Civil Disobedience

“The killed will be covered with earth and lime, and once more all the crowd of deluded men will be led on and on till those who have devised the project weary of it, or till those who thought to find it profitable receive their spoil. And so once more men will be made savage, fierce and brutal, and love will wane in the world… And so once more the men who reaped profit from it all will assert with assurance that since there has been a war there must needs have been one, and that other wars must follow, and they will again prepare future generations for a continuance of slaughter, depraving them from their childhood.” (Tolstoy, 1896)

Ceausescu – The Balcony Scene

In December 1989 Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu harangued the populace from his balcony in the customary manner. When his audience failed to listen but instead interrupted and finally silenced his speech with a rising wave of sound, Ceausescu was finished. The dictator was reduced to waggling his hand at the crowd in a futile attempt to silence them.

Millions of concerned souls gave the media and politicians a taste of their own Ceausescu moment on February 15. For months, they have been haranguing us from their balconies to the effect that terrorists threaten us on every side, that Saddam is a terrible threat, that war is needed to disarm him, to stifle international terrorism and to liberate the people of Iraq.

Blair has ceaselessly claimed that the military build up is inspired by Vegetius’ maxim: “Let him who desires peace, prepare for war.” But his claim has been ceaselessly undermined by the amassing of sufficient military force to present the world with a fait accompli, making withdrawal politically suicidal. It has also been undermined by Bush’s insistence on the need for “regime change”. When Bush’s advisers noticed the absurdity of the contradiction they had Bush explain that “regime change” could mean either actually changing the regime, or effectively changing the regime by forcing it to change its behaviour. No one was fooled.

Despite Blair’s ‘impassioned sincerity’ – carefully orchestrated by his press secretary Alastair Campbell – everyone could see that the world’s strongest nation was proceeding, as Mark Twain wrote, “with its banner of the Prince of Peace in one hand and its loot-basket and its butcher-knife in the other”. (Quoted, Norman Solomon, ‘The Twain That Most Americans Never Meet’, ZNET Commentary, November 19, 1999)

The goal was clearly to invade Iraq to grab the oil and to distract the US population from the Republican kleptocracy stealing its wealth. All that was needed was an excuse to start swinging the knife.

So the bar for Iraqi compliance was raised as high as possible by UN resolution 1441 in the hope that Saddam would miscalculate or blunder. A complete and full accounting of all weapons of mass destruction (WMD) – with any omission bringing “serious consequences” – was one hurdle. Immediate and unhindered access of inspectors anywhere in Iraq – an extraordinary request for any sovereign nation – was another.

When 1441 failed to deliver the required result, Bush and Blair hoped for some small discovery of WMD. The outlook must have seemed bleak. Reviewing the years of Iraqi disarmament between 1991-98, Unscom’s executive chairman Rolf Ekeus stated in May 2000 that as a result of extensive Iraqi compliance “not much is unknown about Iraq’s retained proscribed weapons capabilities” and “in all areas we have eliminated Iraq’s capabilities fundamentally”.’ (Quoted, Glen Rangwala, ‘A Threat to the World? The facts about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction’, April 2000,

When only a dozen empty warheads were found our leaders simply insisted that Saddam was “not fully cooperating”. Iraq was declared “the size of France”, inspectors were not in the business of playing “hide and seek”, as they had presumably not been between 1991-98 when 90-95% disarmament was achieved.

Again, Bush and Blair failed to realise just how absurd it seemed to ordinary thinking people that they should so ardently press the cause of inspections, only to then immediately declare them futile. Even the cautious chief UN weapons inspector, Hans Blix, has been unable to restrain himself:

“Eight years of inspections, four years no inspections, and then 11 weeks, and then call it a day? It’s a little short.” (The Guardian, February 24, 2003)

A Prophet Armed – Blair’s Tanks

It could not be clearer that Bush and Blair are possessed of an obscene enthusiasm for war – not because they are psychopaths but because they are heavily committed to a pre-determined course of action. The media aside, few people take seriously their claimed aspiration for a peaceful outcome. The current US/UK attempt to pass a second resolution – which makes no mention of military action, in a final desperate attempt to fool people – is described with perfect Orwellian irony as “a final push for peace”.

One can only suppose that this brazen approach to public manipulation is rooted in arrogance born of decades spent successfully deceiving the public. Having simply stolen the US election, and in the wake of September 11, the Republican administration appears to have believed there were no limits to its ability to manipulate and deceive. Blair went along, not because he has a principled enthusiasm for pursuing unpopular causes, but because he took it for granted that the public would believe his version of events, as so many had believed him over Serbia and Afghanistan. But as Robert Fisk wrote recently in the Independent, Bush and Blair got it very wrong:

“In the end, I think we are just tired of being lied to. Tired of being talked down to, of being bombarded with Second World War jingoism and scare stories and false information and student essays dressed up as ‘intelligence’. We are sick of being insulted by little men, by Tony Blair and Jack Straw and the likes of George Bush and his cabal of neo-conservative henchmen who have plotted for years to change the map of the Middle East to their advantage.” (Robert Fisk, ‘Tired of Being Lied To’, The Independent, February 15, 2003)

The almost manic determination to terrorise the public with concocted threats has resulted in deep levels of scepticism. One does not need to be an Iraqi rocket scientist to notice that major terror alerts generally precede important meetings at the UN Security Council and/or major anti-war marches. On November 7, 2002, the day before the UN vote on Resolution 1441, which “set the clock ticking” for war, Downing Street began issuing warnings of imminent terrorist threats against UK ferries, the underground, and major public events.

In response to political crises, the Pinochets of this world reflexively send tanks onto the streets to intimidate people physically. In Britain, Blair sends out tanks to intimidate people psychologically with ‘terror threats’. The ringing of Heathrow with tanks that preceded the latest report by Hans Blix, and the peace march, was said to be in response to increased terrorist “chatter” warning intelligence services of an impending attack. The media failed to explore the one question that might have shed light on the credibility of these claims: did French and German intelligence services also report increased “chatter”? Instead, the media obediently focused on the heightened “orange” state of alert in that other founding member of the “coalition of the willing” – the US.

The media also somehow failed to notice that the threat suddenly vanished into thin air. The Guardian/Observer website records 37 mentions of articles containing the words ‘Heathrow and threat'(as of February 23). The words ‘Gatwick and threat’ record 8 mentions. There is not one record of a news report mentioning a threat to Heathrow or Gatwick airports after February 14, the day of the Blix report and the day before the marches. Earlier that week, there had been a flood of reports with titles like, ‘Soldiers drafted in to increase Heathrow security’ (February 11), ‘UK on missile terror alert’ (February 12), ‘Minister – troop deployment is no stunt’ (February 12), ‘Huge hunt for missile smugglers’ (February 13), and so on.

The media failed to notice that all of this came to an abrupt end for no discernible reason. No one dared suggest that the end of the crisis might have had more to do with the impact of a high-stakes propaganda tactic on the tourist industry, than it did on the negation of any threat. Only Channel 4’s, Bremner, Bird and Fortune – a comedy show which puts ostensibly ‘serious’ BBC, ITN and Channel 4 news programme to shame – openly discussed the possibility. The secrecy of government means that we are here only speculating – perhaps all of the above was indeed an amazing coincidence – but an honest democratic media would investigate the appalling possibility that the British government has been deliberately terrorising its population in pursuit of a cynical war.

Political Alchemy – Popular Aspiration, Private Policy

Since the marches, and like Ceausescu on his balcony, politicians and the establishment media have been desperately waggling their hands at us to be still: Blair is sincere; peace is the desired aim; Iraq is a serious threat to the West; Iraq never has cooperated with inspectors; the threat of military force will compel peaceful disarmament; Iraq will be liberated into oil-rich democracy; a second UN resolution would legitimise war, and on and on.

The issue of oil is nowhere to be found; the reality of Iraqi near-total compliance with inspectors between 1991-98 is nowhere; the US/UK responsibility for genocide in Iraq under sanctions is nowhere; the long and bloody history of US opposition to Third World independent nationalism is nowhere; the deep corruption of the Republican administration, its dependence on ‘Military Keynesianism’, and its associated need to divert the public gaze, are all nowhere.

There have been mentions of the crude haggling between the US and Turkey on support for war, and there have been fleeting, unexplored hints of bribery – “arm twisting” and “intense diplomacy” – in the Security Council. But there have been few serious attempts to expose the ugly reality and just what it means for the morality and legitimacy of a vote on a second UN resolution, and so of a war.

With regards to last year’s crucial resolution 1441, nations on the Security Council “voted under heavy diplomatic and economic pressure from the United States”, InterPress Service reported. As recipients of aid from Washington, non-permanent members of the Council “were seemingly aware of the fact that in 1990 the United States almost overnight cut about $70 million in aid to Yemen immediately following its negative vote against a U.S.-sponsored Security Council resolution to militarily oust Iraq from Kuwait”. (Quoted, Norman Soloman, ‘Unilateral Power: By Any Other Name’, ZNet, November 21, 2002)

John Pilger gives some of the detail of the pre-Gulf War UN vote:

“Minutes after Yemen voted against the resolution to attack Iraq, a senior American diplomat told the Yemeni ambassador: ‘That was the most expensive No vote you ever cast.’ Within three days, a U.S. aid programme of $70 million to one of the world’s poorest countries was stopped. Yemen suddenly had problems with the World Bank and the IMF; and 800,000 Yemeni workers were expelled from Saudi Arabia.”

Passing over these issues, the media have portrayed our leaders as principled statesmen floating high above the greed-driven industries that back them, that supply their personnel, and from which they came. Instead, our leaders are declared sincere, perhaps misguided, perhaps over eager, but sincere.

Tony Blair’s affectation of sincerity is his one trick and he plays it brilliantly. But Bush is the mirror in which we see Blair reflected for what he is – he is the realpolitik portrait to Blair’s ‘Third Way’ Dorian Gray – the ‘Third Way’ was to stand as neither Tory nor Labour, but instead to create a new, PR-friendly Tory party, making the old Tory party, and democracy, redundant. Blair’s disaster is that Bush was not kept far from public view in someone’s attic.

The much-discussed conundrum regarding Blair’s sincerity is resolved by a simple observation – no reasonable person would ally themselves and their country with the likes of Bush, Rumsfeld, Cheney, Wolfowitz, Powell and Perle to fight a war of this kind. And no honest person would try to fool the public that these men were acting honourably.

And on February 15, the global roar of millions of fundamentally reasonable and honest people rose around the world against the lies, as it rushed along the Embankment, where we too marched, past the Houses of Parliament to Hyde Park. What a moment of human hope and triumph that was! It was a moment when metaphysics met politics. To the question, ‘Well, just how gullible are human beings?’ the answer came loud and clear: ‘Not THAT gullible!’

The media’s response to this deafening, unpaid roar of reason and compassion – which contrasted so starkly with its own highly-paid, feeble hinting in the direction of truth – has been remarkable to witness.

The favoured response has been the stubborn, unmoved insistence that democracy has nothing to do with popular protest – no matter that the whole country, the whole world, disagrees: ‘Leaders are there to lead’. Never has it been more obvious that the formal procedures of democracy involve a kind of political alchemy whereby popular aspirations are bubbled and boiled by the machinery of government and – hey presto! – we end up with parties, governments and polices all favouring elite interests.

Thus, the vast majority might oppose the tiny few, but ‘democracy’ means the tiny few must be allowed to continue with their mendacity in pursuit of their agenda. The job of the media is to nod sagely at the idea that this, by some unimaginably profound logic, constitutes the highest imaginable form of democracy. In the 1930s, anarchist writer, Rudolf Rocker, described well the power of this mystification:

“The actual deeds and purposes of these elect always remain hidden from the simple mind of the average citizen, and it is precisely this hidden activity which becomes the unquenchable source of a blind belief in the unalterability of a political providence – a belief which grows correspondingly more powerful as man’s confidence in his own powers diminishes. The purely human pales before the radiant halo of political institutions.” (Rocker, Culture and Nationalism, Michael E. Coughlan publishing, 1978, p.172)

Into the category of the unmoved, fall the diehard establishment media like the BBC’s Newsnight. The first Newsnight after the marches (February 17) saw political correspondent, David Grossman, asking:

“The people have spoken, or have they? What about the millions who didn’t march? Was going to the DIY store or watching the football on Saturday a demonstration of support for the government?” (February 17, 2003)

This, indeed, is a classic example of what psychologist Erich Fromm described as “man’s capacity of not observing what he does not want to observe”. What did Grossman not want to observe? The mere fact that 52% of the British population is opposed to war in all circumstances, and that 90% are opposed to war without a second UN resolution. Even in the US, fully 57% believe that the UN, not their commander-in-chief, should decide whether or not military action is taken.

The people +did+ speak, and they spoke right around the world. But did journalists like Grossman listen? Did Bush and Blair listen? And if Bush and Blair didn’t listen, what can we do now to make sure, not only that they do listen, but that they act on what is being said to them by the people they are supposed to represent? These are the real questions.

On this first, tragi-comic Newsnight after the greatest political demonstration in British history, the studio discussion was confined to interviews with Tory Lord Baker of Dorking, Tory MP John Redwood, Dr Martin Conway of Oxford University, Professor Rodney Barker of the London School of Economics, Anthony Howard, and the views of Jack Straw. Not one marcher was featured and not one spokesperson from the 1 to 2 million-strong peace movement.

The discussion was presided over by the BBC’s Jeremy Paxman. This was the same Paxman who had failed utterly to challenge Blair in an interview two weeks earlier and who, a day later, would interview the anti-war playwright, Arthur Miller. Paxman asked Miller how he could oppose an attack given that Saddam had “driven 4 million people into exile” and “killed a million of his own citizens”. The million figure is the government’s darkly comic spin on UN reports that a million Iraqi civilians have died as a result of sanctions – Iraqi citizens, as Paxman notes, but victims of crippling Western sanctions, as the UN notes. Paxman continued, asking Miller:

“You live in New York City… you must vividly recall what happened on September 11. In the world in which we live now, isn’t some sort of pre-emptive strike the only defensive option available to countries like the United States?”

The answer is an obvious ‘yes’ – if you believe government lies to the effect that Iraq is linked with September 11, that it is linked to al-Qaeda, that it has never cooperated with arms inspectors, that it is not cooperating now, that it poses a threat to the West, that extra time now for inspections is futile, that war is an answer to anything. If we believe some or all of these lies, then that question is indeed worth asking. But as almost no one is this gullible, why ask this question now, why not ask other questions? In his classic essay, On Civil Disobedience, the American philosopher Henry David Thoreau explains a common problem for all mass media truth-seekers:

“But the rich man… is always sold to the institution which makes him rich. Absolutely speaking, the more money, the less virtue… It puts to rest many questions which he would otherwise be taxed to answer; while the only new question which it puts is the hard but superfluous one, how to spend it.”

Reveries of a Cruise Missile Liberal

With such astonishing national and international levels of opposition, the press has been obliged to report the extent of that opposition. The anti-war opinions of French and German politicians, for example – previously ignored – now must be reported. And in response to hundreds of emails from Media Lens’ readers and others, sections of the press have indeed opened a small window for more honest views – the Independent on Sunday carried a major article by John Pilger (February 23) and Richard Norton-Taylor wrote a powerful article in the Guardian (February 24). But it has been noticeable that the genesis, significance and arguments of one of the truly great global peace movements in all history have not been explored. Instead, the media have rushed back to reporting, not challenging, the establishment position.

Thus, as if February 15 had never happened, the latest front page of the Observer featured an article by Kamal Ahmed and Ed Vulliamy: ‘Saddam told: disarm in three weeks or it’s war’ (The Observer, February 23, 2003). Of the article’s 16 paragraphs, one mentions that UK “officials hope” that France, Russia or China will find it hard to use their veto. Another mentions the possibility of a backbench revolt by Labour MPs. But otherwise the article – as ever for Guardian and Observer ‘news’ reporting – concentrates on what “Downing Street said…”, what “President George Bush said…”, what “Number 10 sources also said…”.

On BBC and ITN News, while viewers cheer French and German initiatives, reporters talk of “chaos” at the UN and “sad days” for international diplomacy, as though continuing to fail to stand up to a rampant superpower would constitute “order” and “happy days”. On Newsnight (February 24), Tom Carver talks of “doom-laden warnings” that the US/UK won’t get enough votes to pass a second resolution, while the rest of the country talks of “doom-laden warnings” that they will.

In the Observer, Nick Cohen repeats again his baseless claim that the US/UK are intent on liberating Iraqi when he refers to:

“The satisfaction of an anti-war movement which persuaded one million people to tell Iraqis they must continue to live under a tyranny…” (Cohen, ‘The Left’s unholy alliance with religious bigotry’, The Observer, February 23, 2003)

Cohen’s claim was reduced to absurdity on the same day by Hollywood producer Saul Zaentz. In a remarkable conclusion to his acceptance speech at the Bafta awards, Zaentz described the tyranny afflicting Cohen’s ‘liberators’:

“I was, and still am, a member of the majority of American voters who were not realised in the last presidential election. And there is no doubt of outright criminality at the highest level by the court-declared winners. We are now seeing in America the possibilities of an absolute government by the few for the betterment of the few. This is to be reached in any manner. But as one of that great majority who believes and knows America as America is not the person, politician or political party who happens to be in office for a stated period of time, in the words of Martin Luther King, “We shall overcome” and we will.” (BBC1, The British Academy and Film Awards, February 24, 2003)

Cohen’s second point is also mere wishful thinking – the anti-war movement has persuaded very few people of anything. Most people persuaded themselves after reading articles by the likes of Cohen, and after staring nonplussed for months at the antics of Bush, Blair et al. The key arguments of the anti-war movement, as we have documented, have rarely been seen beyond the internet – people have simply been working things out for themselves. People have, for example, worked out for themselves that one day of demonstrations is not enough – the time has come for non-violent civil disobedience.

It has become clear that the US and UK governments represent no one, that they are trying to plunge the world into the same cycle of violence and revenge, hatred and despair that cursed the twentieth century. But vast numbers of people around the world are unwilling to accept this lunatic course of action. There is an understanding that September 11 had causes – causes very much like the actions intended by Bush and Blair now. There is a sense that terrorism is the product, not simply of a world of crazed fanatics who enjoy killing, but of a world of injustice and pain – the solution to injustice and pain being not yet more injustice and pain. As Geshe Lhundub Sopa, writes:

“The consequences of activities such as destruction and killing motivated by a mind disturbed by attachment and greed are like light rays, in that they will spread everywhere, bringing war and suffering.”

The solution lies in restraint, in generosity of spirit, in compassion and concern for others. Of course we can feed the cycles of hate and fear and exploitation, and this may indeed appear to offer short-term benefits for a cynical few – but the fundamentally reasonable and humane majority simply want to get on with their lives; they do not want to live in a world on fire with suffering and hatred.

Our leaders have responded as though bowing to overwhelming public opinion were merely an option. But the whole world has seen that the whole world is against a cynical, greed-driven war. The whole world will therefore be up in arms – figuratively at home but literally abroad – if cynicism and greed are seen to triumph so ruthlessly over reason and popular feeling.

Whatever gains the Bush cabal imagine can be achieved through war will be more than offset by the inevitable backlash should they proceed. There has already been great violence and disruption in a world in which killing for profit has been to some extent obscured beneath a veneer of benevolence – what price peace in a world in which killing for profit is clear, out in the open, utterly shameless?

The Stop the War Coalition is calling on the public to make its protest felt immediately in the event of war in a range of ways. See:

“Occupy your city or town centre, organise mass meetings or walkouts at work, sit in at your college or university.

* If you are at school organise a walkout or an occupation if you can, or call for a debate in your class or assembly to spread the word.

* In the evening of an attack we are calling for mass occupations of city and town centres at 6pm. In London this means assembling at Trafalgar Square at 6pm to bring the whole centre of government to a halt.”

On the Saturday following any outbreak of war there will be a national demonstration in London.

In a ZNet article Jessica Azulay and Brian Dominick write of the peace movement:

“We have become a threat; but can we deliver? Policy makers are debating right now whether or not they have to heed our dissent. Now we must make it clear to them that there will be political and economic consequences if they decide to ignore our protest, and be prepared to follow through.” (‘Mobilize For The Next Phase – The Anti-war Movement Shifts Gears’, ZNet, February 21, 2003,


The goal of Media Lens is to promote rationality, compassion and respect for others. In writing letters to journalists, we strongly urge readers to maintain a polite, non-aggressive and non-abusive tone.

Write to the heads of BBC news and ITN expressing your views:

Richard Sambrook, BBC director of news.

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Jonathan Munro, head of ITN newsgathering.

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Write to the editors of The Guardian and The Observer:

Alan Rusbridger, Guardian editor

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Roger Alton, Observer editor

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Simon Kelner, Independent editor

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Leonard Doyle, Independent foreign editor

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