In a sane World the perpetrators of this monstrous act would now be paying for their crimes and those who brought this to our attention lauded as (inter)national heroes. The reality could not be further from the truth: the man who released this video, Bradley Manning, has been detained in US custody for over three years under the harshest imaginable conditions (only now coming to trial charged with crimes which carry the death penalty in the US), while those responsible for this (and other crimes highlighted by the release of confidential documents) remain free and unchallenged. The mind boggles.
This week it has been revealed that secret services in the US (and presumably its allies including the UK) routinely behave in ways that even the most paranoid of conspiracy theorists two decades ago would have found fanciful, even in China. But we can relax; we are told this is all for our protection. Presumably in the same way that Iraq was invaded to protect us from the “imminent threat” to our lives, or in the same way that Iran is now the major threat to the world (and has absolutely nothing to do with its threat to move away from the US dollar for oil trading). But something’s fishy when those who reveal inconvenient truths behind how our world really operates are made public enemy No1, vilified beyond murderers and warmongers, and yet none of what they expose is actually denied… or acted on.
I often wonder how George Orwell would interpret would interpret the world in which we find ourselves. In some ways it feels like his seminal work “1984” has been interpreted less as a warning and more as a manual. Surely only “doublethink” can allow us the luxury of pre-emptive wars for “peace” and “security” in far-off places most of us would never have heard of otherwise, fueled by the logic of the never-ending and conveniently undefinable threat of ‘terrorism‘. Like it’s equally profitable cousin, the never-ending and equally preposterous and likely deliberately unsuccessful ‘war on drugs’, the ‘war on terror‘ has no fixed enemy, a battleground without limits, no realistic end and fuels billion-dollar industries both legal and clandestine. Only a total re-definition of language and a crazy kind of denial allows us to turn a blind eye to the unlawful interments at Guantanamo Bay or the numerous foreign assassinations ordered from Washington DC (I don’t remember Bin Laden’s trial, do you?). The re-labelling of all males of “combat age” unfortunate enough to be caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, whether in an official ‘warzone’ or not, as “army combatants” should alarm us, but instead it has become part of the wallpaper to the everyday minuscule value we place on foreign lives. Our world is one in which those who dutifully go out and kill on request these funny-looking brown people are “heroes”, while those who expose the lies and deceits which are used to justify this behaviour, or those who expose the awful, inevitable results of these strategies, are traitors and criminals.
Right about now the airwaves will be full with the ‘commonsense’ chants of all those shouting “Nothing to hide, nothing to fear”, just as they do every time such revelations are made, and just as they did throughout history in every instance just before it finally became obvious that there was indeed a great deal to be afraid of. In a very real sense Edward Snowden, Bradley Manning, Julian Assange and those like them are modern heroes. This isn’t about personalities – it’s about the fact that at great personal sacrifice they have chosen to take on the most powerful forces on earth in order to expose the truth to humanity at large. As human beings, we all share the same frailties and imperfections, and it is an old cliche that “power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts completely” – so it is vital that the behaviour of the most powerful nations and organisations on earth are rigorously and regularly held to account, and certainly that anything they claim to do on “our” behalf is tested so it can always be shown to be genuinely in our best interests. Only the most naive of fools would believe that all of our government agencies only act benignly in our interests now and forevermore, no matter who is or may come to be in charge. A cursory look at any history shows that in fact the opposite has almost always been true, and in fact even if at first well-intentioned, often those in power end up using all the tools at their disposal to maintain and extend their power, and it is only ever the vigilance of brave, ordinary people who ever keep them in check and make them deliver victories for freedom, justice and greater democracy. The slaves were not freed, women did not get the vote, prohibition was not ended and apartheid did not end solely because of the goodwill of the masters of the time. In the same way, those in charge now will not merely behave in line with values of liberty and freedom as we normally understand them unless we absolutely demand it and make it impossible and untenable to behave otherwise.
A word about ‘terrorism’, because this over-used word has also become the default ‘conversation ending’ recourse of the political scoundrel. It comes from the French term ‘terrorisme’ which originally referred specifically to state terrorism as practiced by the French government during the ‘Reign of terror’. However disgraceful the violent act, murder by a couple of crazed ex-gangmembers on the streets of London is no more ‘terrorism’ than the recent murder of French anti-fascist Clément Méric by right-wing skinheads in Paris. However, the indiscriminate targeting of unsuspecting villagers by drone attack bears many more of the hallmarks of a sensible definition of the term. And though it’s besides the point, it’s worth noting that no-one would pretend that in any of the cases above would even unlimited access to every kind of electronic data about all the individuals involved have saved any lives. Nor can one imagine any serious terrorist detailing their intended behaviour in an email, tweeting it or sharing it on Google+. It is quite clear that the only people who could really be snared by the net of government snooping are ordinary citizens.
So we stand at a crucial point in history. I accept it may not seem that way. It is certainly true that for the majority of middle-class white people, the kind of people who could read an article like this from the comfort of their laptop, who genuinely believe the fear mongering of the state about the numerous and unquantifiable threats that besiege us, (for now) most of this is academic and may indeed have little practical ramification on their lives. “Nothing to hide, nothing to fear” I can almost hear them bah out, like so many sheep. Yet for many, there are real and terrible consequences now and in the future of these great and increasing abuses of power. Guantanamo and drone attacks are just the tip of the iceberg. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve seen government officials laughing off the notion of a Western country becoming a “police state”. At some point it begins to occur to one that the gentlemen doth protest too much. What scares me most is that we won’t even recognise it when/if we finally get there. In the same way that the “Land Of The Free” incarcerates more human beings than any other nation on Earth with no sense of irony or sign of let-up, it is very possible that every last vestige of liberty will be taken from us even as we’re still queueing outside for the latest iDevice and smartwatch, desperate to see cats do cool things on Youtube or upload our latest puppy photos in new and ever-more technological ways. As long as we’re buying futuristic-goggles and clothing made in sweatshops in Bangladesh, as long as we’re doing our bit for the economy of some off-shore multinational by ordering ‘made-in-Taiwan’ tat from Amazon and buying coffees from Starbucks and spending £1 in every £9 in Tesco’s, as long as we’ve still got our job doing glorified data entry 9-5pm for some reason no-one can fathom, as long as the economy is “growing growing GROWING!”, we’re “all right, Jack”. And freedom will mean nothing more than the freedom to purchase everything they sell.