essay was commissioned almost immediately after the 2001 attack on the
title is based on a line in my own poem Messages
to silence which is quoted at the end of the essay. The image is
based on what I have read of the gas chambers in
some collapsed earlier than others, those others climbed upon them in an effort
to get nearer the top centre of the chamber, presumably in the hope of
remaining alive a moment longer by treading on their fallen fellows (wouldn't
you?), hope where there was none, refusal to acknowledge powerlessness, slowly
forming a cone of bodies.
was a commercially-produced cyanide poison. It arrived in large tins about the
size of a catering can of gherkins, which bore instructions for use and
manufacturers' claims as to the product's effectiveness. I saw one on exhibit
One does not really know what sufferings
the world's masters have made for us in the way of chemical and biological
death; but what has happened in NYC and Washington is a very mild indication of
what the effects of a nuclear blast might be. Now we know, as if we didn't
before, what an inevitably complete failure the emergency services would be
after a nuclear attack.
Most skyscrapers in the target city would collapse in fire; and the rest would follow. Even more of the fire rescue and medical staff would be dead or injured than have died in the United States, and immediately; and the city roads would be blocked, really blocked. Most of those who survived the initial explosion would die before they were reached; and all but a few never would be reached.
No one mentioned any of that on any of the BBC and "independent" television and radio programmes that I consumed after the attacks. No one mentioned anything much. The content had the embarrassed awkwardness of a funeral or some office parties, when it wasn't sounding like a school assembly; and those who got to the microphone appeared to be as crazy as the unidentified "terrorists".
I have to put that word in inverted commas, not because I have any other word, or because I do not believe that it is entirely appropriate; but because it and every other word in this context must be examined closely. More people are going to die, tit-for-tat or, if you prefer, in the name of justice and international security. It is therefore important to establish how far those who take retaliatory action make sense.
said "It isn't just an attack on the
If only he,
either of them, really meant to admit that there is a difference between
If only we
could start to make that separation! Then we could separate
start to examine what free and democratic means in each case. (We'd need to
turn down the volume on the Battle Hymn of the Republic first.) And then maybe
we could start to have an informed and logical discussion.
one knows it's just that, apparently, he is not capable of uttering a succinct
sentence unaided. It's not that he's stupid; he's far from stupid, either of
them; but he doesn't have any position upon anything out of principle, either
of them, because he has no principles; so he's never actually got anything to
As the late
Douglas Adams observed, the President's job is not to wield power but to draw
attention away from it. He is required to display "finely judged
outrage"; and George W is doing just fine.
take him at his word. That brings us back to "The free and democratic
the number of innocent and ill people
Where is President Gore then?
No one votes
for NATO or its actions; we just get it. It's not negotiable by anyone except
itself, or answerable to anyone. It uses, through its spokespersons, the word
"democratic" a great deal; but it is not, itself, at all democratic.
becomes meaningful to speak of Afghanistan being responsible for the attack
upon NYC and Washington (and I mean something more than Dick Cheney saying he
is sure, without saying precisely why)... What would be the point of bombing
it? Bombing people probably brought the situation in the first place.
It is said,
by those who wish to bomb, that, if the guilty are not "punished",
terrorist attacks will happen again. In fact, the opposite is probably true or
more true. "The west" is too fond of punishing people and too tardy
in apologising for its own immoralities. It is not the job of Bush and Blair to
punish anyone, even in their own countries. The legislature and judiciary are
to be separated.
absence of international law and mutual agreements, the only truly legitimate
course is to seek help from the United Nations.
Democracy mean equality before the law. All should be treated alike; but they
are not. Those who are thought to have killed in NYC are to be afforded greater
that the attack upon NYC and Washington was worse than terrorism, it was an act
of war. OK, then... G W Bush and I agree on something.
from that agreement, under which heading do we put his country's activities in
says War is worse than terrorism. Perhaps he will bomb himself.
He has said
that he will not distinguish between those who carry out bombings and those who
support them. One of the buildings attacked in
imagine, perhaps George W Bush will accept his country's misfortune as an
experience akin to accepting due punishment. So it could be. (Which of us is
without guilt?) He could lead along that line of thought instead of leading
around in a figure of 8 into an infinity of distraction. Then, and only then,
those who have recently died so violently might not have died in vain.
At times he
seems to say that
thinks that what was done in
unfortunate people who died in
been pompous and sanctimonious, as usual, sending messages-by-numbers on behalf
of the British people to the "American" people. I would like a lot
more equivocation and a lot more humility. For a man who believes that he is
going to live after he has died, he shows an almost morbid consternation at
proof of our physical vulnerability and eventual mortality. He threatens death
and he fears death.
words like "civilised" and "free" and
"democratic", words to which there are conditioned responses; and
those conditioned responses are not moral alertness and clarity of thought, but
It has been
the response of the rulers of the attacked throughout history to call their
enemies uncivilised, and to praise the benefits of their own system of
government. Civilisation is a relative term. We might consider the history of
civilisation and its coincidence with violence. We forget, and some do not
know, how violent life has been for much of our history.
civilised world is at war with terrorism" does not mean very much. It does
not define "civilisation" and it does not define
"terrorism" when those words need definition. Nor does it seek their
definition. "Civilisation" is meant to convey "us" and
"good" simultaneously; and "Terrorism" is meant to convey
"them" and "bad" simultaneously. When you do it to me, it
is barbarity (a word meaning, originally, the act of a foreigner); the
foreigner who is not in alliance with "us" is probably unjust.
non-violent civilisation is conceivable and desirable; but it has not been
As well as
learning what a nuclear attack might be like, inferring it from what a
relatively minor expenditure of misplaced energy can do, we might also reflect
that the countries of "the west" still have nuclear weapons and are
prepared to use them. Nuclear weapons kill indiscriminately; and one knows that
they have no other use than to be used or to be threats: September 9's events
have been called "the worst act of terrorism ever", but that was
either a contradiction in the words of Blair and Bush or else the supposed lack
of civilisation and the supposed act of barbarity lie not in the act of mass
murder but in its circumstances and context. In that case it is not the act of
violence itself which is the main problem; and the
It was very
much the act of violence itself and its consequences which was the problem for
injured and frightened in NYC. Our leaders were, of course, safe; and it is
they who were putting the emphasis upon the action itself and those who planned
it. What, then, are they doing with nuclear weapons?
in "the west", who decide upon retaliation, claim to be Christians;
and, unless there is a further contradiction, they should not be reacting at
all. That is what Jesus preached.
Christian message I have heard from a politician ever, with the possible
exception of Julius Nyerere, was about a quarter of a century ago when a Danish
politician proposed scrapping all defence expenditure in his country except for
the purchase of an answerphone set to announce and the maintenance of a single
internationally-accessible phone line which invaders could ring. The message
was "We surrender". The money saved could be spent on public services
as an example to the rest of the world.
mocked by the representatives of the arms manufacturers whose argument was an
assertion that he did not understand economics. (According to them, money spent
on arms ceases to be real money if you try to spend it on anything else - a
sort of fairy gold for the violent.)
solution to what has already happened and cannot be undone is intended, we are
told, to make it clear to "them" that they will suffer the
consequences of attacking the United States of America; and, one suspects, if
"we" have to attack nearly everyone who is not us to be sure we get
them, then so be it.
nuclear weapons are necessary to cause intense suffering, as we saw at the
programmes I have heard, all we hear is the belief that one side is right and
one wrong and that violence can balance violence, a view the Americans have
been reputedly at pains to dispute in talking to Bosnian politicians. At one
point, on one programme, a British Muslim academic was addressed once; but when
he began speaking about British and American action against Iraq, the Chair
said "Well, let's not go into all that" and turned to someone else,
never to return to the uncivilised trouble maker.
programmes and newspaper articles do go into matters Muslim, though not very
country are all women treated equally with men? How recently legal gender
equality came to any country. Treatment of women is worse to varying degrees in
Muslim countries than in non-Muslim countries... There are historical reasons
is something else. Put it in the terrorism category (planes into buildings,
bombs in public places, nuclear weapons, cruise missiles.)
those who follow Islam who would seem to be adherents to what could be seen as
a death cult - the instant martyrdom of the suicide bomber. That has happened
in Christianity quite recently.
too is often a death cult. There are those who see Christ's resurrection as a
triumph of life over death; but it is the crucified Christ which hangs in the
churches and is most often portrayed. Saints with arrows in them. Monks
flagellating themselves. "This is my body."
I have seen
human beings throw themselves on stone floors and repeatedly bang their heads
on that stone - in French Roman Catholic churches and Greek Orthodox churches,
hurt yourself, damage your brain, death.
a crusade is a willingness to accept casualties; and, quite clearly, US
casualties will be heroes, every last one of them: death cult.
capitalism is a death cult. The means of death are one of its major products
and are freely dispensed; the means of life are often withheld. Corporate
decisions in one country lead to fatal economic disaster in others. Its
adherents spend hours chanting rising and falling numbers as if they were
trying to say all the names of God. Words like "market" and the
"ideas" behind them have a theological force and are questioned as
infrequently as theological beliefs.
It's not us,
it's the law of God, the Christian rulers used to say. Now our rulers, still
mouthing the words of the old religion as they learn the new, express their
great regret that the accused is definitely uncompetitive.
Yet the new
deity must be kept mysterious. Reality of death is hidden in favour of images
of death either emphatic or sanitised. And death itself is denied as much as
possible, while in the hinterland, whence all our wealth comes, people really
do die visibly. A few days ago, one reality broke into the other and cries of
"Evil!" filled the air as the reality of mass physical suffering
unbalanced not a few.
among many others referred to the attacks as cowardly. How so?
The men who
made the attacks gave up their lives. That's more than British and American
pilots were prepared to do when they bombed
meant by the word "evil"? These people saying it are demonstrably not
Christians for all they chant God Bless
The child of
a friend of mine would say to her mother, who spent much of her energy doing
the best anyone could do by the child, "You're a very evil woman"
when she didn't get her way or was in some way peeved at the way things were
going domestically; and the utterances of Blair and Bush and others are like
chants about his country's strength miss the point. We all know it's strong. It
keeps using its strength, so how could we not know?
strength which is the problem.
teams of spooks behind W., dreaming up ways of justifying what they've always
been doing in the new circumstances. Heh! let's say it's a war... It'll get W.
re-elected; it'll keep attention diverted. Democracy.
It is all
distraction and in all that word's senses. Religion as religion promises you
something in the future if you behave now; and so does capitalism and so did
what passed for communism. Sacrifice and you will be rewarded. Cults of death.
It has been
asserted that the workers in and visitors to WTC "did not deserve..."
to die. Well, from what position could anyone say that someone deserves to die?
Yet, saying that someone does not deserve to die implies the possibility that
someone might deserve it. It's the word deserve which worries me. All killing
is wrong. Is the use of "deserve" a simple unintended tautology, or
does it indicate an unstated terrible assumption?
The dead in
the attack upon US are relatively few in number if the comparison is made with
the hinterland where the wealth is created. Money is hard to find to relieve
disease and starvation and easy to find to fight a war to rid the world of a
find a good explanation listening to George W. He and his tears are there to
divert attention. From what? I am not sure. My attention has been diverted.
Maybe a list of those who are contributing to the existing martial lore through
star wars and other munitions would be a start. Those will be corporate names;
but they have shareholders. Not all of them will be from
entertainment and politics converge. Words, words, words, bellicosity, threats;
all diverting from the source of power, from the nature of the problem. Any
attempt to answer The Question, that is any attempt to render the attacks upon
specific triggered this attack, and it must have been planned and ready to go
some time ago, I guess (and it is only a guess) that it was Durban, when USA
and Israel announced that some ideas are so ridiculous and insulting that they
would not even stay to refute them. It is striking how loquacious politicians
suddenly become quiet in some situations.
At the end
of July, I wrote to the Israeli Ambassador in
Again and again I hear "What more do they want?" asked of the
I call upon
you as a representative of your government to withdraw to within your own
borders and to allow the Palestinians to engage in unimpeded economic
intercourse with the rest of the world. I realise that your government will
fear aggression in such a situation; it is a justifiable fear, just as the
Palestinian anger causing it is justifiable. But if you did that, despite the
terrible things which each side has done to the other, I think you might have
the basis for peace, and rapidly so.
what was done or was about to be done to you. Revenge breeds revenge as
pre-emption breeds itself. Now show that you recognise your common humanity
with the Palestinians. That's what it will take to get peace. War won't bring
it to you."
Nor will war
bring peace to the
One of the
most striking things of the last few days has been the promotion of the word
"war" - to sell news; to generate hysteria; to facilitate funding;
and, probably, to seek to justify the unjustifiable.
For many in
the world, a war has been waged upon them for some time. I wrote about this in
a long poem some years ago. It is an equivocal poem in which I mimic myself
ironically, my purpose being poetical rather than polemical; but the following,
which are my last words on this for now, I have edited to remove any irony:
The ones with their hands on
the details of the entry codes,
their place at the front of the queue,
deny the existence of a war...
It is a war: undeclared;
a civil war; an inner war; a social war; a class war.
If there is no war, then the
peace is death.
The danger's there all ways,
nice guys earning someone else's crust,
twenty million voters doing the conga with their tongues.
Of course there is a war, the end of one;
survivors struggle to escape the pit
the others have thrown them in,
climbing to the top of the Zyklon heap
Copyright Lawrence Upton 2001