Monday, March 18, 2019
Why Did This Just Happen Again?
Another heavily-armed, sociopath fascist has carried out a carefully-planned, extremely cold-blooded, videotaped massacre. In terms of the particular form of mass murder that involves targeting people because of their race, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation or other such commonly-held characteristic, by far the most large-scale forms of ethnic cleansing have been carried out by governments. Examples include institutionalized forms of genocide such as the European Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, the Nazi gas chambers, the Japanese Empire's Rape of Nanking, the smoke-filled caves of Turkey during the First World War, the total devastation wrought from the skies down on entire civilian populations in places like Iraq, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Korea, and Japan by the US Air Force, the price put on each Indian scalp in colonial New England, the many, many massacres of whole villages that took place during the theft of indigenous land or under the banner of "war" throughout the Americas, in Australia and so many other places with similar histories. The names of towns and cities often become representative of the ethnic cleansers of the day, and depending on the time and place, everyone knows what you mean when you use the shorthand of place names such as Alhambra, Guernica, Dachau, Wounded Knee, Dresden, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, My Lai, Srebrenica, Falluja, Deir Yassin, Sabra, Shatila.
In times and places when such slaughter isn't a daily occurrence, it's more shocking. Particularly when the slaughter is carried out not on orders of a commanding officer in an occupied war zone somewhere far away, but by a freelance sociopath from a generally peaceful country, who obviously wants so much to kill for his beliefs that he's willing to die in order to do so. Then we add place names that have become chilling reminders of this special variety of incomprehensible horror, at least for those who remember -- Hebron, Oak Creek, Orlando, Charleston, Pittsburgh, Utoya, Christchurch -- to name only a few, that adhere strictly to the concept of freelance fascist terror directed at a particular group for the crime of existing. (Which is not to minimize other forms of terror. I'll get to some of them later.)
Many commentators have aptly pointed out that at a time when the leader of the free world is openly racist (along with the leaders of an increasing array of other major countries), this encourages racist hate crimes, which is evidently and not surprisingly true. I would venture to add a couple things to this discussion, not that I make any pretenses to be the first to do so. For one thing, this legacy of genocide, racial and ethnic division didn't start with Trump, or even with Hitler -- it goes back a lot further than that, and this is crucial to understand for making any sense of the world around us. The other thing I'd add is I don't feel at all confident that the leaders of most countries in the western world actually want these massacres to stop, and I say this just from my own personal experiences, which I think are worth sharing in some detail.
There have been competing narratives going on throughout the history of Europe and the European-descended settler-colonial/refugee diaspora that has come to dominate so much of the world in recent centuries. Very broadly, you could say that on the one hand there is the divide and rule narrative of the rich and powerful, and on the other, the narrative of solidarity, uniting all the people against their common enemy, the ruling elite. Depending on the time and place, the adherents of one or the other of these narratives have been in the ascendancy, but for most of the history of Europe and its colonies, the elite has maintained their grip on power through the systematic and often very deadly sowing of divisions within the ranks of the people.
Ethnic cleansing has been a major feature since the beginnings of European Christendom. It would be a terrible mistake, however, to assume that what was happening in Europe was happening everywhere else -- it wasn't. During the many centuries that were characterized in much of Europe by the Crusades, the Inquisitions, the expulsions of hundreds of thousands of Jews and Muslims from places like Spain, Portugal (with smaller mass expulsions from England and other countries), in the Ottoman Empire Jews, Christians and Muslims lived side by side in peace and prosperity, with the sultan taking an active role in promoting coexistence of different religions, languages and traditions within the sprawling, extraordinarily diverse Ottoman lands. In one of the most massive and least well-known events during the long period in Europe often referred to as the Dark Ages, when all the Jews of Spain were given three months to leave the newly Catholic country or be killed, most of them were rescued in a gigantic naval operation by the Ottoman fleet. At the time, any Ottoman, Chinese or Andean city was far more prosperous and high-tech than the most advanced parts of Europe. In fact, the term "Europe" wasn't used to describe the land mass it is currently understood to be referring to, so even writing a history of Europe is a fraught concept to begin with for any historian going back further than the modern period.
Jews, Muslims and the wrong kinds of Christians were systematically and regularly targeted by crusaders and inquisitors, and then in North America by Puritans, who hanged Indians along with Catholics and Quakers, and burned them alive in large numbers in Connecticut. Among those who came to North America and Australia from England, Ireland and elsewhere in Europe, most were refugees of one form or another, and when they got to wherever they were going -- often in chains -- they generally lived short and brutal lives. If they were lucky, after a couple generations of assimilation their lot might improve. Not so much for the Africans brought over in chains that were maintained in place by institutionalized racism no matter how many generations later, or for the Indians whose land was taken, with whole populations and cultures reduced to suggestions of what once had been.
Throughout all of this there was profound resistance -- resistance which has defined reality for those of us alive today to a huge extent, though perhaps not as huge an extent as the oppressive institutions, systems and ways of thinking we've been up against over these centuries of the global struggle between the haves and have-nots. There were Indian nations pitted against each other and others who managed to unite against a common foe. There were race riots and pogroms but there were also slave rebellions, farmer rebellions, and eventually, after many decades of trying and failing, inter-racial unions. The Europe-wide uprisings of 1848, the concurrent Rent Strike movement in the US, and the miner rebellion in Australia soon afterwards all had profound impacts in terms of Europe and these European settler states becoming more democratic and more prosperous.
In the more modern period, divide and rule tactics have been used by most western countries to pit nations against each other in wars over colonial control of other parts of the world, using the working class of one country to slaughter that of another. But at least as significant as those wars between countries has been the systematic use of divide and rule tactics to keep populations under control within a given country. In Europe, the divide between different forms of Christianity and the existence of Jews, Muslims, and later of the supposed threat posed by the Soviet Union and still later once again by the existence of Muslims and specifically Muslim refugees have been some of the main pillars of divide and rule. In the US we've had all of that, plus an extra helping of racial division to add a seemingly infinite degree of complexity to the already great challenges inherent in the class struggle anywhere -- and that is very much true in Australia as well, which for a very long time had a whites-only immigration policy, as did the US and New Zealand.
So why this history refresher? Because, as far as I can tell, nothing much has changed. For all the talk about cracking down on far right terrorism or white nationalism or whatever they're using as the modern term for the inquisitors, crusaders, ethnic cleansers, fascists, genocidal colonizers, Puritans, slave-traders, imperialists, CIA coup-plotters or torturers, the crackdown will never be very thorough, because any thorough crackdown would mean a fairly complete transformation of society. It would mean, in short, socialism. In order to overcome these divisions, which were all intentionally created, we have to intentionally put an end to them. This means, to coin a phrase, the workers of the world uniting. And what then of corporate profits?
Well, that, it seems to me, is the problem. I'm now over half a century old, and I've been involved with what they call activism since I was twelve or so. From my experience, the powers-that-be in these European and European-colonized countries like the US, Australia and New Zealand don't seem to be very concerned with the repeating patterns of far right violence. Regardless of the facts, regardless of the news or of what they say they're going to do, what they seem to do in actuality most of the time is crack down on the left some more. That is, they crack down on the very advocates for the concepts of unity and solidarity that they say they also stand for. It seems to me you can't have it both ways.
And as they are opposing progressive thought and action in most every form at most every turn (until that which is violently opposed is ultimately embraced as self-evident), they are also constantly supporting and embracing and propagating a false narrative of history that suits their ends, and ultimately ends up supporting white nationalism. Either intentionally or because they don't know any better, throughout institutions of society in places like the US, Australia and New Zealand, people are being lied to as they're growing up and throughout their adulthoods, with so many different forms of mythology about the superiority of European civilization. And when the contrast between the wealth in so many of the whiter countries and the poverty of so many of the darker nations is not explained or put into the context of colonialism and imperialism, as it generally isn't, it might make sense to assume there is something to this white nationalism after all. The way Venezuela is currently being covered in the western media and by western politicians is a case in point. No real historical context is given for why Venezuela was so poor to begin with, how Chavez changed that for so many people, or why the people talking about all of the different ways the US and other forces are acting to destroy the country are clearly the ones with the strength of history on their side.
Media coverage and portrayal by politicians of the global justice movement in the late 1990's in which I was an active participant is another case in point, and is the first personal example I'll begin with. You would be forgiven for thinking that intensified and militarized border security and the militarization of police forces in the US was a post-9/11 phenomenon in response to terrorism. For those who were around and involved with the movement, we know differently. The security state flew into high gear in response to the WTO protests near the end of 1999. This is when the total vilification of our movement in the media began.
They consistently painted us as "anti-globalization," a term we never used. The impression they gave was that we were against trade of any kind. They dismissed us as ignorant people who didn't appreciate the greatness of capitalism, and all the good the US, the UK, France, etc. has done in the world by promoting free trade and democracy. Many of them probably believe the lies they spout. Why wouldn't they? They grew up in this mind control experiment called the western world, too, believing all this rubbish. They painted us as universally engaged in violence and property destruction, just the same way they talk about the Yellow Vest movement in France today, although with our movement, as with that one, the rock-throwers were a small minority. Most of the movement was all about nonviolent civil disobedience, which is how many different global trade meetings were disrupted.
And that's what really upset them -- this egalitarian social movement. That's what they couldn't stand. And when we, this global movement, began to influence the mainstream understanding of and conversation around so-called development programs and blood-sucking institutions like the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, when people broadly began to question whether free trade was good for the average person, while at the same time the billionaires were unable to hold a public meeting and have it go off smoothly unless they held it in a dictatorship, the global elite in the great democracies of the west were facing something of a legitimacy crisis.
For the ruling elite in the US especially, 9/11 was their opportunity to seize the moral higher ground in the face of the argument around stratification of wealth, free trade, and exploitation of workers, the environment, and the Global South -- an argument they often appeared to be losing. Now, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, they finally had found a worthwhile enemy to distract everyone with -- and they finally found a worthwhile enemy to compare us with, as well. I remember the voice of the NPR anchor so well in the days following the attacks on New York, when he said something like, "last week they were protesting the World Trade Organization. Now they're bombing the World Trade Center."
And it is true that the last time I recalled being at the World Trade Center in downtown Manhattan prior to 9/11 was on May 1st, 2000, when thousands of riot police had been deployed all over the city to make sure we didn't shut down Wall Street or break windows at Starbucks, McDonald's or at the Twin Towers. Turns out they had more to worry about than window-breaking teenagers, but you wouldn't know they were worried about anything other than the left, when you look at the police budgets in different cities, and how they mushroomed not in preparation for potential terrorist attacks, but to prevent us from messing up their meetings.
Sometime around September 13th, 2001 I was driving with a friend past New York City's smoldering ruins, along i-95 in Connecticut, the stretch of highway that consistently gets the distinction of being voted the ugliest in the United States by the truckers association. No one ever hitch-hikes on i-95, but that day there was a hitch-hiker, and he was Israeli. That was weird. We gave him a ride to New Haven. He said he had been there for a long time. No one would pick him up. He figured it was because he looked Arab.
I don't know who that guy was, but years later I heard from a friend who had been off the radar for a long time. He wasn't a close friend, so it wasn't so strange not to hear from him for a while, but when he resurfaced it turned out that he had been off the radar because he was basically in hiding, afraid he might die at any moment. After not dying for so many years, he ventured to anonymously tell me his story, which he said I could publish on my blog (which I did). To sum up the salient points, my friend knew Mohammed Atta, smoked cigarettes with him at the smoking area outside of a mysterious building in Hollywood, Florida where Atta worked. The building contained companies that had names that seemed to indicate they were moving companies, but they had hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of computer equipment, and most of their employees were Israelis, at least one of whom clearly didn't get the cue that he was working for a moving company. The janitor went to the wrong floor and died there. All the businesses in the building suddenly closed on September 12th, 2001. I still want to know what the hell that was all about.
I first learned I was on a watch list in 2002, but I had begun having huge problems crossing the Canadian border before then. I was prevented from entering Canada for the G8 protests in 2002 and told I'd be detained if I tried to enter anywhere else in the country. When would I be released? When the protests were over, I was told. Why would I be held in the first place? The document just said to turn me away, but that they should give me a false reason for having done so. (The border agent wasn't supposed to show his orders to me, but he was too freaked out by them not to. Other people have similar stories, including Laura Poitras.)
I mention the watch list because under treaty, the US, Canada, the UK, Australia and New Zealand share all of that kind of information, since 1948. I learned that in 2013, when I was denied entry to New Zealand.
I had been to Aotearoa -- what the European settlers named New Zealand -- on several occasions before then, playing gigs and getting to know people and places on those lush, green, beautiful islands. I had met people on watch lists, and people who were on trial on charges that involved the word "terrorism" being thrown around frequently. They were all either Maori or non-Maori supporters of Maori sovereignty.
But then to be denied entry in 2013, to find out that government agents from those islands are reading my blog, and telling me about it in detail as they explain that pot-smoking musicians like me are not welcome in their country, was a surprise to me and to the veteran immigration lawyer in Christchurch who tried and failed to help get this decision overturned.
Only weeks later in Australia I got some strange news through the bizarre circumstance of knowing a government worker in Canberra. Down the hall from where she worked, through the open door of the War Crimes Department one of her coworkers clearly heard people inside that department discussing me. Her coworker didn't hover near the door to try to get more information, but he excitedly reported this bit of gossip to my friend, which was as unreal to him as it was to her and to me.
However else you want to decipher this set of facts and the facts that have come to light since the massacre in Christchurch, I was on watch lists in both New Zealand and Australia, and this Australian fascist with a long and active record of hate speech on the internet was able to get a license to own an arsenal of machine guns, and he was not on a watch list in either the country of his birth, Australia, or the country he had moved to, where he bought his guns and killed all those people. Lest anyone be left with the impression that I'm talking about my history with being on multiple international watch lists in order to prove how cool I am, that is not the point. The point is that the authorities are wasting their time and effort on people like me, and however many thousands or millions of other people like me, and they are missing the people they should be watching. (Not that this is a problem that can be solved by better policing in the first place.)
I was in Scotland for the 2005 G8 summit and protests there, which involved lots of nonviolent civil disobedience, delayed meetings, and other festivities. It also involved thousands and thousands of riot cops to make sure the summit would be able to go on. They felt they needed such a large police presence that there weren't enough cops in Scotland for the job, so they imported loads of cops from other places. None of this is unusual, by the way. Many of the cops they imported for the protests were from London. Turns out that in July, 2005 the London cops had other things they might have been looking into aside from nonviolent protesters in Scotland. What they know of in England as 7/7, the terror attacks on the London Underground, occurred at the tail end of the G8 meetings in Scotland, while the London cops were away policing us.
I was in Oslo only a couple weeks after the bombing there and the massacre in Utoya that followed in 2011. The mounds of flowers at the Oslo Cathedral were still fresh. It was the same cathedral where a few years earlier I stood with Afghan refugees who had been on hunger strike for weeks, trying to draw attention to the fact that Norway intended to send them back to a war zone to die. I watched the police destroy their tents one night, and I watched the Red Cross put up new tents the following morning, in a direct challenge to the police.
Like other people following the news in July, 2011, I was hearing stories about the slow police response to the massacre that had been unfolding on the island. One of the things that kept getting mentioned was that the city of Oslo had just one police helicopter.
Only then in the wake of by far the worst massacre in post-World War 2 Scandinavian history did I learn the significance of the experience I had had not long before that time, when Barack Obama was in town to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. The tabloid press and the Norwegian authorities were apparently so concerned about Islamists attacking the Nobel proceedings with rocket launchers that they had arrested Norway's one known Islamist before Obama's arrival as a precaution.
On the day when Obama was getting his prize and some few anarchists were protesting in the rain, including a number of my Scandinavian friends, I wasn't feeling well. I was trying to take a nap around midday, when a helicopter showed up directly above me. I was on a bed on the fifth floor of a five-story building, and the helicopter above me was deafeningly loud. It hovered there for around two hours, preventing me from napping.
Being an activist and getting harassed by helicopters is, believe it not, not an unfamiliar experience for me and for many other people who I could introduce you to. But knowing that the helicopter harassing me in this particular case was probably Oslo's one police helicopter, at a time when they were supposedly worried about Islamist violence, less than two years before the country would be devastated by a horrific act of rightwing violence, it felt very much like yet another example of a grievous misallocation of police resources, at the very least.
I could share so many more examples, but my abundant experience indicates that whether we're talking about a more nakedly capitalist country like the US under the leadership of an open bigot or under the leadership of a suave gentleman of color; whether we're talking about Thatcher's England or the pacific social democracies of Scandinavia led by people who apparently really do think free health care and government housing are good things; the mainstream media and the mainstream political leadership of all of these countries are much more concerned with the possibility that progressive movements will upset their status quo than they are concerned with mass murderers.
Given that the historical evidence indicates that the cure for fascist movements is successfully-implemented socialism that allows everyone to live dignified lives with universal housing, health care, education, etc., the tendency of all of these neoliberal European, North American and South Pacific nations to suppress progressive movements wherever they crop up in their own countries or elsewhere in the world, to almost always side with corporate interests against the interests of their own people or other people, will continue to be one of the major factors providing a great breeding ground for the ethnic cleansers in our midst following in the paths of a thousand years of rule by the descendants of the Crusaders.
You want to de-radicalize the fascists among us, hand-wringing western democratic leaders of the world? You can start by taking your corporate boots off of the necks of the progressive social movements that have been trying to oppose these people while you've been pretending you don't have a history as an explicitly racist state with a whites-only immigration policy.
You can hear this column in podcast form by searching for This Week with David Rovics wherever you get your podcasts, or by going to www.davidrovics.com/thisweek.
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