Thursday 30 January 2003

The sanctity of (American) life

Yesterday in Melbourne I was working in a building with high-tech pretensions: the Internet connection was down but George W. Bush’s State of the Union address was screening live on TV monitors in the lobby and elevators. On my way down to the coffee shop in mid-afternoon, watching this “well-meaning but ignorant, untravelled man with grandiose goals” on the tiny screen, I couldn’t help but wonder by what strange alchemy someone so unexceptional had become leader of the greatest military and industrial power in history. When we reached the ground floor, a young man muttered at me as he strode out of the elevator: “He better not bloody try it without UN approval.” An empty jibe, to be sure, since we both knew that UN approval is the least of the Bush cabal’s concerns.

Today, back in Sydney, I went first to the pool then to the movies in an effort to escape the 39°C (102°F) heat (my house isn’t air-conditioned). As the final credits began to roll at the end of The Quiet American, the woman sitting next to me turned and said: “This film should be compulsory viewing for everyone in the country, particularly that person in Canberra.” Had I seen her in the lobby of the multiplex before the movie, I would have assumed from her clothing, her hairstyle, and her demeanor that she had voted for “that person in Canberra” (Prime Minister John Howard) in the last three elections and for his party throughout her entire life. Yet though she may have been a wealthy, elderly, conservative woman she saw as clearly as any starry-eyed young radical the parallels between Grahame Greene’s tale of the beginnings of US involvement in Vietnam fifty years ago and the events about to unfold in Iraq—American arrogance and hubris being a constant in post-WWII history.

So this is what it’s come to: strangers in lifts and movie theaters express to me uninvited their disapproval of the coming war with Iraq. Not out of some bitter or envious anti-Americanism, as the defenders of American imperialism like to suggest, but because—like most Australians—these strangers disapprove of the new world order Geoff Kitney describes, “in which America chooses which regimes stay and which should go.”

“What an outrage,” I said to my friend P the other day, “that Howard can turn us into America’s lapdog once again, when only six percent of Australians approve of attacking Iraq without UN approval.”

“We’d be lucky to know even six percent of what’s really going on,” he replied.

Therein lies a difficulty: formulating a position with hardly any real information. Then what’s the alternative? To acquiesce? I have no interest in supporting or defending Saddam Hussein. He’s clearly a threat and we’d be well rid of him. Let’s do it, with UN approval. But at what cost without? A few months ago I quoted Robert Manne:

At the centre of [Bush’s pre-emptive strike] doctrine, a huge conceptual hole appears. Does the US, as the world hegemon, alone possess the sovereign right to act unilaterally against a supposed threat to its security by prosecuting a preventive war, or does an identical right exist for other states?

If the right does not exist for others, the Bush doctrine amounts to an almost formal claim to US world hegemony. If, on the other hand, all states possess the same right, the Bush doctrine opens the way to the return of the jungle, where the powerful have the capacity to impose their will.

What’s good enough for America will turn out to be good enough for China, India, Pakistan, Israel, Japan (when China poses a threat), Russia (as soon as it stabilizes its economy), the European Union (once it rearms).

Don’t tell me that the US will use its overwhelming power for the common good. The US has always acted to further its own interests, as powerful states invariably do. And as much as John Howard might imagine he’s guaranteeing our safety by signing us up (unwillingly) for America’s Iraq adventure, the Americans will sell us down the river for two pins if their national interest demands it.

So what’s to be done? Nothing. I’m not even sure that a campaign of massive civil disobedience would be enough to bring our soldiers home. But bad things will come of this and we’d be better off allowing the Americans to secure their oil without our assistance.

It would be marginally less unpalatable if America’s ruthless pursuit of its own economic interests wasn’t wrapped in a saccharine coating of moralistic cant:

America is a strong Nation, and honorable in the use of our strength. We exercise power without conquest, and sacrifice for the liberty of strangers.

Americans are a free people, who know that freedom is the right of every person and the future of every nation. The liberty we prize is not America s gift to the world, it is God s gift to humanity.

We Americans have faith in ourselves but not in ourselves alone. We do not claim to know all the ways of Providence, yet we can trust in them, placing our confidence in the loving God behind all of life, and all of history.

May He guide us now, and may God continue to bless the United States of America.

God give me fucking strength. “Placing our confidence in the loving God behind all of life, and all of history” as Bush prepares “to shatter Iraq ‘physically, emotionally and psychologically’ by raining down on its people as many as 800 cruise missiles in two days.” Wasn’t irony supposed to have died on September 11?

And this a week after he declared January 20 to be National Sanctity of Human Life Day, which I imagined was some bizarre joke when I read the derisive references to it in Get Your War On:

“‘National Sanctity of Life Day?’ Does that have something to do with sanctions?”

“Don’t be sanctimonious! It applies to innocent fetuses in the sanctum sanctorum, not dirty, miserable children who already exist in this world of sin.”

“Maybe if Iraqi mothers fuckin’ stuffed their children back into their wombs we’d go a little easier on them.”

But it’s not a joke. It’s real, in a breathtakingly offensive way:

This Nation was founded upon the belief that every human being is endowed by our Creator with certain “unalienable rights.” Chief among them is the right to life itself. The Signers of the Declaration of Independence pledged their own lives, fortunes, and honor to guarantee inalienable rights for all of the new country’s citizens. These visionaries recognized that an essential human dignity attached to all persons by virtue of their very existence and not just to the strong, the independent, or the healthy. That value should apply to every American, including the elderly and the unprotected, the weak and the infirm, and even to the unwanted.

Every American, note. The rest of us can burn in hell.

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Wow, that was powerful writing. I enjoyed reading, keep up with the highly informed articles. :)

Posted by step on 30 January 2003 (Comment Permalink)

That was a well formulated argument and one I agree with at that. I am an American, but I do feel we are, by starting this war, saying that we have the right to make pre-emptive strikes. Yet what happens when Pakistan 'pre-emptively' strikes India because India is a threat to their 'national security'. That is exactly what Bush is leading my country to, yet if another country was to use the same exact logic, the US would have to stop that war because it wasn't 'right'. The hipocrisy is rampant in this current government. :(

Posted by Erik on 31 January 2003 (Comment Permalink)

On a happier note, aren't the looks of that link just awesome!!

Posted by Kris on 31 January 2003 (Comment Permalink)

If only the Australians, and the British, and Spain, and Italy and others did _not_ support the US. You don't know difficult this makes our fight back in the States. We push against this war because it's unilateral; because it is literally one person's view of what should be done; that we have no right to wage this war. But then all these allies hop on to the wagon and we lost much of the force of our argument.

I think, no I know, if Britain and Australia and all the other 'allies' said no, we wouldn't go. If just Britain said no, that could be enough.

But it is up to your citizens and government to say no for yourselves, and we 'Americans' who do not support this war and fight it at all costs, will have to do what we can regardless of who joins with the United States or not.

Posted by Burningbird on 31 January 2003 (Comment Permalink)

You have articulated my outrage, melancholy, and depair--as an American listening to (my) president--with far greater effect than anything I could possibly have written.

Why I haven't been around your blog more often or had you on my blogroll, I can't imagine. A lot of things seem to slip past me these days. I guess it took being mentioned with you in Bb's post to knock me out of my unconsciousness. Anyway, you're going on my blogroll forthwith.

Posted by Tom Shugart on 31 January 2003 (Comment Permalink)

God save us all.

Posted by James Whyle on 31 January 2003 (Comment Permalink)

Well said, Jonathon.

Posted by wonderchicken on 31 January 2003 (Comment Permalink)

And a hearty "well said" from me.

Posted by Andy Todd on 31 January 2003 (Comment Permalink)

I am an American citizen. I support our President in this effort 100%. The job of our gov't. (and one of its ONLY Constitutionally defined jobs) is to protect the national security of the United States of America. He is meeting the obligations of his position.

I have your blog in my bookmark list. Had some free time today, so I started hitting some sites I haven't hit in a while. Now I'm trying to remember why I bookmarked it. Not meant to be an insult - I am sincere. I typically only bookmark technology related stuff, especially on my work PC. Did you used to discuss technology here?

And before the rest of the crowd dismisses me, thinking I'm about to delete this bookmark, please be assured that I won't. Reading dissenting opinion is an important part of the process of forming one's own, independent decision.

Posted by jmikec on 1 February 2003 (Comment Permalink)

Strangers in lifts and movie theaters express the same things to me here in America. It is all breathtakingly offensive. And too real.
I'm parroting your words because they are exactly the right ones.

Posted by Tish on 1 February 2003 (Comment Permalink)

My husband, Tom, directed me to your blog. I am frothing at the mouth at this call to war, so much so that i am barely articulate. Thank you for expressing my sentiments so perfectly. I am emailing your comments to my friends!

Posted by Jill Shugart on 1 February 2003 (Comment Permalink)

Looking at my wife's comment, I realize we've both been misspelling your name. Easy enough to do in our case. Our youngest son is JonathAn!

Posted by Tom Shugart on 1 February 2003 (Comment Permalink)

You said it!

Posted by Tim on 1 February 2003 (Comment Permalink)

jmikec, I do write about tech stuff amongst other things, including war. I absolutely agree with you that its the responsibility of any government to protect the interests of its citizens though I don't believe that George W. Bush is actually doing this with any skill, insight, or feeling for the long-term welfare of American and Americans.

Tom and Jill, you're excused, but only because you have a son named JonathAn. My parents named me John Anthony, which I never liked. In a dream I saw the two names merged into JonathOn and I commenced the process of changing my name the following morning.

Posted by Jonathon on 1 February 2003 (Comment Permalink)

Certainly, an interesting read. I fear that we have come full circle, with the world once again returning to the beginning of the 20th century.
I fear we are approaching a replay of the era before WWI, where the Imperial powers played out their differences in the theatre of foreign colonies. The players have changed, but the game is essentially the same.

What I truly fear is what will happen to the US in twenty years time. There, I fear, lies the foundations for a new form of facism.

Posted by passingobserver on 3 February 2003 (Comment Permalink)

I have just returned to my dorm room from an "anti-war with Iraq" protest. As my ideas, and notions of this opinion I have formulated over the past few weeks is just beginning to solidify, I feel confident that I am representing my genuine emotions.
It often becomes difficult here at my school, where the majority is PRO-WAR, to feel unity in any sense. It almost seems like a small scale civil war, which according to the great philosopher Thomas Hobbes, is the most deplorable state any government could attain. Reading your blog aides in the realization that there is unity in ideals and that I live in a democratic government for the very reason that I should be able to express my feelings until I haven't a voice! ~ PEACE~

Posted by Student on 22 March 2003 (Comment Permalink)

Wow! you sure said it. I'm a fellow Australian and I feel just a you do - and share the same paralysing horror of an American future. I only wish I could write about it as clearly as you have.

jmikec: "Reading dissenting opinion is an important part of the process of forming one's own, independent decision" - Absolutely. I have been shocked at the inability of many Americans even to acknowledge the existence of dissenting views. And awed at the ease with which they dismiss them as "terrorism" without blinking, or other handy labels supplied by their (and our!) mass media.

Posted by Toby on 8 December 2003 (Comment Permalink)

This discussion is now closed. My thanks to everyone who contributed.

© Copyright 2007 Jonathon Delacour