- In Alerts 2005
- Post 10 March 2005
- Last Updated on 10 March 2005
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The Guardian’s Jonathan Freedland and Seumas Milne Respond
We wrote to Jonathan Freedland about his article, “The war’s silver lining”, and asked him: “Are you not, here, celebrating the efficacy of state terrorism as a political tool? Is Damascus not literally terrorised by what it has seen in Iraq?”
We also asked: “Given your assertion that the 9/11 attacks were decisive in prompting the invasion of Iraq, with its ‘silver lining‘, would you argue that we ought now to admit that the dark cloud of those attacks also carried a ‘silver lining‘?" (Email to Freedland, March 3, 2005)
Freedland responded on March 6:
Dear David Edwards
Thanks for your note. I fear you have misread my piece from this week. The key error lies in your word "celebrating." I think this happens often with opinion articles: people confuse a description for an endorsement. In the passage you quote, I was DESCRIBING what effect the Iraq war might be having on Damascus's thinking -- which is a long way from endorsing or celebrating either that effect or the war itself. Lest that be unclear, I spelled out in the piece -- maybe for the twentieth time in print -- that I consider that "the war was wrong-headed, illegal, deceitful and too costly of human lives."
I think your subsequent chain of logic, going back to 9/11, comes apart on this same point -- as if noting a connection between 'bad event A' and events B, C and finally 'good event D' requires one to endorse event A. It does not. Events often have unintended consequences and the ends do not justify the means. Which is why nowhere in my latest column did I suggest recent events might justify the Iraq war. They do not.
Freedland writes that his argument was “a long way from endorsing or celebrating” either the effects of the war or the war itself. And yet he wrote that although “Tony Blair is not gloating. He could...”. Moreover, “if he had wanted to brag and claim credit - boasting that the toppling of Saddam Hussein had set off a benign chain reaction - he would have had plenty of evidence to call on.”
To describe the “chain reaction” resulting from the war as “benign” is surely to endorse - that is, to declare one’s approval of - those results. Benign, after all, means “fortunate, salutary”.
“I think your subsequent chain of logic, going back to 9/11, comes apart on this same point -- as if noting a connection between 'bad event A' and events B, C and finally 'good event D' requires one to endorse event A. It does not.”
This is not the point we were making, in fact it is a smokescreen. Freedland argued that ’bad event B’ (the invasion of Iraq) led to ’good event C’ (an alleged ripple of democracy in the Middle East), such that C was a “silver lining” to B.
If that is so, then given that, according to Freedland, B (the invasion of Iraq) was prompted by ‘bad event A’ (9/11), then the resulting ripple of democracy (C) must also be a “silver lining” to 9/11 (A).
Freedland, understandably, refused to accept this argument. And this really is the point we are making - it is acceptable for the media to talk of a “silver lining” to the US-UK killing of fully 100,000 Iraqis, and to even talk of a major perpetrator of this atrocity having a strong case for “gloating“ and bragging. But it is deemed quite outrageous to talk of a “silver lining” to al Qaeda’s killing of 3,000 Americans on September 11. Why?
We believe the answer lies in the conditional compassion that is as normal as the air journalists breathe in the mainstream media. This is rooted, not merely in personal foibles, but in the needs and distorting influence of concentrated power. Western killing in pursuit of Western interests (”humanitarian intervention”) is reflexively deemed far more acceptable and humane than killing that harms those interests (“terrorism“).
It is almost inconceivable to our media that the West might be responsible for terrorism. In a reply to a Media Lens reader who had suggested, not altogether unreasonably, that “a terrorist is one who brings terror to another person”, Channel 4 journalist Alex Thomson wrote:
“[Y]our definition of a terrorist as one bringing terror is nonsensical as it would encompass all military outfits from al Qaeda to the Royal Fusilliers [sic].” (Forwarded to Media Lens, February 25, 2005)
Comment seems superfluous. Suffice to say that Winston Churchill, for one, did not find the idea “nonsensical”. After the murderous firebombing of Dresden in 1945, Churchill wrote to Bomber Command:
"It seems to me that the moment has come that the bombing of German cities simply for the sake of increasing the terror, though under other pretexts, should be reviewed." (Blitz, Bombing and Total War, Channel 4, January 15, 2005)
If the RAF can be engaged in terrorism, why not the Royal Fusiliers?
We wrote to the Guardian’s comment editor, Seumas Milne, summarising some of the above arguments. Milne responded on March 6:
Dear David and David,
You asked 3 questions in relation to Jonathan Freedland's column last week about the Iraq war and the Middle East [Is it moral for you to act as the editor of a comments page publishing Freedland's article? How do you justify your participation? Is there any level of obscenity that would cause you to refuse to cooperate in the publication of material of this kind?]. Since they are related, I'll try and answer them as one....
The Guardian's comment pages now provide, as far as I'm aware, the broadest spectrum of political opinion in any mass circulation English language newspaper, with its centre of gravity on the centre-left. So we have run articles by everyone from George Bush, Margaret Thatcher and Israeli settlers' leaders to Fidel Castro, Subcomandante Marcos and Osama bin Laden.
Obviously, there are many pieces we publish that I personally disagree with strongly - as should be clear enough from my own column. There are also limits to what I would want to include on the pages - for example, in relation to race.
I didn't agree with the thrust of Jonathan Freedland's argument about a "silver lining" to the Iraq war, though I also don't agree with your characterisation of the piece as a defence of state terror. In any case, although the bulk of our articles on Iraq have been anti-war, we have also carried pieces explicitly championing the war and occupation in a way that Freedland has never done.
I don't regard it as immoral to publish such pieces in the paper's "debate" section: in fact, if you're trying provide a genuine pluralism of opinion, it would be bizarre not to. What is most distinctive about the Guardian's comment pages, however, is that they also include a range of views and arguments unavailable elsewhere in the mainstream media — and hopefully give a voice to people (including from the Middle East) who would otherwise not be heard.
We are grateful for such a candid and detailed response. However, Milne’s claim that he published Freedland’s piece as part of “a genuine pluralism of opinion” is in fact baseless. It is inconceivable that the Guardian would, under any circumstances, have published an article in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks - much less as the atrocities were actually ongoing, as is currently the case in Iraq - suggesting that bin Laden had a strong case for “gloating” over the results of the atrocity, results that we had to face were a “silver lining” to the attacks.
It is entirely false of Milne to claim that his paper provides balance of that kind. Instead, it is clear that the Guardian has provided, over many years, an immense weight of commentary either backing, or apologising for, massive violence by Britain and the United States. As we have been discussing Freedland’s material, consider for example his comment from 1999:
“How did the British left get so lost? How have its leading lights ended up as the voices of isolationism? How did it come to this...? Why is it the hard left - rather than the isolationist right - who have become the champions of moral indifference? For, make no mistake, that's what opposition to Nato's attempt to Clobba Slobba (as the Sun puts it) amounts to.." (Freedland, 'The left needs to wake up to the real world. This war is a just one,' The Guardian, March 26, 1999)
And what of the ‘balance‘? This takes the form of occasional dissident challenges to pro-war arguments. But the selection process is manifestly biased, providing a sanitised version of ‘dissidence-lite‘. The most powerful, popular and influential dissidents currently writing - Noam Chomsky, Edward Herman, John Pilger, Howard Zinn and others - have been either totally, or near-totally excluded from the debate.
There is no conceivable justification for excluding some of the most brilliant dissidents the world has ever seen from the comment pages of the Guardian in this way, literally for decades. Especially when we consider the wanton lavishing of space on the likes of Freedland, Timothy Garton Ash and David Aaronovitch. Are we really to believe this is meritocratic pluralism in action?
It might be true that the Guardian provides “the broadest spectrum of political opinion in any mass circulation English language newspaper”. If so, this points, not to the libertarian credentials of the Guardian, but to the tyranny of our times. By the standards of the internet-based alternative media, the Guardian’s version of “genuine pluralism of opinion” is a joke.
Moreover, the Guardian comment pages have certainly not provided a long list of commentators “explicitly championing” war and terror against Britain, the United States, and the West more generally. How many articles can we recall that have promoted and justified terrorist campaigns against New York, London, Madrid and Rome? How many have demanded that we Clobba Bush and Blair with bombs and bullets?
The net result is that while Western violence, no matter how ferocious and unjustifiable, is habitually presented as normal and acceptable, the idea that violence might be justified against the West has been represented as almost literally unthinkable.
Let us be clear that we would not at all agree with Milne providing such a balance of material promoting violence. People might imagine that internet sites like Media Lens are far more open than the mainstream, to the point of recklessness, in terms of what we are willing to publish. But in fact we would not publish (other than for purposes of criticism) many articles that appear in the Guardian’s comment pages for the simple reason that they promote mass killing. We think this is morally unacceptable. Such pieces help make violence more possible by “normalising the unthinkable”, by numbing readers to a routine pattern of war and killing every couple of years.
We think, for example, that it is obscene to talk of a “silver lining” to an ongoing catastrophe that has so far consumed 100,000 lives. The reasons should be obvious. Not only is mass violence in itself an obscenity, but to promote the idea that such violence has had benign or positive effects makes the likelihood of future bloodbaths much more likely.
We should instead condemn violence, particularly wars of aggression, in the strongest possible terms. We should be focused on resisting, not assisting, the vested interests in our society that have every reason to wage unnecessary wars, and to then obscure the horror of what they have done.
Finally, it should also be noted that Milne does not provide balance in allocating space to individuals promoting unconditional compassion as a response to violence. The Guardian invariably focuses on the realpolitik version of ‘solutions’ to violence: deterrence through fear, annihilation through attack, and, at best, negotiation through restraint and dialogue. Explicit focus on the development of compassion and love, even for our ‘enemies‘, is all but unknown in our ’hard-headed’ but in fact merely naive and cynical press.
Conclusion - Encouraging Crimes And Lamentable Deeds
Does it really matter that the Guardian and other newspapers consistently allow commentators to support attacks on countries like Serbia, Afghanistan and Iraq?
An answer was provided as far back as 1550 in a debate between the Spanish humanitarian Las Casas and the priest Sepulveda before the Royal Council of Spain. The central question was: “Are the Indians [of the ‘New World’] human beings and therefore deserving to be treated as such, or are they sub-humans deserving of enslavement?”
The admirable Las Casas, who for many years had tried to stop the terrible massacres and cruelties committed against the people “discovered” by Christopher Columbus, made the following sublime point:
“When Sepulveda, by word or in his published works, teaches that campaigns against the Indians are lawful, what does he do except encourage oppressors and provide an opportunity for as many crimes and lamentable evil deeds as these [men] commit, more than anyone would find it possible to believe? In the meantime, with most certain harm to his own soul, he is the reason why countless human beings, suffering brutal massacres, perish forever, that is, men who through the inhumanity of the Spaniards, breathe their last.” (Las Casas. Quoted, Howard Zinn and Anthony Arnove, Voices of a People’s History, Seven Stories, 2004, p.44)
This gives an idea of our media’s responsibility for suffering. It also gives an idea of our human responsibility for resisting power and convention in the name of compassion. Our media should be promoting unconditional compassion for all, not the regularly concocted ‘need’ for high-tech violence by the rich against the poor.
Is it really reasonable to assist the waging of war by the world’s most powerful nations against the weakest in the interests of some spurious “pluralism of opinion“? Is this not respect for free speech gone mad? Is this not a version of ’morality’ lost in cliché and confusion while the truth of freshly spilled blood is visible all around us?
There are always alternatives to violence. And there are always alternatives to the insatiable greed, cold indifference and entrenched militarism that generate so many of the problems facing us.
The goal of Media Lens is to promote rationality, compassion and respect for others. When writing emails to journalists, we strongly urge readers to maintain a polite, non-aggressive and non-abusive tone.
Write to Jonathan Freedland
Write to Seumas Milne
Write to Guardian editor, Alan Rusbridger