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Iraq is a reminder: US crimes against humanity predate Trump

 Iraq is a reminder: US crimes against humanity predate Trump


People talk a lot about “totalitarianism” in the Trump era. I’ve never really loved the category: it seems to paper over some pretty deep differences between the entities one might call totalitarian. But if there was a “totalitarian” moment in my lifetime, it is unquestionably the period between 9/11 and the Iraq war.

It’s not simply that war criminals enlisted the aid of the press and every other ideological apparatus in our country to launch a massively destructive, destabilizing, and completely unwarranted war of aggression (the principal crime against humanity), although they did.

It’s not simply that after 9/11 thousands of people were rounded up and preventively detained, despite not having any ties to terrorism, although they were (and with nary a word, except for a few brave souls, of protest). It’s that there was a palpable shift in what were now unutterable but real conditions for everyday life.

Suddenly, there were soldiers on the streets, and also little American flags everywhere, even in places where they would never have been before. Unanimity in the press and – with very, very few exceptions – unanimity from all political elites. But strangest of all, a bizarre performance from some that this was the way things had always been. When you could literally point to a flag or an obsequious gesture to loving the military and know that, say just a week or two before, it hadn’t been there and yet the conversant would insist no, it always had been that way.

The Iraq war was not the result of “inexperience”. Indeed, its architects were adults in the room of the highest order. The Iraq war and its calamitous outcomes were not “unknowable”; outside of what passes for “expertise” and “experience” in Washington and the op-ed pages of leading newspapers there was near-unanimity among incredibly disparate analysts predicting nearly every horrific outcome that came to pass.

And it did not in fact come about without protest. There were the largest protests in human history but they were easily integrated into a narrative woven together by political elites, national security apparatchiks, and the media working in lock-step.

Some Americans (knowing little about, say, China) like to point and laugh at a near-unanimous vote for removing term limits for Xi Jinping. There was exactly one vote in Congress – cast by Barbara Lee – three days after 9/11 against granting universal, unequivocal war powers to Bush II (beyond the already nearly limitless war powers the president had).

Although Trump still has plenty of time to catch up (and I fear he will), his crimes do not come close to the crimes against humanity committed by members of our ruling class from political leadership to the media in our lifetime. I won’t list names here because it would be too inflammatory, but there are dozens, hundreds, who would be facing tribunals if they were not American.

They not only walk free but are rewarded for their complicity in one of the key moments that is the short walk to now. Watching the sickening rehabilitation of political and media figures of this period – and for some the simple continuity – is also a reminder of the partial utility of that term “totalitarian”.

No matter how much they destroy, how many lines they cross, whom they murder en masse, their respectability is unaffected, their leadership de rigueur. This was not the failure of the rule of law: this is the rule of law in a system in which any attempt to transform power or even challenge it has been silenced.

This was not because “norms” or the constitution were violated; this was the absolute functioning of norms and the constitution. This was the America that some tell me was already great.

Since you’re here …

… we have a small favour to ask. More people are reading the Guardian than ever but advertising revenues across the media are falling fast. And unlike many news organisations, we haven’t put up a paywall – we want to keep our journalism as open as we can. So you can see why we need to ask for your help. The Guardian’s independent, investigative journalism takes a lot of time, money and hard work to produce. But we do it because we believe our perspective matters – because it might well be your perspective, too.

I appreciate there not being a paywall: it is more democratic for the media to be available for all and not a commodity to be purchased by a few. I’m happy to make a contribution so others with less means still have access to information. People talk a lot about “totalitarianism” in the Trump era. I’ve never really loved the category: it seems to paper over some pretty deep differences between the entities one might call totalitarian. But if there was a “totalitarian” moment in my lifetime, it is unquestionably the period between 9/11 and the Iraq war.

 

It’s not simply that war criminals enlisted the aid of the press and every other ideological apparatus in our country to launch a massively destructive, destabilizing, and completely unwarranted war of aggression (the principal crime against humanity), although they did.

 

It’s not simply that after 9/11 thousands of people were rounded up and preventively detained, despite not having any ties to terrorism, although they were (and with nary a word, except for a few brave souls, of protest). It’s that there was a palpable shift in what were now unutterable but real conditions for everyday life.

 

Suddenly, there were soldiers on the streets, and also little American flags everywhere, even in places where they would never have been before. Unanimity in the press and – with very, very few exceptions – unanimity from all political elites. But strangest of all, a bizarre performance from some that this was the way things had always been. When you could literally point to a flag or an obsequious gesture to loving the military and know that, say just a week or two before, it hadn’t been there and yet the conversant would insist no, it always had been that way.

 

The Iraq war was not the result of “inexperience”. Indeed, its architects were adults in the room of the highest order. The Iraq war and its calamitous outcomes were not “unknowable”; outside of what passes for “expertise” and “experience” in Washington and the op-ed pages of leading newspapers there was near-unanimity among incredibly disparate analysts predicting nearly every horrific outcome that came to pass.

 

And it did not in fact come about without protest. There were the largest protests in human history but they were easily integrated into a narrative woven together by political elites, national security apparatchiks, and the media working in lock-step.

 

Some Americans (knowing little about, say, China) like to point and laugh at a near-unanimous vote for removing term limits for Xi Jinping. There was exactly one vote in Congress – cast by Barbara Lee – three days after 9/11 against granting universal, unequivocal war powers to Bush II (beyond the already nearly limitless war powers the president had).

 

Although Trump still has plenty of time to catch up (and I fear he will), his crimes do not come close to the crimes against humanity committed by members of our ruling class from political leadership to the media in our lifetime. I won’t list names here because it would be too inflammatory, but there are dozens, hundreds, who would be facing tribunals if they were not American.

 

They not only walk free but are rewarded for their complicity in one of the key moments that is the short walk to now. Watching the sickening rehabilitation of political and media figures of this period – and for some the simple continuity – is also a reminder of the partial utility of that term “totalitarian”.

 

No matter how much they destroy, how many lines they cross, whom they murder en masse, their respectability is unaffected, their leadership de rigueur. This was not the failure of the rule of law: this is the rule of law in a system in which any attempt to transform power or even challenge it has been silenced.

 

This was not because “norms” or the constitution were violated; this was the absolute functioning of norms and the constitution. This was the America that some tell me was already great.

Since you’re here …

 

… we have a small favour to ask. More people are reading the Guardian than ever but advertising revenues across the media are falling fast. And unlike many news organisations, we haven’t put up a paywall – we want to keep our journalism as open as we can. So you can see why we need to ask for your help. The Guardian’s independent, investigative journalism takes a lot of time, money and hard work to produce. But we do it because we believe our perspective matters – because it might well be your perspective, too.

I appreciate there not being a paywall: it is more democratic for the media to be available for all and not a commodity to be purchased by a few. I’m happy to make a contribution so others with less means still have access to information.