Bush is a War Criminal, but I don’t believe that Bush is a War Criminal

“Former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has been stripped of legal immunity for acts of torture against US citizens authorized while he was in office.

The 7th Circuit ruling is the latest in a growing number…Criminal complaints have been filed against Rumsfeld and other Bush administration officials in Germany, France, and Spain.

Bush recently curbed travel to Switzerland due to fear of arrest following criminal complaints lodged in Geneva… And this month Canadian citizens forced Bush to cancel an invitation-only appearance in Toronto.

The Mayor of London threatened Bush with arrest for war crimes earlier this year should he ever set foot in his city, saying that were he to land in London to “flog his memoirs”

Colin Powell’s Chief-of-Staff Col. Lawrence Wilkerson surmised on MSNBC earlier this year that soon, Saudi Arabia and Israel will be “the only two countries Cheney, Rumsfeld and the rest will travel too.”

When I saw the title of the article linked to here, which includes the phrase “Mr. Rumsfeld, you’re under arrest”, I felt an unexpectedly strong surge of happiness. Upon reading it, of course, I found that such an arrest was merely being speculated about, not reported. But still the thought of it makes me happy. They deserve it if anyone does, and it would be a sort of symbolic execution of the king, and I’m not ashamed to admit how much I love that idea.

But there’s not much point telling you how much I’d like to see those fuckers in court. For one thing, it’s unlikely to happen – what’s exciting here is only that it’s become not-quite-certain to not happen.

For another thing, sharing strong expressions ofanger, hatred, or vengefulness on a blog is rarely edifying or informative. So instead, I want to say something about the war crimes themselves, and my representations of them.

The paradox is that to me, these facts seem both obviously real, and yet only pretend.

I mean, there’s no need for you to click the above link, really, and read all about the deaths and the penis-slicing is that you probaly already know enough. After you’ve read that they killed a bunch of guys, or that warlords arrest random people and give them to the Americans to torture just because it builds their relationship, or seen a video of kids being gunned down from a helicopter, etc. etc. why do you need to know more?

And it’s not like this is speculation, really. I’ll admit I haven’t done in-depth research, but the drip-feed of information, whistleblowers, allegations, etc. doesn’t leave me in that much doubt. There’s official denials, of course, but they’re not persuading anyone.

And yet… and yet it still feels slightly unreal. Like, sure these people had thousands of people abused in various ways, but it’s not as though they’re criminals. I mean, you wouldn’t be scared talking to them. It wouldn’t be like talking to Hannibal Lecter, or that creepy homeless guy who stabbed someone.

At the back of my mind, this all feels like partisan rhetoric, like calling Bush a ‘Nazi’. He’s not a Nazi. He’s a bad, bad, man but that concept just factually doesn’t fit him, or his political role. If we call him a Nazi, it’s a sort of inflated rhetoric, exaggerating things, demonising him because it feels good. Like telling a crowd that they live in the world’s greatest country, or that we should make poverty history. It’s standard politics:  you say things that fit the emotional tone you’re going for, even if everyone knows they’re not strictly true.

And when you’re engaged in that sort of rhetoric, you know you are, at some level. You can feel, if you pay attention, that you don’t really believe what you’re saying. You can feel that at bottom you’re pretending, even though it may be the sort of pretence where you tell people you believe it.

The strange thing is that when I say that the US committed war crimes, I still have that feeling. And I don’t think there’s any amount of evidence that would get rid of it. Without actually seeing it first-hand, I will always feel like the authorities of Western countries can’t really be murderers.

It produces a pattern of feelings typical of such pretence. When I read about some horrific thing, I get angry, and I feel frustrated – at my actual powerlessness, but also that I don’t really believe it. I want to believe it, and what do you do when you want to believe something but know you really don’t? You express it more strongly – you search desperately for words you can say that will have enough force to make you believe them. Like, “Bush is Hitler”, or “Bush eats babies.”

Maybe it works at first, but later when you look back at it, it only reinforces the problem, because here you are were just pretending. Bush is not Hitler, and doesn’t eat babies. You picked those words because they were emotive, not because they were true. And that just reinforces the feeling that the whole thing is that kind of rhetorical pretence.

What underlies this phenomenon? I think it’s about social relations. If you think someone is guilty of massive and egregious crimes,  you have to act like it – you can’t just meet them and make small talk, shake their hand and make polite eye contact, on pain of implicitly normalising them.

That’s what the ‘moralised’ notion of criminal I’m using here means – not that they broke some specific human law, but that they broke the basic requirements for human interaction. They put themselves outside of the human community. They are a ‘public enemy’, and hence your enemy, so you should treat them like one.

But in the case of Western political leaders, I’m socially required to treat them, not as enemies, but as authorities. Of course I don’t interact with them directly, but I interact with a sort of ‘collective agent’ of which they are an influential part. I interact, for instance, with US border guards, and with US laws, and institutions funded by the US government, etc. I can’t treat them as enemies, and at some level of my mind that behaviour determines what I can genuinely believe.

So even if I try to tell you that I regard all capitalist governments as public enemies and hence my own enemies, no evidence or argument will make me actually believe that – subconsciously I still look at these figures as authorities, and so it seems like a fantasy that I might judge them murderous criminals.

So I end up in the bizarre position of pretending to believe what I honestly believe I ought to believe.

As Marx said “It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness.”

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4 Responses to Bush is a War Criminal, but I don’t believe that Bush is a War Criminal

  1. latinist says:

    “Like, sure these people had thousands of people abused in various ways, but it’s not as though they’re criminals. I mean, you wouldn’t be scared talking to them. It wouldn’t be like talking to Hannibal Lecter, or that creepy homeless guy who stabbed someone.”

    I think it’s worth pointing out, here, the less flattering reason why this is the case: for us privileged white Westerners, Bush et al. aren’t directly dangerous at all. There was never any real risk that Bush was going to bomb the US or Canada, or imprison and torture US or Canadian non-Muslims. Whereas the thing about Hannibal Lecter is that he kills people like us, who think we’re safe.

    (The effect you’re talking about still applies, of course; and in fact, even the people who are at risk from US foreign-policy violence might still find Hannibal Lecter personally more frightening, or at least frightening in a different way.)

  2. Daniel says:

    Really interesting blog post. For the newest generations of voters, it’s normal for public figures to commit such atrocities and receive de-facto political immunity.

    I’ve wondered a lot if it isn’t required for the government to commit some incredibly violent and repulsive action against the masses before they recognize their own victimization on a visceral level: like the Boston Massacre or Bloody Sunday (Russia), even if those events were accidents on the part of the government.

    I disagree that Bush et al never posed a threat to westerners: he did many horrific things in the US as well, including redistribution of wealth and attacking civil liberties. But yeah, those things are in most cases less threatening than what Obama has done by importing all the Bush-era authority to commit official torture without trial and applying them to American citizens. (Defense authorization act)

  3. Pavlichenko says:

    You’re probably not still reading comments, but what the hey, here are a couple:

    1) I think that you hit the nail on the head with the Marx quote at the end (I guess Marx hit the nail on the head). Perhaps that difficulty you have in seeing the so-called authorities as criminals – which you logically know is the case – is a mere reflection of your own social status and consciousness. That is, it’s the petty bourgeois part of you coming out and triumphing over the proletarian/socialist part of you. Many of the great communist leaders, as I’m sure you know, had middle class backgrounds. But they were class traitors who utterly betrayed the petty bourgeois parts of themselves which might fail to see the extreme criminality of the so-called authorities.

    2) In fact, Bush had pretty close links to the Nazis, and I’ve yet to see any reason why his “ideology” is or was any different than Nazi “ideology.” You probably know that they both merely rely on demagoguery to maintain the bourgeois capitalist system, that there’s no ideology behind their words except supremacy of the rich. You might be aware that now Trump comes even a tad closer than Bush in using openly Nazi-esque policies and statements. Perhaps the Nazis, you see, were at work, and are still at work, to “win the peace,” a peace which was imposed by the USSR after WWII…

    Just found your blog, happy that you seem to have picked it up again.

    • lukeroelofs says:

      Hi Pavlichenko, glad you like the blog. The idea of a ‘petty bourgeois’ part of me and a ‘proletarian’ part might capture something, but I’m not sure how well the complexes of ideas and feelings really match up with economic positions. Deference to authorities, or difficulty in seeing ‘upstanding members of society’ as war criminals, seems present pretty widely across classes, and if anything may be more sensitive to things like identification with a cultural group than to economic position. At least, I’d be interested to hear of any empirical data on the topic.

      I’m not sure I’d want to lump Neocons and Nazis into the same ideological box – that seems to leave too few analytical tools for distinguishing and recognising different opponents. I am planning to post about the question of continuity and escalation in the Trump administration though, how far it’s something new and how far it’s more of the same.

      Could you clarify what you mean about the Nazis being at work to win the peace imposed by the USSR?

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