A case of historically forgotten ‘blowback’?



by Selvam Canagaratna

"Although tyranny, because it needs no consent, may successfully rule over foreign peoples, it can stay in power only if it destroys first of all the national institutions of its own people."

– Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism, 1951.

It’s the awful reality that has been by design ‘forgotten’ all these years – and highlighted now by Ben Norton on the Salon website. When, for instance, ‘terror’ occurs in Paris in January and November 2015, and now in Brussels, the response of the international community makes clear that the lives of white Westerners have come to be valued exponentially more than the lives of people in, say, the Middle East.

Norton’s simple point is that when American bombs massacred civilians in the Middle East for long, scarcely a single tear was shed. "But when Westerners are subjected to the same terror that people in Muslim-majority countries endure on a regular basis, the sky falls."

The Middle East has been the deadly playground of imperialist forces for as long as one can remember, with matters coming to a head following the secret decision of the American neocon cabal of President George W. Bush and his VP Dick Cheney using the attack on the New York Twin Towers as the pretext to overthrow Saddam Hussein.

Wrote Norton: "ISIS slaughtered more than 30 people in Brussels, Belgium on Tuesday, March 22 – a horrific day sure to live in infamy. Yet what of the countless other horrific days in which ISIS killed just as many people, if not more . . , that are effaced from the historical record, often mere moments after taking place, only to be replaced with others? In just over a week in late February and early March, ISIS butchered almost 200 Iraqis, mostly civilians from the Shia Muslim community, the world says little. And not only does the West say little; European countries and the US demonize and actively prevent refugees who are fleeing ISIS terror from seeking asylum within their borders. Yet when Europeans face the same violence, they expect the world to stop and collectively mourn."

This is only to mention the crimes of ISIS, noted Norton. "The kind of bloodshed the world witnessed in Belgium on Tuesday is quotidian in Yemen – where the culpability lies with the very countries that are now so thunderously wailing."

For almost exactly one year, a Saudi-led coalition backed and armed by the West has waged a brutal campaign of terror against the people of Yemen, the poorest in the Middle East. The draconian Saudi regime has killed thousands of civilians, bombing hospitals, homes, weddings, schools and even a refugee camp.

"The Saudi monarchy gets the bombs it drops from its Western allies, the US, UK. And France – the allies who vociferously condemn terror when it is their own citizens who are subjected to it."

As Yemeni journalist Mohammed Ali Kalfood wrote exactly one week before the ISIS attacks in Belgium on March 15, the Western-backed Saudi-led coalition bombed a market in Yemen’s northern province of Hajjah, killing approximately 120 people, including more than 20 children, and wounding an additional 80. "Families were blown up," Kalfood recalled. Yet these Yemeni families are apparently unworthy of the world’s attention.

To make it clear, 400 percent more people were killed a week before the Brussels attacks by a Western-allied regime who buys Western-made weapons and military equipment and uses Western-provided intelligence. And the silence in response to the Hajjah massacre has roared so loudly it is truly deafening, wrote Norton.

"These are double victims. They suffer not only from their death, but also from the silence that surrounds it – an unfortunate product of their lowly place in the global pecking order.

"We have seen it numerous times now . . . it has become a cliché – one need only hearken back to Vietnam or to Algeria; to Guatemala or, especially in this case, to the days of Belgian-colonized Congo, where King Leopold oversaw the deaths of 10 million people, half of the African nation’s entire population, in a matter of years in a little-discussed genocide."

Which brings us to King Leopold’s Ghost by Adam Hochschild, published in 1998. Jeremy Harding reviewed the book in the New York Times of September 20, 1998 and wrote: "Edmund Morel is one of a trio of not-quite-English characters who prowl Adam Hochschild’s King Leopold’s Ghost, a superb synoptic history of European misdemeanor in central Africa. Like Joseph Conrad, a Polish expatriate, and Roger Casement, an Irishman, Morel was something of an outsider in Britain.

"All three men were to unleash withering assaults on the system of forced labour that was used to extract ivory, hardwoods and wild rubber from the Congo Free State – later the Belgian Congo, then Zaire, now the strife-torn Democratic Republic of Congo. Morel, who discovered that valuable cargoes were leaving the Congo while arms and ammunition were pouring in, became a radical, round-the-clock journalist and public speaker, collecting and disseminating evidence of atrocities against the Congolese and denouncing an international entente that had allowed one man, Leopold II, King of the Belgians, to exercise sole authority over a land mass 75 times the size of Belgium.

"Hochschild’s sketches of these three individuals are vivid, and his depiction of what they and many others were confronting is masterly. It shows, above all, that during Leopold’s rule in Africa from 1885 to 1908, and in the years on either side of it, the peoples of the Congo River Basin suffered, in Hochschild’s words, "a death toll of Holocaust dimensions." This is not said lightly. The strategy adopted to plunder the area was, in effect, a war of enslavement against the indigenous population.

"Much of the death toll was the result of killing, pure and simple," wrote reviewer Harding. "Villages were dragooned into tapping rubber, and if they refused to comply, or complied but failed to meet European quotas, they were punished. The hands of dead Congolese were severed and kept by militias to account to their quartermasters for spent ammunition. And, as Morel said, the practice of mutilation was extended to the living. By far the greatest number of deaths, however, were caused by sickness and starvation. The effect of the terror was to drive communities from their sources of food.

A Belgian Government commission estimated that from the late 1870s, when the explorer Henry Morton Stanley made his first forays into the Congo on King Leopold’s behalf, until 1919, the year the Commission published its findings, the population of the Congo Basin had been reduced by half. In 1924 there were thought to be some 10 million inhabitants – which means, Hochschild says, that "during the Leopold period and its immediate aftermath the population of the territory dropped by approximately 10 million."

Hochschild considered the story as a template of modernity . . . "Leopold never set foot in the Congo. There is something very modern about that, too, as there is about the bomber pilot in the stratosphere . . . who never hears screams or sees shattered homes or torn flesh," wrote reviewer Harding who also argues, convincingly, that the story of the Congo was "the first major international atrocity scandal in the age of the telegraph and the camera." It would both be crucial to another scandal in a distant part of the world that was relayed to our living rooms 80 years after Leopold’s spectacular land grab: Francis Ford Coppola was not straining credibility when he transposed Heart of Darkness to Vietnam."



animated gif
Processing Request
Please Wait...