Actions are held to be good or bad, not on their own merits, but according to who does them, and there is almost no kind of outrage – torture, the use of hostages, forced labour, mass deportations, imprisonment without trial, forgery, assassination, the bombing of civilians – which does not change its moral colour when it is committed by ‘our’ side…
George Orwell might have been describing almost exactly the Western response to the murder spree currently underway in Iran.
Last Wednesday, a motorcyclist attached a bomb to a car carrying a man called Mostafa Ahmadi Roshan, killing him instantly, and injuring his two companions.
That was merely the latest atrocity inflicted upon individuals and facilities associated with nuclear physics in that country.
In December, seven people died in an explosion in Yazd. On November 28, a bomb seems to have gone off in nuclear facilities in Isfahan. On November 12, 17 people were killed by an explosion near Tehran. On July 23, a scientist called Darioush Rezaeinejad was shot through the throat outside his daughter’s kindergarten. On November 29, 2010, Majid Shahriari was killed in the same way as Roshan, with a bomb planted in his car. Fereydoun Abbasi-Davani was also attacked, but survived. On January 12, another motorcycle bomber killed Masoud Alimohammadi.
As Glenn Greenwald explains, if words have any meaning, this is terrorism, pure and simple – the systematic infliction of deadly violence launched against civilians and their families so as to create a climate of fear among Iranian physicists and other nuclear personnel.
It’s precisely conduct that, under other circumstances, we’re told, again and again, can never be justified.
“Moral truth is the same in every culture, in every time and in every place,” explained George Bush in 2002, as he launched the War on Terror (to which Australia enthusiastically signed up).
“Targeting innocent civilians for murder is always and everywhere wrong.”
Back then, the usual right-wing leg-humpers hailed the Bush doctrine a long-overdue repudiation of ethical relativism, a reassertion of an objective morality that held the justification of terrorism to be of almost comparable evil to the crime itself.
In his final address to the UN in 2008, Bush made the argument even more forcefully.
Multilateral organizations must respond by taking an unequivocal moral stand against terrorism. No cause can justify the deliberate taking of innocent human life — and the international community is nearing universal agreement on this truth. […] The Security Council has passed resolutions declaring terror unlawful and requiring all nations to crack down on terrorist financing. And earlier this month, the Secretary General held a conference to highlight victims of terror, where he stated that terrorism can never be justified.
Other multilateral organizations have spoken clearly, as well. The G8 has declared that all terrorist acts are criminal and must be universally condemned. […] The message behind these statements is resolutely clear: Like slavery and piracy, terrorism has no place in the modern world.
The words don’t leave room for ambiguity. The murder of a civilian scientist (and the infliction of severe wounds upon those merely unfortunate enough to be travelling with him) represents precisely the paradigm Bush was condemning.
So how’s that unequivocal moral stand working out?
Let’s turn to the The Age, where the day after the killing, David Blair, chief foreign correspondent of Britain’s Daily Telegraph, opined on recent events.
“[A] bomb in Tehran has lifted the veil on a secret effort to derail Iran’s nuclear program,” Blair says.
This campaign appears to be having a real impact: Iran’s drive towards nuclear weapons capability is not progressing as quickly as Pakistan’s, for example. Sabotage has already imposed significant delays. Buying time is a respectable goal of policy …
A ‘respectable goal of policy’! Thus does Australia’s most liberal newspaper gloss political murder and terrorism.
Again, Orwell had something to say about this:
In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible. […] Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. […] Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them. Consider for instance some comfortable English professor defending Russian totalitarianism. He cannot say outright, “I believe in killing off your opponents when you can get good results by doing so.” Probably, therefore, he will say something like this: “While freely conceding that the Soviet regime exhibits certain features which the humanitarian may be inclined to deplore, we must, I think, agree that a certain curtailment of the right to political opposition is an unavoidable concomitant of transitional periods, and that the rigors which the Russian people have been called upon to undergo have been amply justified in the sphere of concrete achievement.
The inflated style itself is a kind of euphemism. A mass of Latin words falls upon the facts like soft snow, blurring the outline and covering up all the details.
David Blair – and there are David Blairs writing for newspapers all over the world – cannot write: “I approve of bombing cars and shooting young men in front of kindergartens”, because, as Orwell suggests, such bluntness would invoke unpalatable mental pictures of an exploding car incinerating its passengers or a bullet hitting a man’s throat. ‘Buying time’, on the other hand, sounds eminently reasonable, a prudent measure to forestall future catastrophes – and no-one need think about the AP photo showing the 30-something Roshan posing with his baby son, a child who, because of Blair’s ‘respectable policy’, no longer has a father.
Note, too, that in his capacity as a human snowstorm, Blair refuses to answer – indeed, even to ask – the most obvious question arising from Roshan’s murder: namely, who is responsible for it? Instead, like Orwell’s English professor apologising for Stalinism, he assumes his audience will read between the lines, thus avoiding the necessity to commit to paper anything so unpleasant as the identity of the murderer.
Others haven’t been so polite.
“My own confidential Israeli source,” writes Richard Silverstein, “confirms today’s murder was the work of the Mossad and MEK, as have been a number of previous operations I’ve reported here.”
Silverstein notes that IDF chief of staff Benny Gantz recently explained to the Knesset’s foreign affairs and defence committee that Israel was sabotaging Iran’s nuclear program through what he called a series of “unnatural” acts. That hearing was held only 24 hours before the most recent killing. The next day, an IDF spokesperson on Facebook quoted Brigadier General Yoav Mordechai:
“I don’t know who settled the score with the Iranian scientist, but I certainly am not shedding a tear.”
It should be recalled that defence minister Ehud Barak chortled to the media after the last missile base explosion, “May there be many more” while Spiegel Online quoted an Israeli intelligence source affirming that the murder of Darioush Rezaei was “the first serious action taken by the new Mossad chief Tamir Pardo”.
Oh, of course, Israeli responsibility cannot be absolutely proved. That’s the nature of covert operations: they are meant to leave a certain wiggle room.
But what matters more is that the vast majority of mainstream commentators believe Israel responsible for the murders – and, like Blair, they have no problem with that. Thus, the very next day, The Age ran a piece by a certain Michael Burleigh, who began by chortling: “physics is an unhealthy line of work in today’s Iran”.
Oh, they’re a laugh a minute, car bombings. Burleigh agreed that Mossad was probably behind the killings. But because the dead men worked for Iran, that was OK:
“I shall not shed any tears whenever one of these scientists encounters the unforgiving men on motorbikes, men who live in the real world rather than a laboratory or philosophy seminar.”
Again, this is textbook stuff. Osama bin Laden could not have composed a more classical apologia for terror. For if, then, the physicists of Iran are individually responsible for the policies of their regime, one presumes the scientists of the US might be held to account for the high-tech weapons used by America in Iraq. And why stop at scientist? Anyone employed by a government – whether a technician or an accountant – facilitates, in some measure, that government’s actions. No innocents, no civilians, no compunction: by Burleigh’s gangster logic, almost any terrorist atrocity can be justified.
In passing, let’s note the interview given by US Secretary of Defence Leon Panetta to Face the Nation a week or so ago, in which Panetta discussed Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
“Are they trying to develop a nuclear weapon?” he said.
No. But we know that they’re trying to develop a nuclear capability, and that’s what concerns us. And our red line to Iran is, do not develop a nuclear weapon. That’s a red line for us.
In other words, Panetta confirmed that Iran was not, as the hysterics in the opinion pages seem to think, on the cusp of launching a doomsday missile. Rather, it was developing, entirely legally, a nuclear industry, precisely as the regime has always insisted. (We might also ponder that, in other contexts, Australia – a major supplier of uranium – loudly insists that nuclear reactors should never be equated with nuclear weapons.)
In any case, nothing seems more calculated to convince the Iranians they do, in fact, require an atomic deterrent than a violent terrorist campaign conducted against them by a nuclear-armed power like Israel with the seeming complicity of the world’s largest nuclear power, the US.
“On occasion,” gloats Republican presidential hopeful Rick Santorum, “scientists working on the nuclear program in Iran turn up dead. I think that’s a wonderful thing, candidly”. With leading American politicians celebrating the murder of Iranian civilians as “wonderful”, it’s no wonder that some Iranian leaders crave the security power that comes with a nuclear warhead.
Morally, though, none of that’s relevant. Arguing about whether or not terrorist atrocities will spur or deter Iran’s nuclear program misses the central point. What Ariel Dorfman says about torture rings just as true about terrorism: every regime that uses it, does so in “the name of salvation, some superior goal, some promise of paradise”, but the invocation of good intentions doesn’t change the moral calculus involved.
Back when the Boycott, Disinvestment and Sanctions campaign held regular pickets outside Max Brenner chocolate stores, conservatives complained that Israel was being held to a higher standard than other countries. Yes, they said, Israel’s treatment of Palestinians might be, you know, a teensy bit oppressey, but Israel was, by and large, less repressive than, say, Syria. Why, then, was Israel – ‘the only democracy in the middle east’ – being singled out?
The killings in Iran provides an answer.
There are, of course, other regimes that carry out political murders. But, with the exception of the US, no other nation can so brazenly wield the assassin’s bullet and the terrorist’s bomb, and be cheered on by politicians and pundits throughout the Western world for doing so. Can you imagine, for instance, the Age turning over to its opinion page two days in a row to Syrian apologists cheerily justifying massacres in that country as ‘respectable policy’, and joking about the deaths of dissidents?
Furthermore, Israel doesn’t act alone. The US might have publicly denied responsibility for Roshan’s murder but, given the extensive defence and military ties with the Israelis, it’s inconceivable that the Americans don’t, at some level, know what’s going on.
The episode provides a neat illustration of the relationship between the two countries, with the US providing billions of dollars of military and other aid, at least in part so that Israel can carry out America’s dirty work in that part of the world.
That’s why these killings pose an ethical test for Australians, too. It’s easy to condemn terrorism when it’s carried out by official enemies. You don’t need much moral courage to stand up against Emmanuel Goldstein.
But Israel and the US are key allies of Australia, and, on almost every issue of import, our government marches in lockstep with theirs.
In the end, it comes down to a simple question: do we endorse car bombings, or not? Do we believe any of the rhetoric that’s been mouthed for the last decade (“all terrorist acts are criminal and must be universally condemned,” etc)? If so, why won’t we speak out?