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Reith 2004: The Climate of Fear: I Am Right; You Are Dead

Updated Monday, 29th March 2004

In his final Reith Lecture, Wole Soyinka draws parallels between Bush and Bin Laden: a case of I am right; you are dead. Lynda Morgan responds.

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Wole Soyinka Creative commons image Icon Chris Peplin under CC-BY-NC-ND licence under Creative-Commons license

 

At the time of Wole Soyinka's Reith Lectures, Climate of Fear, there were almost daily reports of bombings, including the Madrid attack; a warning from a cell of the Al Qaeda terror network that America and Britain are next on the list to be struck with a 'black wind of death'; news that baggage checks may be instituted at mainline railways stations in Britain; the assassination of the Hamas leader, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin: thus, the series could hardly have taken place at a more apposite time. David Blunkett played down the terror threat in an interview in the Sunday Telegraph (28th March 2004), but I imagine that many of us felt utter despair at the news that bombarded us, and little confidence that there wouldn't be future attacks. Our worst fears were in fact confirmed just over a year later when London suffered a series of attacks at the hand of terrorists.

Not only are the lectures apposite in view of current global terror, but they also pick up on current (and increasing) questioning of the actions of the West. Numerous examples could be cited of actions and claims that have led to extensive debate and disquiet: the West sold arms to Iraq before the portrayal of the country shifted to turn it into a demon behind global terrorism; weapons of mass destruction have still not been found; Tony Blair has made a contentious visit to Colonel Gadaffy of Libya, a man once described by Ronald Reagan as a "mad dog" and the target of a Western assassination attempt. Of course not all commentators are critical of examples such as these, but enough are for serious questions to be raised about the West collaborating on the basis of political expediency rather than moral judgement. As his Prisonette 'Future Plans' reveals, Soyinka has long believed that collaboration and corruption take place routinely amongst those in power:

'Proven: Arafat
In flagrante cum
Golda Meir. Castro drunk
With Richard Nixon
Contraceptives stacked beneath the papal bunk
…and more to come'

The names may be different, but the point remains pertinent to present concerns.

George W Bush waves as he and Laura Bush board a helicopter Copyright free  image Icon Copyright free: U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Suzanne M. Day

George W Bush has become a particular focus for criticism. Five British prisoners who were held without trial for two years at Guantanamo Bay returned to Britain in March 2004. One of them, Jamal al-Harith, claimed that prisoners at Camp Delta were brutally beaten and subjected to mental torture: devout Muslims were forced to watch prostitutes displaying themselves, for example; Inmates were forced to drink dirty water, and given meals up to ten years past their sell-by date. Jamal al-Harith's cell was a wire cage, open to the elements, to snakes and to scorpions. He said, "The whole point of Guantanamo was to get to you psychologically. The beatings were not nearly as bad as the psychological torture - bruises heal after a week, but the other stuff stays with you."

Of course those of us who have not visited Camp Delta for ourselves cannot know with absolute certainly that these allegations are true; but the journalist David Rose reports that he interviewed three of the released men, and that they had each been interrogated 200 times, both by MI5 and by various American agencies, often for twelve hours at a time. Even without beatings this must surely be seen as brutal, and, as Rose says, any confession achieved by such means cannot safely be regarded as reliable. Such reports increase wide-spread anxiety about the holding of people without trial. Rose says:

'Eroding legal fairness and due process doesn't merely negate the very values which the terrorists most want to attack. It is also a remarkably ineffective, even counter-productive way of protecting ourselves, and of preventing future atrocities.'

Calling on evidence from the struggle against IRA terrorism he points out that internment is a fertile recruiting ground. He quotes an American official who told him that in proportion to the size and cost of Camp Delta not very many of its detainees were really serious terrorists; but experience at the Camp might very well lead "a farmer who got swept along and did very little" to come out "a fully fledged jihadist." "Due process values adopted by advanced societies," claims Rose, "have evolved because, more than the alternatives, they work."(Evening Standard, 16th March)

In an article in the London Review of Books (1st April 2004) Richard Rorty also questions whether civic rights should be suspended in the interests of national security. Politicians and bureaucrats charged with the protection of the state "will strive to outdo one another in proposing outrageous measures" he claims. This will result in "a cascade of government actions that would, in the course of a few years, bring about a fundamental change in the conditions of social life in the West." In fact he says that, as an American, "I have spent more time worrying about what my government will do than about what the terrorists will do."

Rorty seriously believes that "the end of the rule of law could come about almost inadvertently, in both the US and Europe, through the sheer momentum of the institutional changes that are likely to be made in the name of the war on terrorism;" and he fears a reduction in the effectiveness of "the various institutions that have made it possible for public opinion to influence the actions of democratic governments." His focus is the civic rights of ordinary citizens rather than those of detainees, but the terms of his argument surely justify us in concluding that compromising the rights of detainees may be but one step towards compromising the rights of all.

Bishopgate station following the London Tube bombings, 2005 Creative commons image Icon Cian O'Donovan under CC-BY-NC-SA licence under Creative-Commons license

So how might we resist such monumental change? Rorty believes this can only be achieved by challenging the culture of government secrecy. There are plenty of areas, he says, where neither international law nor criminal law apply. "In these areas, governments are now pretty much free to do as they please: to parachute hit squads into Third World countries in which terrorists are thought to be holding meetings, to bring about regime change in nations suspected of supporting terrorists, and so on." What we need if we are to counteract this, he claims, are updated laws, "openly agreed on by international bodies and adopted, after debate, by national governments." Citizens should demand this from their governments, in the interests of creating some kind of code of international criminal justice.

But is Rorty right in his contention that secrecy is to blame? If Western governments are indeed relying on secrecy they must be feeling seriously hard-done-by at the moment, since almost daily we are entertained with stories about what has gone on behind supposedly closed doors. Unlike the quasi-states Soyinka spoke of in his second lecture, Western governments are identifiable targets, and they are currently being regularly targeted not just by terrorists but also by their own citizens. In his book Against All Enemies (2004), Richard Clarke offers a contradictory account of George Bush's response to the attacks on the World Trade Centre. According to Clarke, Bush was determined to attack Iraq, regardless of whether it had played host to Al-Qaeda or not. "Bush and his inner circle had no real interest in complicated analyses; on the issues that they cared about, they already knew the answers," he claims. And it is this absolute, fanatical certainty, this lack of regard for the opinions of others, that Soyinka believes accounts for current events. He addresses this in his final lecture, I am Right; You are Dead.

Soyinka argues that it is easy to recognise the voice of the fanatic in Osama bin Laden's declaration that the world is divided between believers and non-believers. But he goes on to claim that the same 'fanatic spore' is apparent in George Bush's stark statement: "you are either with us or you are on the side of the terrorists." Such a reduction of the world to the simplicities of binary opposites is indeed a marker of the 'fanatic mind', and Soyinka believes that we fail to recognise this fanaticism in Bush "at our peril." Richard Clarke would presumably agree. Referring to Bush's "insistence" on attacking Iraq, Clarke says: "Nothing else could have so closed Muslim eyes and ears to our calls for reform in their region...It was as if Bin Laden, hidden in some mountain redoubt, were engaging in long-range mind control of George Bush, chanting: 'Invade Iraq, you must invade Iraq.'" Such fanaticism is as messianic in its aims as that of Bin Laden, argues Soyinka, and generates the 'rhetorical hysteria' that is designed to carry people along on its menacing journey towards control of the Other.

Of course not everyone agrees with Soyinka. He appeared on Radio 4's Start the Week on 22nd March with Clive James, Doris Behrens-Abouseif, and John Brewer, where he took part in discussion in which his views were certainly not accepted without question. Clive James in particular questioned Soyinka's claim that the quasi-states are peopled by those who have been deprived of dignity, and that their sense of worthlessness has been generated by the actions and attitudes of the West. "Does the discontent of the terrorists not come more from their fear of attempts to revolutionise the Arab world?" James asked, citing moves towards rights for women as an example. But whether Soyinka is right or wrong is not the key point. The significant thing about these particular Reith lectures is that they focus our minds on some of the most vital questions concerning contemporary politics and international relations that can be asked at the moment, and encourage us to debate the answers with all the energy we can muster. And how better to conclude my comments than with an impassioned plea for justice from one of Soyinka's Prisonettes, 'Flowers for my Land':

'Take Justice
In your hands who can
Or dare. Insensate sword
Of Power
Out-Herods Herod and the law's outlawed.'

 

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