Eyes Wide Shut: Flying Blind in an Age of Atrocity

The end result of every Islamist terror attack (or even alleged Islamist terror attack) is: 1. Heightened authoritarian powers for governments. 2. Demonization of law-abiding Muslims. 3. More money for war-profiteers, since more war is always the ultimate response. None of these outcomes advance the attackers’ cause in any way save one: more repression, demonization and war can lead to more ‘radicalisation’ of the people being repressed, demonized and bombed. Thus the responses, which are always the same, always reward the perpetrators of these atrocities by giving them the only thing they can get from the attacks: recruitment tools.

“So what are we supposed to do then?” comes the angry cry. Well, one thing we could do to begin breaking this deadly cycle is to quit living in a dreamworld and recognize what the actual policies of our governments are, what our governments are actually doing, and the actual consequences of these actual events. We have to be done with the childish notion that our greatness and goodness is forever being assaulted out of the blue by motiveless monsters who don’t appreciate how greatly good we really are.

The taking of innocent lives is an abominable evil. It is never justified. It is not justified when sectarian extremists strike at the West; it is not justified when Western nations take innocent lives, on a mass scale, in Muslim countries. But from our side, there is not even the slightest chance of breaking this deadly cycle if we do not acknowledge the realities of what we have done and what we are doing in the world. Knowledge is the only way out of this impasse — if there is a way out of it.

We could see that the policy of destroying whole nations in military actions based on false pretenses or deliberately exaggerated threats, as in Iraq and Libya, spreads ruin, chaos, violence, extremism, refugees and weapons rippling through many other lands, destabilizing them in their turn.

We could acknowledge the plain and incontrovertible fact that one main cause of the spread of violent Islamic extremism has been our own support — covert and overt — for groups who push this doctrine, when it suits our own geopolitical purpose. This has happened over and over — such as the support for the violent retrograde sectarian extremists in Afghanistan, whom we called “freedom fighters” when it suited our purpose. It happened in Libya, where, once again, we armed and supported violent extremist groups while pretending they were secular moderates fight for Jeffersonian principles of liberty and freedom. It is happening in Syria, where we are arming, funding and bombing on behalf of some of the most virulent sectarian extremists on earth, including al Qaeda, while, again, pretending they are secular moderates. It is happening in Yemen, where for the 15 months, the U.S. government has been directly aiding the religious extremists of Saudi Arabia in a vicious war and murderous blockade that has cleared the way for the resurgence of al Qaeda, just as it had almost been wiped out in that country.

We could acknowledge the plain and incontrovertible fact that these deliberately chosen policies — chosen as the means to pursue various geopolitical and economic goals, none of which have anything to do with freedom or liberty or human rights — have resulted in waves of refugees flooding into countries unprepared for them. They have resulted in further radicalization and repression both in the West and in many Muslim lands, straining and tearing at civic structures, particularly in the latter.

We could acknowledge the plain and incontrovertible fact that as long as our governments pursue the agenda of advancing and maintaining economic and political dominion in the world – by whatever means necessary – then the fallout, the blowback from these policies will continue. It is striking how our savants can recognize this in regard to other countries, but never our own. The assassination of the Russian ambassador in Turkey this week was immediately described as blowback or revenge for Russian actions in Syria. “You see,” said American pundits and politicians, “if you go meddling in the affairs of other countries for your own selfish political ends, this is what happens! You radicalize people and then they come after you!” The very clear implication — and sometimes stated assertion — is that the Russians are “reaping the whirlwind” of their military intervention in the Middle East.

The very same principle applies to Western interventions. But as we all know, one is not allowed to say this. Because of the goodness of our greatness, our interventions are always pure. It is only other countries that pursue amoral policies for their own aggrandizement. If they are met with a violent response to these policies, it’s only what they deserve. But if this happens to us, then we are innocent lambs lost in an unfair world. We are floating in an anxious cloud of learned helplessness, wilful ignorance and historical amnesia. Knowledge is the only way out of this impasse — if there is a way out.

Beginning in the late Seventies, we actively, deliberately helped build, fund and arm a global network of violent sectarian extremists in order to bedevil the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. We did this: we laid the base (or, in Arabic, "al Qaeda") of global jihad, along the lines of Saudi religious extremism. We stoked this jihad network for more than a decade until every single vestige of secular society was destroyed in Afghanistan and the Taliban took over. We worked with and made a hero of Osama bin Laden (whose family had long-standing business ties in America, including with the Bush family). He was written up in American newspapers as a “freedom fighter” in Afghanistan who had put down his guns and turned his hand to good works in Sudan.

We further stoked radicalization in the region when we intervened in a border dispute between Iraq (which we had supported for years, despite its brutal dictator) and Kuwait, whose royal rulers were longtime business partners of the Bush family. (Our former ally, bin Laden, was angered by the presence of U.S. ‘infidel’ soldiers on Saudi soil; he, like the Americans, wanted to see the secular government of Iraq overthrown, but he had wanted it done by Muslim forces. So he turned against his American partners.) We shattered Iraq, imposed sanctions on it which our own leaders acknowledged killed more than half a million children. Finally, in 2003, when the country was not just on its knees but face down in the dirt, we bravely invaded again, citing the presence of weapons of mass destruction which our governments knew were not there, having been given full evidence of their destruction by the man who destroyed them — Saddam’s son-in-law (as reported by Newsweek long before the 2003 war) — and also having found no trace of weapons or a weapons program in years of UN inspections, including a full-scale, wide-open inspection just before the war.

It is very odd that most Americans believed — and apparently still believe —there would be no consequences from this morally insane and strategically stupid policy. No consequence for killing up to a million innocent people (according to the UK government’s method of casualty assessment). No consequence for sending millions of refugees flooding into Syria, a country already greatly strained by a prolonged drought which had wrought massive social upheaval. No consequences for creating a chaos in Iraq where the global jihad movement we helped build poured in and flourished as never before.

But there were consequences, of course. Chief among them was the resurgence of al Qaeda and the creation of ISIS, which had its origins in those highly effective “schools” for radicalization: the American military prison camps in Iraq, with their “strenuous interrogations” (as at Abu Ghraib) and their massive sweeps gathering in thousands of innocent people and letting them languish. Syria cracked further under the strain of dealing with millions of Iraqi refugees and continuing drought. Protests arose, response was harsh, and suddenly the country was awash with money and weapons for a full-scale revolt, with thousands of fighters from the global jihad network flooding in. ISIS gained strength in Syria then moved against Iraq.

The United States deliberately refrained from helping Iraq stop ISIS in this early period; Obama openly told Tom Friedman in an interview that the US held back because it wanted to put pressure on Iraq to get rid of its prime minister, a longtime US ally who had become insufficiently obedient. [The actual quote: "The reason, the president added, 'that we did not just start taking a bunch of airstrikes all across Iraq as soon as ISIL came in was because that would have taken the pressure off of [Prime Minister Nuri Kamal] al-Maliki.'"]

So ISIS rolled across Syria and Iraq, capturing oil fields and huge weapons caches, spreading terror and repression with its Saudi-style extremism. When the Iraqis finally obeyed Washington and changed its government — with ISIS not far from Baghdad — then the United States intervened. But only in Iraq; it was content for ISIS to keep raging and growing in Syria, where the US was directly intervening with arms and training for the rebels. Most of the weapons ended up in the hands of the extremist groups who had come to lead the revolt, with the stated hope of establishing extremist sectarian rule in Syria.

And on it goes. ISIS began striking in the West (or claiming to be behind every act of violence perpetrated by a Muslim in the West). The aforementioned ultimate response to terrorism — military escalation — followed, with the US and France and Britain finally attacking ISIS directly in Syria, not just Iraq. The United States was now fighting alongside al Qaeda, as an email from a top aide to then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton clearly stated in 2012: “AQ is on our side in Syria.” Russia, citing the need to fight terrorism, also intervened, on the side of the Syrian government. Turkey intervened. The Kurds, who’d borne much of the brunt of the ISIS surge, intervened The country was (and is) being raked over by dozens of armed groups and standing armies, and the most powerful air forces in the world.

Yet people continue to think there will be no consequences from this maelstrom of violently clashing geopolitical interests, sectarian strife and human despair – not just in Syria but across the globe, in all the lands being shaken and shattered by the “War on Terror” and its reverberations. “Where are these refugees coming from? Why should they flee their homes? Why are people being radicalized? Why do they hate us? Why do they [or rather, an extremely small number of them] attack us? Can’t they see we are good? Our president won a Nobel Peace Prize; he’s cool and competent and rational and scandal-free; surely the policies he’s pursued — and continued from his predecessor — must be the right thing to do! Why is all this happening?”

Again, this is essentially the level of understanding one sees across the board in the political and media establishments, and in the public at large. Of course, once Trump takes power, liberals and progressives might again start to see how dangerous and pernicious our policies are and how the principles of blowback — which they now loudly point to in the killing of the Russian ambassador — also apply to us. Or perhaps even this belated understanding (which will be temporary in any case, lasting only until a Democrat is in the Oval Office again) is too much to hope for. Given the present hysterical atmosphere, progressives may well just blame Putin (and his “puppet,” Trump) for everything that happens, and make no effort at all to see the reality of what our own bipartisan policies have wrought: a future of strife, fear, strain, division, insecurity and unfreedom for our own children and the rest of the world.

There is no chance whatsoever that the cack-handed cretins and bloated billionaires Trump is bringing to power will approach this situation with any wisdom or understanding. Of course, there is an outside chance that the kakistocracy will be pulling itself in so many different directions that its Terror War machinations might not be as efficient or rapid as they have been under Bush and Obama and would have been under Clinton. (And none of these worthies have shown any wisdom and understanding either; they’ve all kept implementing or touting the same deadly intervention-blowback cycle.) But make no mistake; Trump and his Whole Sick Crew share the dominion agenda that has held iron sway in Washington since the end of the Second World War. And they are even more unrestrained in their dedication to authoritarianism, demonization and militarization.

Meanwhile, our media continue to manufacture the cloud of unknowing that engulfs us, perpetuating the myth of the greatness of our goodness with their contextless sensationalism in slavering pursuit of ratings and profits, their historical amnesia (even of events within the past few years, or months), the baseless credence they perpetually show to every anonymous emission from the security services or “top officials.” Thus in the space of a few months, al Qaeda goes from being one of the most evil organizations in history to a brave band of Syrian freedom fighters (as noted here earlier this week). Except, of course, when they are not relevant to the geopolitical agenda in this or that particular area at this or that particular time: say, in Libya or Somalia at the moment, or Egypt, or Europe, where they can still be portrayed as evil incarnate. The global jihad movement that the United States actively fostered under Presidents Carter and Reagan in Afghanistan has since splintered into various factions and new groupings beyond any central control; but these factions and groupings are still being used — either overtly or covertly, wittingly or unwittingly — by Western governments to advance amoral geopolitical goals of political dominance and economic profit whenever necessary.

This is what we have been doing in the Middle East and elsewhere for many years, for decades. This is what Bush actually did, this is what Obama has actually been doing, this is what Trump will do. These are the policies, these are the goals. It is demonstrably untrue that these policies are being carried out to advance the cause of human freedom or democracy or even “national security.” These policies have demonstrably made Western nations less secure. Western nations have demonstrably allied themselves with viciously repressive sectarian regimes like Saudi Arabia, with brutal authoritarians like Mubarak and Sisi (and Saddam Hussein for many years). Western nations have demonstrably allied with and/or used as proxies some of the most repellent, freedom-hating sectarian groups on earth. Western nations have demonstrably destroyed society after society in the strategic oil regions, creating hellstorms of chaos where extremists thrive while millions of innocent people are driven from their homes.

Without a clearer understanding of these realities and facts, there will be no change. Liberals and progressives will go on hash-tagging the name of the latest atrocity site. They’ll go on supporting candidates who support the Terror War, who repeat the deadly corrosive myth that “America is great because America is good” — regardless of America’s actual actions in the world and their actual consequences. They’ll go on believing the ever-changing storylines in the “serious” media, where al Qaeda and related extremists shape-shift back and forth from freedom fighters to evil demons and back to freedom fighters again. They will keep failing to emulate the bravery of dissidents they laud in other lands down through history — women and men who stared the evils of their own systems in the face and refused to look away, to rationalize or succumb to the barrage of myths and propaganda meant to silence them. And nothing will change.

No wait, that’s not true. Something will change. In fact, as we can see before our very eyes with each passing day, everything will change, is already changing — for the worse.