On top of the Zyklon heap

[“This essay was commissioned almost immediately after the 2001 attack on the World Trade Center by the Australian Arts magazine Masthead and published by it with many other such contributions. That issue seems to have disappeared; but I like to think that my essay still has some value]

[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 Auschwitz. When the doors were opened after the gassing, the bodies were predominantly in a conical heap under the central capped hole in the ceiling through which the Zyklon pellets were dropped. Either some air penetrated there or was generally believed to penetrate; or it may be that the poison gas rose from the floor and away from the walls so that the top centre of the chamber was the last to be fatally poisoned.

As 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.

Zyklon 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 in Auschwitz in 1973.]

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.

Blair has said "It isn't just an attack on the USA but an attack also upon the free and democratic world" (and Bush said something similar).

If only he, either of them, really meant to admit that there is a difference between USA and a / the free and democratic world...

If only we could start to make that separation! Then we could separate Britain. And so on.

We could 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.

Of course, 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 say...

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.

But let's take him at his word. That brings us back to "The free and democratic world..."

Free? With the number of innocent and ill people USA locks up? or Britain? Free for some perhaps.

Democratic? Where is President Gore then? Britain may not have the travesty of democracy that an American electoral college is; but Blair got in again because people didn't vote for the others, not because he is popular; in my experience, he is despised... In Britain, we have a poor choice and the electoral turnout was low last time.

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.

Saudi Arabia appears to be on the side of the "the west". When has that country ever been free or democratic? There are other examples of undemocratic countries being backed by USA - Iraq among them, in its time, although in other ways Iraq used to be a relatively open and progressive country, in its treatment of women, for instance, and compared to the undemocratic Kuwait - an Undemocracy carefully restored by USA.

Suppose it 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.

In the absence of international law and mutual agreements, the only truly legitimate course is to seek help from the United Nations.

Justice and 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 attention.

Bush said 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.

Following on from that agreement, under which heading do we put his country's activities in Serbia and Iraq; and how shall we classify his support for Israel? How shall we regard his backing of the Albanian UCK, surely a terrorist organisation, seeking to restore the brief puppet regime set up by Italian Fascists in the 1940s? Surely the bombing of Novi Sad, a long way from Kosovo, was an act of terrorism? It was pointless as an attempt to end the civil war in Kosovo, which was one of the official stories.

Yet Bush 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 USA was the Pentagon, where things like the bombing of Novi Sad are worked out and made possible. Bush describes all the people killed as peaceable. I have never thought of the Pentagon as peaceable though I would prefer that the people in it had not been hurt. Wishing someone well does not mean they are judged blameless.

Let's 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 United States lives' are more important than other lives. Many believe it, I suspect; but few say it. He has come very near to saying it explicitly, but always his speech-writers have left some ambiguity. The same ambiguity exists in Israeli statements.

Anyone who thinks that what was done in USA last week was uniquely hideous might investigate what napalm does to human bodies, napalm having been used widely by USA. They might consider the effects of the atomic bombs employed against Japan in 1946; people are still dying. And people are going to die all over what used to be Jugoslavia as depleted uranium takes its effect. The effect is already clear in Iraq. We are told that depleted uranium does no harm. The suppliers said that about asbestos, which is why there is so much danger in Manhattan now. The World Trade Center was full of asbestos.

For the unfortunate people who died in Manhattan or are still dying, things are as awful as they could be; but many experience death, despair and injury daily, in a process which helps, sometimes indirectly and sometimes inadvertently, to make USA corporately rich.

Blair has 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.

He uses 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 the opposite.

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.

"The 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.

A non-violent civilisation is conceivable and desirable; but it has not been achieved.

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 Hiroshima.

A man arrested in UK or USA in control of high explosive would have to answer a prima facie case of plotting terrorism, or war; unless he happened to be the one elected to divert attention from the real power in our countries.

There is 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 US preparation to respond violently would support that.

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?

The powerful 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.

The only 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.

He was 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.)

Bush's Roman 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.

USA's new friends, the Russians, are included in the list of those fighting the unidentified enemy within the new world order. I conclude, therefore, that Russian action in Chechnia, though just as brutal and though far more destructive than what was done in NYC, is deemed to be civilising, rather than destructive of civilisation. Now that all are friends, and even the Chinese are being offered a piece of the Star Wars action, it may not be clear to you why anyone has nuclear weapons, unless they are planning terrorism or war.

Not that nuclear weapons are necessary to cause intense suffering, as we saw at the World Trade Center. Smart bombs aren't that smart, and they certainly don't argue when they are mistargeted. The horror of multiple death is a survivors' perspective. One bullet is apocalypse from the point of view of the recipient.

On 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.

Yet many programmes and newspaper articles do go into matters Muslim, though not very knowledgeably. In UK, there is at last a newspaper recognition that to be Muslim is not to be fanatic; though there is a lot of newspaper harm already done to undo.

In which 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 for that.

Genital mutilation is something else. Put it in the terrorism category (planes into buildings, bombs in public places, nuclear weapons, cruise missiles.)

There are 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.

Christianity 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.

Embarking on a crusade is a willingness to accept casualties; and, quite clearly, US casualties will be heroes, every last one of them: death cult.

Corporate 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.

Giuliani 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 Serbia. (Likewise Iraq) As a result of their cowardice, many Serbs died who might not have died had the pilots of the self-declared greatest country in the world and its allies been prepared to risk the anti-aircraft fire of Jugoslavia and so get near enough to see what they bombing: "Take that you evil cowards!"

What is meant by the word "evil"? These people saying it are demonstrably not Christians for all they chant God Bless America; and they seem to have no conscience. Where does their idea of evil come from?

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 that.

Bush's 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?

It's strength which is the problem.

There are 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 snark.

You won't 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 USA. But they're welcomed. They don't crash planes. Some of them make cruise missiles and cruise missiles are planes which crash; but I think that must be different, I am sure that must be different. Do tell me how it is different.

News, 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 USA as explicable, results in responses which jump a few stages in the argument, stages which might prove awkward to the ruling powers; or the subject of the sentence is changed; or the microphone is turned off.

If anything 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 London with some advice. He has not seen fit to reply to me. I take that to be a rejection of my advice without benefiting the world with an explanation; perhaps he has none. I ended:

"... Again and again I hear "What more do they want?" asked of the Palestinians.

Israel now occupies over 2/3rds of the land occupied by Palestinian Arabs one hundred years ago. What more do Israelis want? Israelis and Palestinians must live together or there will be no peace for either. There are 200, 000 Israelis living in Palestinian land, beyond the internationally-accepted boundaries of your country. Everywhere in the world such behaviour is viewed as an act of war; yet Israelis say that they want peace.

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.

Never mind 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 United States of America. Let me say again: USA and its allies could change the world for the better overnight. The opportunity is there to be wasted.

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 tap,
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; unofficial;
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


Saturday, 22 September 2001

Lawrence Upton

Copyright Lawrence Upton 2001