Sneering At September’s Dead: 9/11 As a Symbolic Point of Abuse

By Jack Staples-Butler

On September 11th 2016, the fifteenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, members of a social justice activist group organised on Facebook named Coalition Oxy for Diversity and Equity (CODE) destroyed a 9/11 memorial at Occidental College, Los Angeles, which was mainly made of small American flags to mark each victim of the attacks. The memorial had been planted by the Occidental College Republicans. Many flags had been snapped in two or pushed them into overflowing garbage cans. The group had left flyers ostensibly memorialising the “1,455,590 Innocent Iraqis Who Died During the U.S. Invasion for Something They Didn’t Do”, placed over an image of the Twin Towers. CODE, following the anti-imperialist moral tropes of Milosevic and Assad, denied their own organisational responsibility for the vandalism whilst supporting the actions of those who carried it out, claiming “this symbol of the American flag is particularly triggering for many different reasons. The same ‘RIP’ image was previously known for being posted on September 11th 2015 by the Entourage lead star Adrian Grenier, who deleted it following an angry backlash, and subsequently enjoying uncritically positive coverage Al Jazeera’s AJ+ on Facebook.

The insincere and belittling ‘RIPs’ have been added to by other celebrities of left-wing imagination, including the official Twitter account for Ahmed Mohamed, the ‘clock boy’ erstwhile of Irving, Texas now living in the Qatar emirate. Mohamed’s official account received positive acclaim in likes and retweets after repeating the same fabricated statistic on September 11th 2016. Noticeably, the Mohamed account’s tweet copies the language of the original image almost word-for-word, but adds an additional 500,000+ deaths and changes ‘Iraqis’ to ‘Muslims’ without further explanation. Variations of the image give different numbers, asserted with the same certainty.

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‘1,455,590’, the oddly-specific death toll of Iraqi civilians is a fabrication; a deliberately sensationalist ‘rough estimate’ which originated on the website of the left-wing pressure group Just Foreign Policy now presented in the ‘RIP’ image as received truth. The exact, minute death toll from the 2003-2011 war is unknown, partly because Saddam Hussein’s regime did not keep accurate census records. Most recent estimates place total casualties below the one-million mark. Iraq Body Counts puts the grand total from 2003-2016 at around 268,000. The majority of these casualties were not inflicted by U.S. forces or ‘during the U.S. Invasion’ in 2003. The purpose of the deliberately inflated Just Foreign Policy figure, in the ‘RIP’ image’s juxtaposition with the confirmed and familiar 9/11 death toll, was to belittle the commemoration and memory of the victims. The ‘RIP’ image’s recurrence each September utilises the 9/11 anniversary to promote manipulatively sentimental anti-Americanism, and distorts public understanding of Iraq and the Middle East. But in ‘social justice’ left-wing social spheres online, it is morally praiseworthy to circulate this intellectual detritus in September, and then some.

Mainstream leftism and even liberalism can accommodate junk statistics deployed in a similar invective of minimisation and whataboutery; the “more likely to be killed by right-wing terrorists and “more likely to be killed by a lawnmower than terrorism” tropes are among the most widely-circulated in social media discussions of terrorism on the left. The ‘lawnmower’ claim entered the maelstrom of mainstream popular culture as celebrities like Kim Kardashian shared an aesthetically authoritative image based on a selective study of terrorism after 9/11, from 2001-2014. Fawning clickbait headlines such as “This powerful image being shared across social media is a powerful reminder that religion isn’t the problem” are written in the passive voice to disguise the headlines’ own agency in constructing the terrorism-belittling narrative. This narrative around terrorism after 9/11 has remained one of minimisation, denial and wallowing in the comfort of junk explanations and misinformation. Instead of encouraging sober or unprejudicial reflection on the reality of security threats or the dangerous allure of totalitarian ideas, praise is given for the liberal burying of heads in the sand.

This Image Being Shared Across Social Media Is A Powerful Reminder That Religion Isn t The Problem

Whilst visiting the United States in September 2016, I observed something on social media which I had not thought possible in socially acceptable, real-name public discourse. An American friend (referred to here as ‘R.X.’) working in the universities sector, a proudly self-proclaimed ‘social justice warrior’ with teaching responsibilities, had posted the same image which belittled and sarcastically diminished the dead of September 11th 2001. The image was identical to one which would be left at the vandalised Occidental College memorial, and contained links to 9/11 ‘Truth’ websites and a crank journal deceptively named Euro Physics News which serviced the melting temperature-fixated paranoia of the far-left and far-right. With the aesthetics of a memorial graphic typical of those circulated around tragic anniversaries, the clickbait image signalled the virtues of anti-Americanism and diminishing of the importance of 9/11 and the lives of the dead, via the vehicle of a pseudo-tribute made with snarling insincerity. R.X. was certainly no liberal patriot (photos of American flag-burning by various radicals sometimes got generous sharing from them), but the 9/11’RIP’ image seemed to cross a new boundary of contempt for life, liberty and the existence of historical truth.

The tawdry piece of clickbait being shared by an educated person, to approval by other educated members of a wide social circle, managed to insult and instrumentally exploit the 9/11 victims, the civilian casualties of the Iraq war, and practically every veteran of the United States armed forces and the international coalition which served in Iraq. The piece is a vulgar distillation of a language around 9/11 which became familiar in left-wing politics from almost immediately after the attacks. The extreme border of this mindset was the Ward Churchill controversy and his description of the incinerated World Trade Centre staff as “little Eichmanns. But others as morally sensible and empathetic as Mary Beard could be warped by the reflexive desire to blame the yankees and obliterate the moral agency of the murderers. As Beard infamously wrote in October 2001, as the bodies were still being pulled out of smouldering rubble:

“This wasn’t just the feeling that, however tactfully you dress it up, the United States had it coming. That is, of course, what many people openly or privately think. World bullies, even if their heart is in the right place, will in the end pay the price.”

Beard has never apologised for these remarks, and has consistently defended the legitimacy of the substance and form of portraying the hijackers as delivering a rational and predictable response to “bullies”. The original ‘take’ she offered is shared by the malaise of reductive left-wing thought following 9/11 and more recent attacks by ISIS cells in Europe. Here is the wisdom of the socialist pop-historian historian Howard Zinn, author A People’s History of the United States, urging readers:

“We need to think about the resentment all over the world felt by people who have been the victims of American military action… We need to understand how some of those people will go beyond quiet anger to acts of terrorism”.

Consider what this beloved left-wing writer of “well, actually” history, name-checked with praise in the film Good Will Hunting, is really saying about the murderers and victims of 9/11. These words, published on September 14th 2001 (the same day the FBI first named the nineteen hijackers), portray Osama Bin Laden, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and the hijackers as men of “quiet anger” who were “victims” of American foreign policy. The beliefs, personalities, moral agency and all empirical evidence about the hijackers is pre-emptively obliterated from the equation, and would remain so throughout the default left understanding of the attacks.

The attacks were provoked, the true murderers and “bullies” were the hatred liberal capitalist nations of the West, and the attackers themselves possessed no real responsibility for their actions. The possibility that the attacks were not the desperate response of a downtrodden peasant army was not considered. As was self-evident from the group’s founding statements, concern for the poor and wretched of the Earth did not factor in Al-Qaeda’s calculations before 9/11, nor did they have any desire to see the end of ‘imperialism’ itself. Bin Laden’s own dream was for a global jihadist war on Afghan soil, a great struggle against the West in which he predicted and hoped that millions of Muslims would die in a protracted humiliation of the United States. Abu Al-Baghdadi and the Islamic State got further in seeing their nightmarish vision realised, albeit within limited geography. The perpetrators of 9/11 or since were not exploited peasants or workers dreaming of emancipation, but the builders of a theocratic empire with dreams of slavery, conquest and the extermination of Jews and Yazidis. In the narrative which Beard promoted and shared with many others, all of this was irrelevant to fact that the privileged yankees “had it coming”.

My friend R.X. had long-standing form for blaming their country of birth for the multitude of the world’s evils. However, I had presumed they would spare their friends and themselves the injustice of sharing such palpably manipulative numerology, particularly on the anniversary of the attacks. When I asked R.X. why they had decided to share the untrue numbers of dead with an unknowing audience, their answer was a revealing insight in the epistemological norms they inhabited:

R.X.: “I know the numbers might not be right, but the societal impact this graphic gets at is still relevant. To be honest though, I don’t care enough to look these up.”

For R.X., the moral parameters were simple. Fabricated statistics, the belittling of 9/11 victims, the obliteration by omission of most Iraqi civilians killed by terrorism and insurgencies supported by Iran and other regional actors, the absolution of convicted and self-proclaimed mass-killers with yet more fabricated evidence from the Truthers, were perfectly reasonable things to share and promote in the week of a 9/11 anniversary. ‘Societal impact’ of a narrative was the primary concern; facts and numbers contradicting the narrative were irrelevant. A neat distillation of postmodernist nihilism aside, the popularity of this attitude among R.X.’s social circle reveals something about contemporary society even apart from the ideology which produces it. In the 2010s, it is acceptable to lie, scoff and sneer about and at the victims and survivors of the 9/11 attacks and other terrorist atrocities without social consequence on the social justice left. If any public backlash that does arise from the obscenity of vandalising memorials or insulting victims and survivors on the date of memorial using junk statistics, you can be assured defences from social justice academia and viral media targeting a progressive audience.

The self-identified social justice left is not alone in its abuse of 9/11 victims and the memory of 9/11 itself. The partisan exploitation of the attacks during the Bush Administration was followed by the GOP-controlled House and Senate’s miserable failings in healthcare provision for 9/11 rescue workers. Even before Trump, the GOP had fallen badly at the measure which judges a society by how it treats its heroes and the most vulnerable; embodying both were the illness-stricken 9/11 rescue workers who were deprived of healthcare by Republican votes in successive Congresses. The 9/11 First Responders bills being politically championed by Jon Stewart and his army of Comedy Central-watching liberals in 2010, with the rescue workers losing health coverage again in 2015 due to a Republican-led Senate deadlock was a subject which ‘Blue Lives Matter conservatives preferred to forget.

The most widespread vice drawn from 9/11 on the American Right was conservative embrace of authoritarian pornography like the ludicrous ‘Flight 93 Election’ essay comparing Trump supporters to the heroic cockpit-storming passengers of the doomed United 93. The essay gained wide popularity and acceptance among the Trump-supporting commentariat and even fence-sitting conservatives unsure about whether to back Trump, whom the essay directed its millenarian pontificating towards. The right-wing journalist Bret Stephens argued that the ‘Flight 93’ essay was a painful reflection on the state of conservative thought:

“To reread “The Flight 93 Election” today is to understand what has gone wrong not only with the Trump presidency, but also with so much of the conservative movement writ large... To imply, as Anton did, that Barack Obama, for all his shortcomings, was Ziad Jarrah, Flight 93’s lead hijacker, is vile…To suggest that Donald Trump, a man who has sacrificed nothing in his life for anyone or anything, is the worthy moral heir to the Flight 93 passengers is a travesty.”

In comparison to these ‘real-world’ assaults on the dignity of 9/11 victims from the conservative right, it is easy to dismiss observations of leftists belittling the victims of terrorism as ‘somebody’s wrong on the Internet’ syndrome. However, since 9/11, the coalescence of the online world and real life has made distinctions between the wrongness of a misinformed town hall meeting and a misinformed network of social media friends almost redundant. Circulating false information, whether aggressively promoting fake news sites protected with a ‘satire’ disclaimer, or just old-fashioned physics-warping conspiracy theories passed on in chain emails, is only half of the equation. Historical truth means nothing to the 9/11 Truther, or the fabricated death toll mourner, when these claims continue to be promoted after their falsehood is made unambiguous. The warped ethics and morality of circulating the ‘RIP’ image are downstream from this happy dissolution of historical fact.

At the extreme end of the social justice left’s abuse of the 9/11 victims is the mindset of what Jamie Palmer described as the ‘Theatre of Radical Cruelty’, which includes gleeful revelling in the death and suffering of those who share America’s collective guilt. American student Otto Warmbier’s show-trial, torture and murder by the North Korean gulag system brought smiles and sneers to bloggers on Salon and The Huffington Post that ‘white privilege’ was being revoked and punished by the DPRK. The vandalism of the Occidental College 9/11 memorial was similar in mindset to the Marxist-Leninist youths who in March 2017 ‘protested’ against the Victims of Communism memorial in Washington DC, gleefully tweeting a group photo of finger-flipping obscenity pointed at the hundred million dead. The January 2015 Charlie Hebdo and Hyper Cache attacks prompted disturbing responses on the Anglo-American left ranging from tepid displays of non-sympathy for the victims; to Laurie Penny’s open contempt for the ‘racist trolling’ she attributed to the murdered cartoonists whilst their blood remained spattered on office walls. Similarly, the victims and survivors of the worst terror attack in U.S. history have more frequently found themselves on the receiving end of the social justice left’s blunt anti-imperialist moral calculation.

One of the great social media frenzies of 2016 was in reaction to the Stanford University rapist Brock Turner, who was given a sentence of only three months imprisonment after being found guilty of a serious sexual offence. The manifestly poor decision of a California judge was embedded in the social justice hemisphere as irrefutable validation that the United States was in the grip of a rape culture where victims were blamed and rapists were routinely tolerated. BuzzFeed Editor-In-Chief Ben Smith declared an article on Brock Turner was BuzzFeed’s most-shared story since ‘The Dress’, a record-breaking pseudo-event created by Kim Kardashian. Social justice activists and intersectional feminist websites whose columnists publicly promoted a utopian fantasy of the Foucauldian far-left, the goal to “abolish prisons, police and the American settler-state” now demanded the harshest penal punishments for Turner. In the broad issue of ‘rape apologism’ and victim-blaming, leftists and liberals would be enraged at images claiming that Brock Turner was innocent, was framed or mocking his victim by comparison to fraudulently inflated sexual assault statistics drawn from other countries.

Yet this is what the ‘RIP’ image demands of readers. It is predicated on the essential anti-liberalism, anti-Americanism and anti-Westernism of social justice politics. Americans cannot really be victims of mass murder just as whites and Jews can never be victims of racism; thus, only America, Israel or other ‘colonialist’ powers can be guilty of committing mass murder, rape and ‘oppression’. Conversely, Al-Qaeda and other jihadist groups cannot be morally responsible for mass murder; they are either reacting to oppressive American foreign policy, are being secretly controlled and funded by Israel, or they never carried out the attacks in the first place. The actual perpetrators of the mass murder of almost 3,000 Americans are absolved of their guilt. For people who share the ‘RIP’ image around September 11th, the moral culpability of Osama Bin Laden, the hijackers and the entire Al-Qaeda network responsible for the atrocities and thousands more since, is erased or diminished into irrelevance. Noticeably, the Arab and Muslim victims of Al-Qaeda and other Islamist movements are absorbed into the fabricated death toll attributed to solely U.S. military action.  

When asked about the obscenity of declaring the terrorist killers of thousands of Muslims innocent by blaming other parties, R.X. sneeringly replied that to even name Al-Qaeda’s murder of Muslims was to speak of “black-on-black crime” – a cardinal sin of racism which social justice leftism treats a priori as both wrong and wrongthink. If hundreds of Shia pilgrims are slaughtered in an Al-Qaeda suicide bombing of a holy site, or Sunnis who refuse to accept the authority of Abu Al-Baghdadi as their Caliph are slit by the throat en masse, all responsibility lies with America. Far from genuinely commemorating or mourning Muslims who have died violently since 9/11, the ‘RIP’ image posters display only a willingness to instrumentalise their deaths, stripping the dead of dignity and their killers of any accountability.

This has likely been familiar territory for those familiar with the work of Norman Geras, though I notice a difference in the phenomena presented in the disturbed responses to 9/11 and terrorism exhibited on social media. Geras analysed and critiqued the response and group behaviours of the organised and cultural left, the intellectual circles who gathered around literary journals, book reviews and campus lectures. The kind of thinking which permeated through devotees of Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, John Pilger, Edward Said and the who’s who of the ‘anti-imperialist’ left could hardly be called popular culture. The debasing argument over ‘root causes’ was a feud in ivory towers and broadsheets, among the politically-interested class who subscribed to wonkish magazines, the poets and novelists who conflated radicalism with style, and a few celebrity enthusiasts from the film and music business. As with those on the right and centre-left who criticised and exposed their intellectual abuses, they all existed in nerdish subcultures separate from the general public. Those who intently followed arguments between Noam Chomsky, Christopher Hitchens and their toadies and critics were unlikely to overlap with the tens of millions who followed reality television and talent competitions.

Since Norman Geras’s death, the advance of social media into the realm of intractability has accelerated the mainstreaming of fringe ideas to lightning speed. The British Labour Party has been conquered by the former senior membership of the Stop the War Campaign and Venezuela Solidarity Campaign largely due to the organising capacity of Facebook and Twitter. The success of radical and illiberal parties and regimes are downstream from the cultural acceptability of their ideas. The circulation of tropes about terrorism once trafficked by cynical closet sympathisers of extremism now enjoy the casually-tweeted support of the most popular and influential figures of mainstream culture. Terror-apologising nihilism is now a display of public virtue. To adapt a phrase from Chomsky himself, this must involve the responsibility of intellectuals.

One statistic about 9/11 and the passage of time since can be more terrifying than many of the figures now synonymous with the atrocity. The statistic, based on an estimate by the Los Angeles Times journalist Terry McDermott is difficult to quantify and must be given appropriately cautious treatment. If true, it reveals something about the culture of Western democracies and the curiosities of their intellectual classes. Ten thousand books have been written about the 9/11. Only one was about the 9/11 hijackers themselves. Being generous, it is possible true number of books specifically focused on 9/11 itself, and not part of a larger tome on war and terrorism, is only around one thousand. The prognosis, however, is unavoidable. There has been a dearth and desolation of interest in the 9/11 hijackers themselves from the lettered classes. For the people responsible for culture and the written word in Western societies, preferred narratives about 9/11 are known before and apart from knowing anything about the men responsible for it.

McDermott himself, with his 2008 book Perfect Soldiers, was the first and only civilian writer to produce a close study of who, how and why the hijackings of the four aircraft actually took place. Most of the other ten thousand plus books were polemics, political tracts, academic metanarratives or literary works which instrumentalised the attacks with no consideration of who carried them out. Lost in the portentous screeds of civilisational struggle by reactionary bluster, the Chomskyan superstructures of imperialism and anti-imperialism, Said’s Orientalist theories spoon-fed through cultural studies reading lists, and all the memes and tropes blaming America for bringing the attack on itself, is who actually carried out the attacks and why.

The names of the hijackers remain unknown to most people in the United States, both the general public or the educated. Social sciences graduates who can confidently pronounce how 9/11 was ‘blowback’ for Western imperialism and reel off lists of activist-inflated death tolls from American foreign policy crimes, draw blanks when asked to name the men whose crimes redefined the course of history.

On any anniversary of September 11th, the great and impulsively reached-for narrative of ‘anti-imperialism’ must be held up against the evidence. The narratives built around the murder almost 3,000 people by eminent figures of academia and now parroted by the most popular celebrities are constructed with total disregard to the most basic facts of the event. What went on inside the skulls of Osama Bin Laden, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and the pilot hijackers Mohammed Atta, Ziad Jarrah, Marwan al-Shehi and Hani Hanjour barely, if ever, factors into the analysis offered by the moral certainties of “had it coming”, “beyond quiet anger” and “RIP”.

Whilst writing this article, the editor raised the term “symbolic point of abuse”, a description which eclipses any I had for the relationship between social justice leftism and 9/11. The memory of the attacks remains one of the most misinformed subjects in modern history, though arousing moral certainty from those who hold the victims of 9/11 in a haze of contempt, and the hijackers in a haze of ignorant, de-personalised sympathy. Both victims and perpetrators of the attacks are a source of irritation and cognitive discomfort for the people enthralled by the verbosity of social justice newspeak or the vulgar simplicity of the ‘RIP’ trope. On any anniversary of the mass murders committed by the Al-Qaeda cult, we would do well to honour the victims by learning why they were killed. They deserve as much, as equally the murderers are deserving of the accurate judgement of history.

 

You can read more by the author at his blog.

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Why I changed my mind

By John Rentoul

I wrote about how people change their minds in my Sunday article for The Independent, and quoted the late Norman Geras, one of my heroes. He once asked me, “Can you name a major moral, political or intellectual issue on which you’ve ever changed your mind?” I said, markets, the kibbutz movement, nuclear disarmament, vegetarianism and television.

My friend Michael Walsh wanted to know more, so I have an excuse to elaborate. To start with markets, I decided I was a socialist at school, and that “from each according to ability, to each according to need” (Karl Marx, but of disputed origin) was the principle on which society should be organised. I said that everyone ought to be paid the same, which isn’t quite the same thing but you get the gist. My sister said, “But what if not enough people want to be doctors?” As Marvin the Martian said, back to the old drawing board.

I was primed, therefore, when in my gap year I went to work as a volunteer on a kibbutz in Israel. The kibbutz movement was communist in its inspiration: the idea was to set up utopias governed by Marx’s doctrine, in which all material possessions would be held in common.

I enjoyed my stay, but the reality did not live up to the ideal. The internal politics of the kibbutz were obscure to us outsiders but were plainly fraught. Work in the kitchens seemed to be the price of losing out in a faction fight. As for equality of labour, the kibbutz employed casual Arab workers for the orange harvest.

The most striking retreat from the idealism of the founders was the abandonment of collective child-rearing. Until a few years before my arrival in 1977, the kibbutz children would spend some time with their parents during the day but would mostly be learning and looked after collectively and would sleep in the communal children’s quarters. Even to me, who could see that the family could be the original institution of oppression, this seemed terrible, and it seemed only sensible that kibbutz families now lived in family homes.

Anyway, one of the jobs I did on the kibbutz was working in the chicken house, a long shed with thousands of chickens filling the floor space, who had to be de-beaked – having the tips of their beaks sliced off by a hot wire – to stop them pecking each other to death. I didn’t become a vegetarian straight away, but by the time I left university the only meat I ate was fish. That was on the grounds that fish don’t feel pain, which a friend told me, but I wasn’t sure it was true. After a few years I changed to free-range meat only, which has been my rule since.

Meanwhile, I had joined the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, part of the movement’s upsurge in 1981 in response to the replacement of Polaris by Trident missiles. My early enthusiasm for the cause was checked abruptly when a friend asked, “Why should we give up our nuclear weapons if other countries don’t give up theirs?” For years afterwards I was an unenthusiastic unilateralist. As deputy editor to John Lloyd at the New Statesman, I was embarrassed when he wrote a leading article on the eve of the 1987 election condemning Labour’s policy of one-sided nuclear disarmament. But only because he did it without consulting anyone, and because it undermined Neil Kinnock, the Labour leader, not because I disagreed with it.

Finally, television. This one really is embarrassing. I once thought it was a bad thing, an opium of the people, which kept them from morally superior and more active pursuits. That was before I discovered American football, a sport designed, literally, to be watched on television. Talking of American football, I have changed my mind about that now, too. It is a wonderful spectacle and an intricate tactical struggle, but the evidence of brain damage from the helmet collisions is unavoidable, so I cannot watch it any more.

It would seem that I changed my mind in two ways. One was simple, which was by someone I knew asking me a question. The other was by experience. Only the last case, the American football, came about through the classic means of seeking out and studying the evidence.

Apologists among us

By Norman Geras

July 13, 2005

OK, it’s more than time to nail this. Within hours of the bombs going off last Thursday the voices one could have predicted began to make themselves heard with their putative explanations for the murder and maiming of a random group of tube and bus passengers in London. It was due to Blair, Iraq and Afghanistan, illegal war and all the rest of it. The first voices, so far as I know, were those of the SWP and George Galloway, but it wasn’t very long – indeed it was no time at all, taking into account production schedules – before this stuff was spreading like the infestation it is across the pages of Britain’s oldest liberal newspaper, where it has remained for going on a week (and today as appallingly as ever).

Let’s just get by the matter of timing – of timeliness – with the brief expression of repugnance which it deserves. No words of dismay or regret, let alone sorrow, mourning, could be allowed to pass these people’s lips without the accompaniment of a ‘We told you so’ and an exercise in blaming someone else than the perpetrators. No sense of what an awful tragedy like this might call for or rule out. Just as if you were to hear from a distraught friend that her husband (or lover, mother, son) had just been murdered while walking in a ‘bad’ neighbourhood, and were to respond by saying how upset you were to hear it (or maybe even to give that part a miss) but that it was extremely foolish of the deceased to have been walking there on his or her own. We had all this in the early aftermath of September 11 2001, so in a way it was to be expected. But one constantly nurtures the illusion that people learn. The fact is that some of them don’t and, from where they think, can’t. It is a matter of interest to me now that there was even (some time during the last year, though I don’t recall where and so can’t link to it) a comments thread on which one or two of the participants questioned whether there had really been left and liberal voices after 9/11 making excuses for the crime of that day and proffering little essays in ‘understanding’. Yes, there really were then, and there have been again now.

It needs to be seen and said clear: there are, amongst us, apologists for what the killers do, and they make more difficult the long fight that is needed to defeat them. (To forestall any possible misunderstanding on this point: I do not say these people are not entitled to the views they express or to their expression of them. They are. Just as I am entitled to criticize their views for the wretched apologia they amount to.) The plea will be made, though – it always is – that these are not apologists, they are merely honest Joes and Joanies endeavouring to understand the world in which we all live. What could be wrong with that? What indeed? Nothing is wrong with genuine efforts at understanding; on these we all depend. But the genuine article is one thing, and root-causes advocacy that seeks to dissipate responsibility for atrocity, mass murder, crime against humanity, especially in the immediate aftermath of their occurrence, is something else.

Note, first, the selectivity in the general way root-causes arguments function. Purporting to be about causal explanation rather than excuse-making, they are invariably deployed on behalf of movements, actions, etc., for which the proponent wants to engage our sympathy or indulgence, and in order to direct blame towards some party for whom he or she has no sympathy. Try the following, by way of a hypothetical example, to see how the exercise works and doesn’t work.

On account of the present situation in Zimbabwe, the government decides to halt all scheduled deportations of Zimbabweans who have been denied the right to remain in the UK. Some BNP thugs are made angry by this decision and they take out their anger by beating up a passer-by who happens to be an African immigrant. Can you imagine a single person of left or liberal outlook who would blame, or even partially blame, this act of violence on the government’s decision to halt the deportations, or who would urge us to consider sympathetically the root causes of the act? It wouldn’t happen, even though (ex hypothesi) the government decision is part of the causal chain leading to the violence in question. It wouldn’t happen because the anger of the thugs doesn’t begin to justify what they have done.

The root-causers always plead a desire merely to expand our understanding, but they’re very selective in what they want us to ‘understand’. Did you ever hear a Jenny Tonge who empathizes with the Palestinian suicide bomber also understanding the worries of Israeli and other Jews – after the Holocaust, after the decades-long hostility of the Arab world to the State of Israel and the teaching of hatred there against Jews, after the acts of war against that state and the acts of terrorism against its citizens? This would seem to constitute a potentially rich soil of roots and causes, but it goes unexplored by the supposedly non-excuse-making purveyors of a root-causism seeking to ‘understand’.

The fact is that if causes and explanation are indeed a serious enterprise and not just a convenient partisan game, then it needs to be recognized that causality is one thing and moral responsibility another, although the two are related. Observe…

Me, David and Sam are chatting. I make a remark to David, David gets cross because of the remark and he punches me in the mouth. Sam says ‘You had it coming’. In this story it is uncontroversially true – I can tell you this, being the story’s one and only author – that my remark to David and Sam is the cause of David’s anger. Is Sam, then, right to tell me in effect that I either share the blame for David’s punching me in the mouth or am entirely to blame for it myself? Well, the content of my remark was ‘I love the music of Bob Dylan’. David for his part doesn’t like the music of Bob Dylan. I think most people will recognize without the need of further urging on my part that, contrary to what Sam says, I didn’t have it coming, David is entirely to blame for punching me in the mouth and I, accordingly, am not to blame in any way at all. If, on the other hand, my remark was not about Bob Dylan’s music, but was a deeply offensive comment about David’s mother, then without troubling to weight the respective shares of blame here, I’d say it would have been reasonable for Sam to tell me that I must bear some of it.

In circumstances he judges not too risky, Bob, an occasional but serial rapist, is drawn to women dressed in some particular way. One morning Elaine dresses in that particular way and she crosses Bob’s path in circumstances he judges not too risky. He rapes her. Elaine’s mode of dress is part of the causal chain which leads to her rape. But she is not at all to blame for being raped.

The fact that something someone else does contributes causally to a crime or atrocity, doesn’t show that they, as well as the direct agent(s), are morally responsible for that crime or atrocity, if what they have contributed causally is not itself wrong and doesn’t serve to justify it. Furthemore, even when what someone else has contributed causally to the occurrence of the criminal or atrocious act is wrong, this won’t necessarily show they bear any of the blame for it. If Mabel borrows Zack’s bicycle without permission and Zack, being embittered about this, burns down Mabel’s house, Mabel doesn’t share the blame for her house being burned down. Though she may have behaved wrongly and her doing so is part of the causal chain leading to the conflagration, neither her act nor the wrongness of it justifies Zack in burning down her house. So simply by invoking prior causes, or putative prior causes, you do not make the case go through – the case, I mean, that someone else than the actual perpetrator of the wrongdoing is to blame.

The ‘We told you so’ crowd all just somehow know that the Iraq war was an effective cause of the deaths in London last week. How do they know this, these clever people? Leave aside for the moment the question of rightness and wrongness – for, of course, there were many people (in London, in the rest of the UK) for whom the Iraq war was not wrong but right, and if they are right that it was right, then no blame attaches to those who led, prosecuted and supported that war, even if it has entered the causal chain leading to the bombings, by way of the motivating grievances of the ‘militants’ and ‘activists’. But, as I say, leave this aside. How do they know?

What they need to know is not just that Iraq was one of a number of influencing causes, but that it was the specific, and a necessary, motivating cause for the London bombings. Because if it was only an influencing motivational cause amongst others, and if, more particularly, another such motivational cause was supplied by the military intervention in Afghanistan, then we don’t have that the London bombings wouldn’t have happened but for the Iraq war. Now, I’m aware that some of the ‘We told you so’ people are of the view that the intervention in Afghanistan was wrong too. But others of the ‘We told you so’ people aren’t of this view; and that segment of root-cause opinion, at least, will have a hard time of it establishing that just the Iraq war, and not Afghanistan – or anything else, for that matter (Palestine, the status of women, modernity, sexual freedom, pluralism, religious tolerance) – is what has provoked the murderers to their murders.

As for those (the SWPers, Galloways, etc.) for whom the intervention in Afghanistan should also not have happened, I’m happy to leave them where they are on this. These are people for whom the crime of 9/11 did not constitute an act of war meriting a military response, people whose preferred course of action was to leave the Taliban in situ ruling that country and al-Qaida with the freedom to continue organizing there. This rather does help to establish what is one of the main objects of the present post, namely that the root-causers are very selective about the root causes they’re willing to recognize as relevant; and, attached as they are to an ethico-political outlook that has lately been (let us just say) indulgent towards anti-democratic forces, they particularly favour root causes originating in the vicinity of Washington DC.

To shift part of the blame for the London killings and maimings on to Blair and Bush – and also Parliament and Congress, and everyone who supported the war in all the coalition-of-the-willing countries – you not only have to guess at the Iraq war having been operative and decisive in the motivations of the actual bombers, you not only have to overlook anything that might have been right about that war, like seeing off one of the most brutal and murderous dictators of the last few decades, you further have to reckon that what was wrong about the war not merely caused the anger of those bombers but made their response, in some sort, morally appropriate rather than (what it in fact was) criminally excessive. Just think about the implications of this position. If on account of the Iraq war Tony Blair is to blame for four young British Muslims (as it now seems) murdering and injuring some large number of travellers in London, will he also be to blame if one or two members of the Stop the War Coalition for the same reason should decide to bump off a few people in, say, Dundee? Ever on the lookout for damning causes, the root-causers never seem to go for the most obvious of them, so visibly obvious a one that it isn’t even beneath the surface of things the way roots often are, it’s right out in the open. This is the cause, indeed, which shows – negatively – why most critics of the Iraq war and of other events, institutions, movements, do not go around murdering people they are upset or angry with; I mean the fanatical, fundamentalist belief system which teaches hatred and justifies these acts of murder, justifies them to those who are swayed by it but not to anyone else. It somehow gets a free pass from the hunters-out of causes.

So, there are apologists among us. They have to be fought – fought intellectually and politically and without let-up. What is it that moves them to their disgraceful litany of excuses? This is doubtless a complex matter, but here are a few suggestions. One thing seems to be the treatment of those who practise terror as though they were part of some natural environment we have to take as given – not themselves free and responsible agents, but like a vicious dog or a hive of bees. If we do anything that provokes them, that must make us morally responsible, for they can be expected to react as they do. If this isn’t a form of covert racism, then it’s a kind of diminishing culturalism and is equally insulting to the people transformed by it into amoral beings incapable of choice or judgement.

Then, with at least some of the root-causers, their political sympathies and antipathies naturally incline them towards apologia. Here are people for whom the discomfiture of the US is number one priority, who would therefore have been happy to see the Americans bogged down without reaching Baghdad and toppling Saddam Hussein, who have openly spoken their support for an Iraqi ‘resistance’ committing daily crimes against the people of Iraq.

However, there are others not of this ilk and who would be horrified and outraged – and rightly – to see themselves described as indulgent towards such ugly and murderous forces, but who employ the tropes of blame-shifting and excuse-making nonetheless. These people, one may speculate more charitably, are merely confused; and amongst the things they are confused by are more local political divisions and animosities, which can seem to loom larger before them than the battle for and against democratic societies, for and against pluralist, enlightenment cultures, being fought across the world today.

Whatever the combination of impulses behind the pleas of the root-causes apologists, they do not help to strengthen the democratic culture and institutions whose benefits we and they share. Because we believe in and value these we have to contend with what such people say. But contend with is precisely it. We have to contest what they say of this kind, challenge it all along the line. We are not obliged to respect their repeated exercises in apologia for the inexcusable.

(My thanks to Eve Garrard for discussion and advice in the preparation of this post.)

Ed.: The original post is here

‘We told you so, you fucking fools’: the Euston Manifesto 10 years on

Nick Cohen, in a piece from a forthcoming anthology of the best writing of the late and much missed Norman Geras, writes about the Euston Manifesto ten years on.

Nick Cohen: Writing from London

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Spectator 18 February 2016

The Euston Manifesto appears a noble failure. It was clear in 2006 that the attempt to revive left-wing support for internationalism, democracy and universal human rights did not have a strong chance of success. Looking back a decade on, it seems doomed from the start. The tyrannical habits of mind it condemned were breaking out across the left in 2006. They are everywhere now. They define the Labour Party and most of what passes for intellectual left-wing life in the 21st century.

To take the manifesto’s first statement of principle: the left should be ‘committed to democratic norms, procedures and structures’. An easy statement to agree with, I hear you say. Not so easy when the leader of the opposition, feted by his supporters as the most ‘left-wing’ in Labour’s history, will excuse dictatorial regimes or movements, however reactionary, if and only if, they…

View original post 1,655 more words

Normblog: Tell us your favourite entries

By Jake Wilde

2016 will mark the 10th anniversary of the Euston Manifesto, an inspirational piece of work that captured the minds and views of a previously neglected section of the left. Norman Geras was the driving force behind Euston and, ten years on, it remains an important reference point. The moment when a line in the sand was drawn and a voice previously unspoken was heard.

The Euston Manifesto was how I first found my political home. I’d drifted around the left for a decade or so, never comfortable with what I think of now as very British definitions of the left-wing spectrum. Even in my first spell at university at the end of the 80s the differences on the left were rudimentary; centre left or far left, pro-EU or anti-EU. And that was it. If you were centre left then the expectation was that you were pro-American, but only in the context of a choice between the US and the collapsing Soviet empire. Support for the US in this sense wasn’t to be regarded as a positive one, but rather reluctantly given and with a haughty sneer.

The far left, both amongst the staff and the students, sought comfort in the certain knowledge that the fall of socialism wasn’t really the fall of socialism because, of course, it wasn’t really socialism. The millions of people in Eastern Europe demanding democracy and capitalism had been fooled by a combination of false socialism from their leaders and lies about the true nature of the evil West they so admired. In other words the same patronising crap the far left always trot out when people reject socialism.

A few years later I returned to start a long, difficult, part-time MA in International Security. My tutor was Colin S. Gray, then recently of the Reagan administration. You know that moment when someone says things that you’ve never heard anybody else say, but you know that’s exactly what you think? That. That’s what happened. And then the same thing happened when I first read the Euston Manifesto. Euston encapsulated not just what but how I thought more than anything I’d ever read before. I hope it did the same for a lot of people partly because nobody likes admitting they were still a bit lost in their 30s.

And that was how I discovered the work of Norman Geras, his books and his towering online presence – Normblog. To coincide with the 10th anniversary of the Euston Manifesto Ben Cohen and Eve Gerrard are bringing together an anthology of Norm’s writing, to publish in 2016, with the provisional title “What’s There is There”.

Norman Geras

One of the sections of the book will be a selection of Normblog entries. While this is probably the most fun part of the project, it’s also the most labour intensive, in part because of the low-grade technology (you can’t search it directly, for example.) Given that there are thousands of entries on there, help is needed to plough through it and decide which posts to include. While some of these will be about politics it’s also important to include some of the interviews he did with other bloggers, some of the football stuff, some of the humorous stuff, the literature reviews, the observations upon life that cannot be easily categorised as ‘politics’. So what we’re looking for is the 10 posts which best represent the blog and its character.

Let us know your favourites, the entries that linger longest in your memory, the ones that still speak to you today, and the ones that mean something special to you, whatever the subject. You can choose as many or as few as you want. Don’t feel under any constraint other than the inevitable deadline which, in this case, is Friday 15 January.

Use our Twitter timeline to have discussions, to tell us your stories, to tell us your memories. And please, spread the word far and wide over this festive period so that as many as possible can take some time to indulge in the writings that made Normblog the innovative, essential starting point for so many people’s day.