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The Rogue to End All Rogues

John Hinkson America’s nihilistic hold on WMD’s is the key to the insanity of its leaders

In his State of the Union Speech George Bush left no doubt that the United States will, with or without help, invade and take over Iraq. While there is a heartening resistance to US actions and this declaration of intended war is not yet war, it may as well be. One way or another the United States will invade. Even if it can bully the United Nations into line it will still be a US invasion. There is almost no prospect for the United Nations to resolve the issues on its own terms. No power can prevent the United States in this new version of a crusade. As such it opens the gates of Hell for the world as a whole. It does so in the name of closing them.

This will not be an isolated war. It is the beginning of an extended process of world domination and if the war cannot be stopped the process must still be confronted. The war will come to be viewed as the first of many actions confirming the birth of a new and disturbing world. It will also in all probability issue in World War III. How has the world come to the brink in this manner?

Nelson Mandela put it best. George Bush has no ethical foresight. He is unable to grasp the implications of his actions and thus ‘does not know how to think’. But US attitudes are larger than one man or the present generation. In his speech on the matter Mandela referred back to the end of World War II when the first weapons of mass destruction were callously used on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The United States does ‘not care for human beings’. And now Bush is about ‘to plunge the world into a holocaust’?

These are strong words, for many people extreme or even counter-intuitive. They contrast with the benign democratic friendliness that is often how ordinary Americans are experienced. But this experience blinds us to new realities of the American Behemoth which lie at the level of systems, the cultural and institutional changes that took hold in the United States when it developed the first weapons of mass destruction. At that time it started down a road it is still on. It centred itself upon a techno-scientific revolution that has tragically transformed the old America (and much of the world to a lesser degree). Not only did this allow the development of weapons of mass destruction. It also promoted the consumer-oriented society together with the transformation of the economy and the mass media. These various strands formed, by the 1980s, that process now called globalisation.

Mandela knows that there is another America besides that of easy-going friendliness. Of course that benign view of everyday life in the United States can be challenged by reference to its darker side: where between 20 and 30 per cent of the population is marginalised, poverty-stricken and socially excluded, with the largest prison population in the world. Even so it is the fundamental changes to institutions and their structures that now mark off the United States from what it was. These have gradually allowed the development of a polity and sections of a society drunk on power and completely self-referential. It has become, by its own criteria, a rogue state. In short, it will not submit itself to international norms. This is particularly blatant in the present, but it is not new. With regard to high-tech weaponry it is a rogue to end all rogues.

Since World War II it has promoted the development of norms and institutional constraints on warfare and weaponry but they apply only to states other than itself. With regard to war crimes or weaponry there is to be no scrutiny by others. Its path-breaking development at Nuremberg of basic principles relating to war crimes was applied to its enemies. But once it found that these principles also made it vulnerable it has resisted them. Refusing to accord the Taliban and al Qaeda prisoners basic rights under the Geneva conventions is the tip of the iceberg.

At the end of World War II the US attitude towards weapons of mass destruction was to secretly remove scientific personnel to the United States. Certainly the abominable work of biological and chemical warfare pursued by the Japanese largely escaped assessment as a War Crime. That work of the devil became grist for further development in the United States. And its refusal to take seriously the well-established war crime of targeting innocent people to achieve a military end is indisputable. It denounces, as it should, such behaviour by terrorists, while engaging in the same behaviour: Dresden, Hamburg, Tokyo, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Korea, Cambodia — to name well-known cases.

These attitudes are not productions of the religious Right. They are not the occasional errors of an unwieldy state. Nor are they the practices of state terror that realists tell us must be expected. They are defence mechanisms arising out of a tie to a cultural bias: the use of weapons that pursue warfare at a distance. A war at a distance pursued with weapons that target the general conditions of life is no longer logically tied to combatants. It necessarily targets innocents, it is terror masquerading as war.

This bias is embedded in the core of the techno-sciences. It easily supports a culture of terror. It is not an occasional bias, one due to human error. It is a structural bias, socially formed, and intimately tied to that other social principle so strongly supported by the techno-sciences: surveillance. Leading-edge social institutions developed in the United States have these principles at their core — the neo-liberal market, the computerised bureaucracy, the global corporations, the mass media, the military and media-driven ‘democratic’ politics. These principles of action at a distance and surveillance have captured the very meaning of the development process. They do so at the expense of social institutions and cultures that value and embody direct relations between people.

A high-tech society structured around distance relations easily supports what Mandela calls a callous attitude towards people. It is certainly callous towards societies not so ‘developed’. By and large individual Americans are not callous. It is the institutions that generate a systematically callous attitude.

If the development and use of weapons of mass destruction in World War II has brought the United States to this sorry state of affairs, the problems of those weapons continue to haunt it. It is true that the desperate US interest in oil in the Middle East is a crucial factor in its policy on Iraq. But this does not mean that its public focus on weapons of mass destruction is hot air. It knows about weapons of mass destruction. It is the only state to have used them. It knows they are to be feared.

Even so, the centring of the invasion of Iraq on these weapons has no ethical credibility. The United States is pathetically selective in its wish to ban them. Even Richard Butler, long regarded as willing to do the work of US policy on Iraq, now denounces its hypocrisy. It not only ignores such weapons when they are in the hands of ‘good’ states such as Israel and Pakistan, but it insists on removing such weapons from Iraq while planning to use them in its Iraqi campaign.

This is the pursuit of power well beyond the line of sanity. At no point has the United States faced the real gravity of weapons of mass destruction. It is this lack of foresight — not only that of George Bush — that allows them to enact a war that makes their use likely. It is unable to give an ethical lead to the world. It can only view them as an issue of power. Butler is quite right: there is no place for weapons of mass destruction anywhere. Their use will scar the world and humanity forever.

After this exercise of sheer unconstrained power, legitimated childishly and innocently as a sacred act blessed by the Christian God, nihilism beckons to the world. Is resistance possible? Finding the human energies to do three things is crucial. First there is the obvious need to expose US actions, to make them difficult and to hold them to account. Second there is the much more complex process of assessing what this invasion means for the future — culturally and politically. Third, there is the need to regenerate ethical action and cooperative relations between cultures. After this invasion real development will have to proceed without the involvement of the United States for at least a generation.