Millions Take to the Streets in the War Against Terrorism
First published by Red Pepper on 25th February 2003.
The War on Terrorism began in the minds of people on that September 11th . The dictionary tells us that a terrorist is someone that furthers his views through coercive intimidation (1). In simple terms it is the process of holding a nation hostage until the government comes up with the ransom demands. On September 12th millions of people in the wealthy nations quaked, truly terrified. Our televisions showed us that terrorism had taken a more global direction.
Inconsistencies in the events surrounding that Tuesday morning received little scrutiny, however. Like a lone voice in the wilderness it took the American writer Gore Vidal to launch a blistering attack on the stage in which the Bush administration played.
In July 2001, some 2 months earlier, the Bush regime was having the future outlined for them in simple terms. One briefing to the Bush administration suggested that it was believed that Mr Bin-Laden had being making plans for an attack “against US facilities or interests” that would be “spectacular and designed to inflict mass casualties”. Even the rank and file of the intelligence community were vocalising their fears. Strangely though, the FBI agents that warned their supervisors “al-Qaeda was planning a kamikaze strike against New York” were threatened with the National Security Act if they went public.
The implications of the mutterings in pre-September 11th America are worrying, but the Tuesday morning itself would cast a very real shadow across the government. Military experts across the US were astounded by the events of September 11th , not because of their ferocity or barbarism, but by the unimaginable failings of the procedures protecting American people.
As soon as a plane changes direction from its flight-plan, fighter jets are immediately scrambled to find out what is going on. This is the law in the US. In fact the only point at which a presidential approval is required is when the hijacked plane is to be shot down, until that stage everything else is carved in stone.
Between 7.45 and 8.10am the planes had been hijacked and where deviating from their flight plans. No jets were scrambled. By 8.45am the first plane hit the North Tower. Still no order was given to the airforce. At 9.03 the second plane hits the South Tower and 9.05 the Chief of Staff interrupts the presidential photo opportunity with the school children. Still no fighter jets are in the sky. It was finally 9.40am when General Myers, the acting Joint Chief of Staff, started launching aircraft. By which time, all three planes had completed their missions and the President had already made a statement to the nation.
Gore Vidal reflects the sentiments of the many specialists, when he asks why did the airforce wait for so long to act on what the rest of world had already surmised. America was being attacked and for some reason, the most powerful nation on earth stood down its defences. The executive, the military and the global community stood and stared as a catastrophic media extravaganza unfolded before our eyes, a catastrophe that was allowed to happen, by incompetence or complicity (2).
Global politics changed alongside the four passenger jets as they changed direction over American soil. As their radios’ silence crackled in the headphones of Air Traffic control and the fast response fighter jets sat solemnly, their engines cold in their hangers, political currents were moving below the surface. The thing that changed was not the will of the people, or a clear and present danger to the world’s last superpower. The change that occurred was in the political class of America winning a temporary credibility for a foreign policy they had pursued for a century.
On 10th September, the state apparatus of the USA was continuing to pursue the expansion of a brutal empire. However, the tide was turning. Huge percentages of the world’s population were questioning the cultural and military hegemony that had conquered the world. In the impoverished countries, the empire was maintained with military terror, sometimes called the big stick. Amongst the rich they walked softly, the intelligence community covertly subverting democracy.
The fundamental flaw in the imperial policy was that of critical mass. As the French, Russians and Chinese people have all discovered, much to the costs of their ruling classes, feudal regimes throughout history eventually discover the straw that breaks the camel’s back. There is a limit to what people are able to take before they snap. Snatching at their security, their health, their pride and finally their humanity will uncover the point of no return. If you keep taking, people soon have nothing left to lose.
On September 10th, swathes of people in the wealthy and poor countries were already seeing that they had more in common with their oppressed brothers and sisters than they had with their own leaders. Plantation workers were being down trodden by multinationals, environmentalists were dying fighting oil companies in Africa, European farmers were burning down fast food chains, and in certain countries entire populations were forced too take to the streets after privatisation had denied them drinking water.
On September 11th , the entire world watched, and re-watched, and re- watched again several thousand people die. And, quite rightly, the world was disgusted and horrified. People stood and stared blankly at television screens, their hands covering their mouths. From first thing in the morning to last thing at night the images were repeated. In Britain children had to be given counselling in schools.
Meanwhile in Iraq, children were being mowed down by a political epidemic. The sanctions that had no effect on the stability of the Hussein government succeeded, alongside conventional warfare, in doubling the mortality rate of children under the age of five. It is estimated that the UN containment policy killed, in total, somewhere in the region of 1 million people between 1990-1998 (3). Denis Halliday, the former UN humanitarian co-ordinator to Iraq is quoted as estimating the death toll of children under the age of five at close on 600,000 between 1990–98 (4). In fact, so moved was Denis Halliday he would resign over the Iraq policy, as did his successor. The UN’s own staff was falling like dominoes.
This containment policy pursued by the US and UK decimated Iraq, and its once proud people. According to the United Nations own estimates more children had died every month for 12 years than died in the World Trade Centre that crisp September morning.
To suggest that sanctions and war are the sign to the Iraqis to overthrow their brutal dictator is to hold a nation hostage for a political ransom. George Bush’s state of the Union speech reached out to the Iraqi people, and made a veiled declaration of terrorist intent. With US troops massing in their thousands on Iraqi borders and the secretary of defence discussing the potential for nuclear deployment, the President of the USA said to the people of Iraq, “Your enemy is not surrounding your country, your enemy is ruling your country”.
Like a Kennedy assassination for the new millennium, celebrities tell us where they were, when they watched the desperation of those jumping from the windows of the twin towers. Until now, few told us where they were when they discovered their own government had systematically, month on month for an entire decade, pursued a genocidal foreign policy against Iraq’s children.
All this was to change. The weekend of February 14th 2003 will be remembered for a long time. The gulf that lies between the elected and the electorate has been discussed ad nauseam. It has been used to explain the supposed political apathy of people in free market democracies. However, in Britain and around the entire world, the opening stages of what can only be described as a popular uprising occurred. Hundreds of thousands of people across Britain took to the streets for the first time in their lives.
This wasn’t apathy, this was the British people reminding the Westminster village that they are invited by the British people to hold office, and should act with due courtesy. Unsurprisingly the largest contingent of police was reserved for the US Embassy in Grosvenor Square. Two rows of British police, separated by one hundred yards, stood anxiously facing their own families and friends.
The polls preceding the Valentine’s weekend estimated between 50% and 80% of the population was opposed to war. The march passed by the police peacefully, the marchers recognising that beneath the uniforms were other poll respondents. Solidarity was palpable in the air surrounding the march. The crowds had no clearly defined demographic, because it was the British people and not the usual suspects.
In Westminster and Washington, policy officials, big business and cold warriors will be discussing where it all went wrong. Each in turn dancing their pantomime, whilst in their hearts recognising their families and friends on the streets. US embassies all over the world were surrounded and Washington was reminded of the historical precedents of the impossibility of achieving global empire.
The fact that evades the leaderships is that although political power is almost without question tied to financial power, no group maintains an intellectual monopoly. The more hearts and minds work together, the quicker societies’ truths are reached. The political, economic and intellectual arguments may be open to debate amongst the Oxbridge educated. But, the moral stance of Britain can only come from society en masse. If the British people say we will not go to war, then Britain won’t go to war. The British Prime Minister may be legally allowed to order it, but it will take the British police, the British military and the British workers to move Britain to war.
In short, the question facing Tony Blair now is whether to bring about a constitutional crisis that displays the flaws in our supposed democracy. With the Royal prerogative he can order the British people to go to war. The Queen won’t be going to Iraq; the Prime Minister and the cabinet won’t be fighting. It will be the men and women of Britain who die. It will be the men and women of Britain who mourn the loss of their loved ones. It will be the upwards of a million people that marched this time, and the countless millions more that will march if the government ignores the will of the people. In Britain as in the rest of the world, it is now our chance to reclaim our planet as a true
(1) “Any one who attempts to further his views by a system of coercive intimidation. One who
entertains, professes, or tries to awaken or spread a feeling of terror or alarm, an alarmist, a
scaremonger”. The Compact Oxford English Dictionary, 2 nd Edition, Complete text, 1991.
(2) The vast majority of the information regarding the events of 11 th of September is taken
from “The enemy within”, by Gore Vidal, printed in The Observer, Sunday 27 th October 2002.
(3) “Voices in the Wilderness, Myths and Realities Regarding Iraq and Sanctions”, in Iraq
Under Siege, ed. Anthony Arnove, p67.
(4) “Voices in the Wilderness, Myths and Realities Regarding Iraq and Sanctions”, in Iraq
Under Siege, ed. Anthony Arnove.