed global cop, prosecutor, judge, jury and executioner.

Also in March 2002, I wrote: “In the last two months, I have visited the birthplace of Islam, the city of Makkah, and Berlin, the de facto capital of Europe. After talking to dozens of people in both cities, I am ready to make a bold forecast: America will not win this so-called “War on Terror.”

Almost exactly one year since that last forecast, I can reiterate it. An attack on Iraq will lead to more terrorism, which will have no winners, only losers. If a mentally unstable man can cause the kind of carnage in a Seoul subway, think of what terrorists can do.

Peacefully and democratically, the anti-war demonstrators sent a very clear and forceful message to the Bush/Blair/Howard triumvirate. If it is ignored and an attack to Iraq leads to economic turmoil and job-losses by the thousands, those unintended victims of conflict will know who to blame.

As the triumvirate is already failing to convince people that its actions are correct, it’s going to take an even higher class of spin-doctoring to sell the newly-jobless on the nobility of their sacrifice for the worthy cause of removing a dictator with WMD, which the US military has plenty of, too.

As the holes of political, social and economic turmoil begin to burst open, the Bush administration will never have enough fingers and toes to plug all the dykes.

That’s when queues will form at the recruitment centres of global anti-Americanism among people of all faiths, castes, colours and creeds. Among those new recruits will be at least a few angry enough to turn violent because, they will say, “We tried to warn you peacefully and democratically but you didn’t listen. Now I can’t support my family and I know who is responsible.”

At that point, not all the intelligence agencies in the world will be able to stop terrorism, even if they convert the world into one big police state. Even Israel cannot crush Palestinian attacks in a land as small as Vermont.

The Bush administration is no Atlas; it is already unable to carry the weight of the world’s problems on its shoulders. A war will only increase that weight. Upon collapsing, it risks taking the rest of world down with it.

On February 16, I went to hear Paula Cooey, a professor of religious studies at Macalaster University in Minnesota, speak at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand. She said the US was still trying to shake off its post-Sept 11 trauma but expressed confidence in the long-standing American people’s right to dissent, which she referred to as being the country’s “only hope.”

Exactly 40 years ago, in 1963, Hollywood released a movie called “The Ugly American,” a critique of the US government’s foreign policy in Southeast Asia. Marlon Brando acts as the new American ambassador to a country that is a fictional version of Thailand and comes face to face with the complexities of dealing with civil war and a communist insurgency.

Today, more than ever, US government policy-makers should see that movie before taking their next step. Politically, they are facing an almost identical situation worldwide, and trying to solve it with the same condescending, do-it-my-way attitude that the fictional Ambassador adopted.

I wager they will meet the same fate as in the film. If life is said to begin at 40, that 40-year-old film may offer the last glimmer of hope for averting a global catastrophe.

To paraphrase His Majesty the King’s wisdom as it was applied in defusing the Thai-Cambodian crisis, the Bush administration is about to soil its hands with more violence. A good people are about to become a bad people.

What a shame, what a real, tragic shame!