Genocide, Terrorism and how to overcome your fear of words

A Response to the Sydney Siege

Recently I published an article featuring details of the Cófan people’s fight to survive in the Ecuadorian Amazon. In an earlier draft I included the word genocide. Later, I removed it for fear that upon reading it people would recoil, not knowing how to react to such an ugly word and begin to doubt each and every other word on the page. Words are powerful like that. Let me clarify, I, like many others, believe that a wide variety of states, people and organisations contributed to the genocide of the Amazonian people over hundreds of years.

Genocide is when one group of people attack another group of people (with the same race, religion or ethnicity) with the intention of wiping at least some of them out. The UN definition is of course far wordier than this, so many of us may be confused as to what genocide actually is, but we do know that it’s bad. Really bad, far worse than anything else we’re used to seeing in the news, for sure. But let me reframe this for you. A life is a life and a death is a death. So, if a group of 1,000 are wiped out in genocide, is that automatically worse than a war that kills hundreds of thousands civilians? It seems cold to say I know, and I completely accept the argument that the loss of an entire group is the loss not just of human life but of a culture, a language and all they have to offer the world. This is even more pertinent in the case of the people of the Amazon who have more knowledge about the planet’s most complicated ecosystem than I can even imagine. But I can’t help but feel that this isn’t what pricks your discomfort at hearing the word.

The holocaust of the Jews during the Second World War was genocide. After this incident over a hundred countries, including my own, signed a document called the genocide convention, which explained what genocide was and stated that should another genocide ever occur they were obliged under international law to do something about it. There have been other genocides since the holocaust such as that of Rwanda in 1994 and of Darfur, Sudan which began in 2003, and in each case there was massive hesitation to throw the g-word at it specifically because of the huge obligation it entails. After the world sat and did nothing during the crisis in Rwanda, which was largely deemed preventable, Darfur should have been the chance for leaders of  the world to show their commitment to the humanitarian side of international cooperation. However the ‘conflict’ that began in early 2003 wasn’t acknowledged by the US congress as genocide until July 2004. A year was spent deliberating and analysing, politicians as much as journalists carefully avoiding labelling the situation what it was and of course evading the responsibility that it incurs, whilst the situation continued to grow worse and worse. To call a situation genocide is to accuse governments of inaction. So we the public as much as the press become afraid to use this word whether it reflects the truth or not and journalists, daily, protect governments and your eyes and ears by sticking with synonyms and euphemisms instead.

Words that no one really knows the meaning of, but that everyone is afraid to use are powerful. They are the words that curb our opinions because we are sure that whoever is brave enough to use them knows better than we do, and we should let them do whatever that word requires them to.

Another one of these words is terrorism. None of us really know what terrorism is but we’re sure it’s serious. Terrorists are the bad guys. They have beards, they have bombs and they definitely don’t have souls. We take no risks with terrorists because those guys are crazy, they’ll do anything to anyone and you need to support your local intelligence agency in whatever they’re doing because if not it could be you next.

Terrorism, according to google, is the use of unofficial/unauthorised violence for political aims. Kind of a let-down, huh? Of course, the FBI has a far wordier definition which may confuse you and encourage you to give up and leave it to the pros. Just to show you how much terrorists tend to have in common, here you have a list of a few famous terrorists from history, some whose reputation changed with time and others who will forever be remembered as monsters, these include Nelson Mandela, Malcolm X, Mussolini and King Leopold II of Belgium to name a few. They all used violence, or the threat of violence, to achieve their political aims. Fact.

As Russell Brand pointed out, if he killed a bunch of people and said it was in the name of Christianity he’d be accused of insanity, not terrorism. Yet if a man, with a violent criminal record and a history of mental illness, holds up a café and winds up killing two of his hostages claiming it’s in the name of Islam, millions across the globe decide that this constitutes a political act and begin referring to it as terrorism. Similarly, Michael Adebolajo’s brutal murder of Lee Rigby in the streets of Woolwich last year was labelled a terror attack just hours after it had taken place, because Adebolajo claimed that the fact that Lee Rigby was a soldier meant his murder was an act of war. If you voted for David Cameron in 2010, and I killed you saying it was in the name of socialism, I would be accused of insanity, not terrorism.

Obviously I’m simplifying, there are many ways to interpret acts of war and acts of terror and terrorism and I encourage you to explore them for yourselves so that you yourself can decide what constitutes a use of unofficial/unauthorised violence for political aims. I have no idea whether Man Haron Monis or Michael Adebolajo committed the violent acts they did as a political manoeuvre or because they were simply extremely mentally unstable. However, I refuse to start jumping at shadows because someone, somewhere decided to label them terror attacks.

The fear campaign launched by the US media following 9/11 was so intense and so effective that even today 51% of Americans believe that the CIA’s use of torture was justified. This is not because they have no regard for human life, but because the fear of the word terrorism itself, never mind that of another attack, is so tangible that they would support anything being done that kept them safe, despite the fact that the average American is 187 times more likely to starve to death than be killed in a terrorist attack. When a plane crashes, airports reopen the next day. When a terror attack takes place, no one knows where to look, what to say, who to trust or how to manifest the fear that clutches them. You may not know how to manifest it, but there are a lot of people who know how to play on it.

This use of a word which at its root is a synonym for horror, alarm, panic, shock or dread is so powerful that governments and intelligence agencies have been using it for years to launch all kinds of agendas from wars to border control. Yet, if we just take this word, analyse it and the context that it’s being used in, the fear that is so often used to acquire our compliance just evaporates; like anything the best way to overcome your fear of it, is to try and understand it. This week’s attack on 132 schoolchildren in Peshawar has opened up an unprecedented dialogue in the UK where we are seeing the many different ways terrorists can be perceived. This article by Cyril Almeida took a dip into Pakistani politics to analyse just how thin the line can be between freedom fighter and terrorist. I personally hope this spells the end of our tendency to blindly use a word that we know so little about so we can liberate ourselves from fear and see all the shades of grey that lie between.


The CIA Report and How Media Coverage of the ‘War on Terror’ Has Been Dividing Britain

Recently some damning documents about the CIA were released which revealed the vile abuse of the “enhanced interrogation techniques” that were used in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks and the so-called War on Terror that ensued. The report contained some horrifying details of disgraceful human rights abuses for which perpetrators must face criminal court. Perhaps worst of all, despite the claims of Dick Cheney, the vice-president of the US during the Bush administration, who said that they “did what we needed to do to catch the bastards that killed 3000 of us”; the report deemed that the practice of torture was not effective in eliciting information.

I was shocked to read about this report. I was not shocked by its content, I was not shocked to learn that intolerable violations of the Human Rights Act had taken place in Guantanamo Bay, although I perhaps experienced some mild surprise in learning of the suggested locations of the 8 other ‘black sites’ or secret prisons where detainees were held. Neither was I shocked to find the UK on the list of collaborators. I was simply shocked that the report was released. I was shocked to be reading a US released analysis of what the US had done. After years of reading obscure articles, in unheard of publications, littered with unrecognisable names about the horrifying realities of Guantanamo Bay that our government clearly knew and willingly did nothing about, I had just assumed that this kind of report would have to wait a few more decades to surface, long after the topic had been buried so that its release would be sufficiently ignored.

Many officials argued prior to the release of the report that making these findings publicly available would be futile and only fuel the fire of those eager to attack the US. On the second point, they are probably correct. Those voices which have been ignored and suppressed for all these years now have legitimate cause, and proof of it, to despise and retaliate against the American and European institutions that have demonised, tortured and repeatedly attacked vast swathes of the Muslim population for over a decade in the name of some kind of ‘freedom’ for the American people. The amount of innocent lives taken or ruined by an array of procedures all deemed legal under the never-fully-explained ‘terrorism laws’ has long exceeded the 3,000 that were lost on September 11th 2001 and the 52 on July 7th 2005.

Obama’s drones alone have caused over 2,400 civilian deaths in Pakistan and Yemen. The death toll of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have been repeatedly falsified or minimised but a rough figure of 150,000 has been recorded as the number of civilian deaths. Yet somehow, our media continually gives us the impression that we are the victims in this, or at least that those who die on ‘our side’ are the real, worthy, innocent victims.

The worthy victims include Lee Rigby, James Foley and Alan Henning, who did nothing to deserve their fate and were the victims of mentally unstable or just plain evil killers who we are or were desperate to bring to justice. These men have received substantial media attention, some more than others; they have received the empathy of the entire nation and will be remembered as heroes for ever. Other victims of this undefinable battle include Gul Rahman, Shaker Aamer and Binyam Mohamed, all innocent of the crimes they were accused of but tortured or killed nonetheless, yet these men have not received nearly the same level of coverage as the aforementioned worthy victims. There has been some mention in the British press of the campaign to free Shaker Aamer, a Guantanamo Bay detainee who has been held for 13 years despite campaigns, protests and a request from the UK government that he be released. Binyam Mohamed, too, had his story reported after his release from Guantanamo Bay. However, the media coverage of Binyam, Gul and Shaker versus that of the Lee, James and Alan is simply incomparable. But, why?

The immediate reaction is to frame this in an Us vs Them situation, we empathise more with one of us than one of them, simple as. However James Foley was born and raised in Illinois, which is about a 9 hour flight from London, for example, which is where Shaker and Binyam were living before being snatched by the CIA. So then who is us and who is them? And why are we worthy victims and why are they unworthy victims? Lee Rigby, a British soldier murdered while walking home, minding his business, is worthy because he served our government. We like people that serve our government; we pay homage to them every year. Lee Rigby is worthy because he went to Afghanistan and did what the British government required him to do. He in absolutely no way deserved to die the way he did.

So what makes Shaker Aamer unworthy? Why has his story been so neglected? Did his story just not move quickly enough for our fast paced medias? Is it good old racism rearing its head, Shaker has a foreign sounding name, best not mention it too many times, people won’t want to know? Or just linguistic laziness, the tongue might stumble across the unfamiliar, best just report the easiest to pronounce? Whatever the reason may be, I want you to think for a minute on how this may appear to a young British Muslim growing up in our society. Every time there is some kind of ‘terrorist attack’ claimed to have taken place in the name of Allah we have this necessary line that ‘the overwhelming majority of Muslims condemned this murder’ or mass murder. But when the EDL set fire to a mosque we don’t feel it necessary to get an official spokesperson from the white working class community to confirm that bombing someone’s place of worship isn’t okay according to the values and principles of the community. Even the case of Shaker Aamer has only made the amount of noise it has through consistent reiteration of his British wife and four British children who have been waiting for him for over a decade in London. Had his wife been from Sierra Leone, would calls for his release have been less legitimate? What if she had been from the US, would it have mattered then?

This reporting is divisive. This constant ‘othering’ of Muslims is divisive. This intentional or unintentional framing of worthy us and unworthy them is dividing us as a society. Gul Rahman to you may seem irrelevant, distant or unimportant; an Afghan, captured in Pakistan and taken to Salt Pit, Kabul, detained and killed in detention, all for nothing because his was a case of mistaken identity. He in absolutely no way deserved to die the way he did.The thousands of victims of drone strikes in Pakistan may seem similarly distant. However, for many a British Pakistani, I imagine these things matter. For a British Pakistani Gul Rahman is a worthy victim. On the Guardian website there is an interactive picture board of each victim of 7/7 so you can click on their faces, learn their names, a little bit about their life and what they were doing on the day they passed. A simple commemoration to acknowledge the loss of human life; perhaps a similar one featuring the innocent victims of torture in Guantanamo would begin to heal the rift this war has created.

DISCLAIMER: I did not invent the concept of worthy and unworthy victims. Noam Chomsky did in Manufacturing Consent, Chapter 2.