Paranoid Reflections

Slavoj Žižek

Everyone fears the possibility that the US attack on Iraq will have a catastrophic outcome – an ecological disaster of gigantic proportions, high American casualties, a terrorist attack in the West. If the war is over quickly (perhaps even by the time this is published) and if Saddam’s regime disintegrates, there will be a general sigh of relief, even among many critics of US policy. It is tempting to consider the hypothesis that the US is deliberately fomenting the fear of impending catastrophe, in order to reap the benefits of the universal relief when it fails to be realised.

In The War over Iraq, William Kristol and Lawrence Kaplan write:

The mission begins in Baghdad, but it does not end there . . . We stand at the cusp of a new historical era . . . This is a decisive moment . . . It is so clearly about more than Iraq. It is about more even than the future of the Middle East and the war on terror. It is about what sort of role the United States intends to play in the 21st century.

One can only agree: it is effectively the future of the ‘international community’ which is at stake now – the new rules which will regulate it and what the new world order itself will be. The Rome Statute governing the first permanent global war crimes court came into force last July. The International Criminal Court has the power to try individuals on charges of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes and anyone, from a head of state to an ordinary citizen, is liable to prosecution. The court, however, faces stiff opposition from the US, Russia and China. The US has failed to ratify the Statute, on the grounds that the ICC would infringe national sovereignty and that its very existence could lead to politically motivated prosecutions – notably of US officials or soldiers working outside the country. The US Congress has even passed legislation authorising the Commander-in-Chief to take whatever steps are necessary to secure the release of any US national grabbed by prosecutors. No wonder, then, that Milosevic, who now sits in the dock at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, rejects the legality of that court. The US has put pressure on the Croatian Government to deliver to the ICTY a couple of its generals accused of war crimes in Bosnia. The local reaction is obvious: how can they ask this of us when they don’t recognise the legitimacy of the ICC? Or are US citizens effectively ‘more equal than others’? Does the Bush doctrine mean that India has the right to attack Pakistan (both countries, incidentally, have failed to ratify the ICC)? It does, after all, directly support and harbour anti-Indian terror in Kashmir, and it possesses (nuclear) weapons of mass destruction. Is China entitled to attack Taiwan? And so on, and on, with unpredictable consequences.

We are in the midst of a silent revolution; the unwritten rules which determine the most elementary international logic are changing. The US scolds Gerhard Schröder, a democratically elected leader, for maintaining a stance which is supported by the majority of German voters, as well as, according to opinion polls in early March, by some 59 per cent of the US population itself (who oppose a strike against Iraq without UN support). In Turkey 94 per cent of the population is opposed to allowing the country to be used by US forces in the war against Iraq. Every old Leftist remembers Marx’s reply, in The Communist Manifesto, to critics who accused the Communists of undermining basic notions of family and property: it is the capitalist order itself, he said, whose dynamic is destroying the traditional order (a fact more true today than in Marx’s time, incidentally) and expropriating the large majority of the population. Is it not precisely those who today pose as global defenders of democracy who are effectively undermining it?

It is possible that the US is well aware that the era of Saddam and his secular nationalist regime is coming to an end, and that the attack on Iraq is conceived as a much more radical pre-emptive strike: not against Saddam, but against a possible future government – a hardline Islamist regime. Yet the danger is that the American intervention will contribute to the emergence of what America most fears: a large, united anti-American Muslim front. The first direct American occupation of a key Arab country – how could this not generate universal hatred? One can already imagine thousands of young people dreaming of becoming suicide bombers, and even forcing the US Government to impose a permanent state of emergency at home. (It is hard to resist a slightly paranoid reflection: what if the people around Bush know this, what if this ‘collateral damage’ is the true aim of the entire operation? What if the real target of the ‘war on terror’ is the disciplining of the emancipatory excesses in American society itself?)

On 5 March, the Buchanan and Press news show on NBC carried a photo of the dishevelled Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, al-Qaida’s ‘third man’, shortly after his arrest. Pat Buchanan’s voice-over asked: ‘Should this man who knows all the names of accomplices, all the detailed plans for future terrorist attacks on the US, be tortured, so that we get it all out of him?’ The response of other commentators as well as of the viewers who called in was an overwhelming yes. It makes one nostalgic for the good old days of the colonial war in Algeria, when torture by the French Army was a dirty secret. Is this not a pretty close realisation of what Orwell imagined in 1984, in his vision of ‘hate sessions’ at which citizens are shown photos of traitors and are supposed to yell at them. A day later, on Fox TV, a commentator claimed that it would be justifiable to do anything to this prisoner, from sleep deprivation to the breaking of fingers and worse, because he was ‘a piece of human garbage with no rights whatsoever’. We should be careful not to fight the wrong battles: the debates about how bad Saddam is or how much the war will cost are false debates. The focus should be on what is happening in our societies, on what kind of culture is emerging in the West as the result of the ‘war on terror.’