Semantics of Empire

Category: Americas, World Affairs Topics: George W. Bush, Iraq, Saddam Hussein Views: 2360

"Saddam Hussein is a man who is willing to gas his own people ..."
George Bush, March 22, 2002

"As he (George Bush) said, any person that would gas his own people is a threat to the world."
Scott McClellan, White House spokesperson, March 31, 2002

"Saddam Hussein is a tyrant who has tortured and killed his own people..."
Hillary Clinton, October 10, 2002

"He poison-gassed his own people." 
Al Gore, December 16, 1998

We might glean a few insights about the semantics of the global order - and the reality it tries to mask - from the way in which the United States has framed the moral case against Saddam.

Saddam's unspeakable crime is that he has "tortured his own people." He has "killed his own people." He has "gassed his own people." He has "poison-gassed his own people." In all the accusations, Saddam stands inseparable from his own people.

Rarely do his accusers charge that Saddam "tortured people," "gassed people," "gassed Iraqis," or "killed Iraqis." A Google search for "gassed his own people" and "Saddam" produced 5980 hits. Another search for "gassed people" and Saddam produced only 276 hits.

It would appear that the indictment of Saddam gathers power, conviction, irrefutability, by adding the possessive, proprietary, emphatic 'own' to the people tortured, gassed or killed. What does the grammar of accusations say about the metrics of American values?

It is revealing. For a country that claims to speak in the name of man, abstract man, universal man, the charge is not that Saddam has killed people, that he has committed murders, mass murders. Instead, the prosecution indicts him for killing a people who stand in a specific relation to the killer: they are his own people.

This betrays tribalism. It springs from a perception that fractures the indivisibility of mankind. It divides men into tribes. It divides people into "us" and "them:" "ours" and "theirs." It elevates "us" above "them:" "our" kind above "their" kind. It reveals a sensibility that can feel horror only over the killing of one's own kind.

Life is sacred at the Core. In the United States, we have an inalienable right to life. It is protected by law; it cannot be taken away without due process. Americans are proud, sedate, in the illusion that their President never kills his own people; their history is proof of this. An American President would never think of killing his own people.

Saddam's crimes are most foul because he has tortured his own people; he has killed his own people; he has gassed his own people. He has violated the edict of nature. His actions are un-American. 

Saddam's unnatural crimes trouble us, however, not because we feel empathy for his victims. His crimes predict trouble for us. If he can kill his own kind how much more willingly would he kill us? In Scot McClellan's version: "any person that would gas his own people is a threat to the world (read the United States)."

Of course, Saddam might plead innocence to this charge. "You've got it all wrong about the people I kill. The Kurds I killed are not my own people. They are not even Arabs, and, worse, they wanted to break up Iraq and create their own independent Kurdistan. What would you do to your Blacks, Amerindians, Hispanics or Asians, if they took up arms to carve out independent states of their own? Were not the Southern whites your own people? But you killed a half million of them when they took up arms against you in the 1860s. More recently, you killed your own kind at Waco."

Now, as the United States prepares to try Saddam for torturing, gassing and killing his own people, does this absolve us of killing the same people because they are not our own? Is the killing of Iraqis a crime only when the perpetrators are local thugs - once in our pay - and not when we take up the killing, and execute it more efficiently, on our account?

In the colonial era, racism inoculated people against feeling empathy towards those other people in the Periphery. Those other people were children, barbarians, savages, if not worse. We had to kill them if they could not be useful to us, or if they stood in the way of our progress. There wasn't much squeamishness about this. It was good policy.

In the era of the Cold War, we went easy on the language of racism, though not always on its substance. When we sent our men and women to kill hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese and Koreans, we justified this by claiming that we were doing it to protect our freedoms. Of course, it was all right to kill for our freedoms. 

However, in the new era, the US learned to contract the killing to thugs in the Periphery. This was a win-win for us. We kept our hands free from bloodstains, so we could smell like roses. At the same time, we could point to colored killers (in our pay), and say, "Look, they are still incapable of civilization." What is more, we could use their savagery as justification for killing colored peoples on our own account.

More recently, the US has gone back to killing on its own account. Starting in the 1980s, taking advantage of their indebtedness - which we helped create - we began a general economic warfare against the Periphery, stripping down their economies for takeover by Core capital. In this new war, the colonial governors and viceroys have been replaced by two banks - the World Bank and the IMF - and a trade enforcer, the WTO. Like the famines in British India, this war has produced tens of millions of hidden victims, dead from hunger and disease. 

In 1990, the US introduced a new, deadlier form of economic warfare: it placed Iraq under a total siege. This instrument was chosen because we knew that Iraq was vulnerable: it imported much of its food, medicines, medical equipment, machinery and spare parts, nearly all paid for by oil exports. Imposed to end Iraqi occupation of Kuwait, the siege ended some thirteen years later only after the US had occupied Iraq. Only after the siege had killed more than a million and a half Iraqis, half of them children.

Once again, the US is the world's nerve center of reactionary ideologies. The post-War restraints on the use of deadly force now gone, the United States revels in the use of deadly force. Not that alone, it wants to be seen using deadly force. It wants to be feared, even loathed for its magnificent power, raining death from the skies as never before, like no other power before. At manufacturing death, we brook no competition.

Imperialism, militarism and wars create their own rationale. In time, Islamist enemies were elevated and magnified, with help from the Zionists. Rogue states stepped out of the shadows. The swamps began to spawn terrorists. Weapons of mass destruction proliferated. Sagely Orientalists suddenly awoke to an Arab "democracy deficit." Islam, they declared, is misogynist, anti-modernist and anti-democratic. The civilizing mission was Arabized. The musty odors of jingoism, militarism, racism and religious bigotry infested the air. Like a godsend, the attacks of September 11, 2001, galvanized America. Imperialism and racism rode into town, cheek by jowl, hand in hand.

The new colonization project has now snagged its chief prize. An Arab Ozymandias brought low. The man who tortured, killed and gassed his own people is in American hands. Our civilizing mission displays its trophy. We are repeatedly invited to peep into the oral orifice of this bedraggled Saddam. "Ladies and gentlemen, we got him."

The images of Saddam the captive, haggard, resigned, defanged, are images of our raw power. Our power to appoint, anoint, finance and arm surrogates in the Periphery: and when they go wrong, our power to wage war against their people; destroy their civilian infrastructure, poison their air, water and soil with uranium; lay siege to their economy; and, finally to invade and occupy their country. We will go to any lengths to save the people of the Periphery from our tyrants. 

Come, then, wretched denizens of the Periphery, there is cause to rejoice. Lift your Cokes and offer a toast to the Boy Emperor even as he launches plans to establish a thousand years of Pax Americana. He will bring down all outmoded tyrannies, and root out rogue states, dictatorships and monarchies. He will extirpate all fundamentalists, hunt down all terrorists, track down all drug lords, and scrap all unfriendly WMDs. This will be the great cleansing of all self-created challenges to the Empire. In the end nothing will stand between the Empire and the Periphery, between Capital and Labor, between Thesis and Anti-Thesis.

Rejoice, the Empire is advancing its day of reckoning with history.

M. Shahid Alam is professor of economics at Northeastern University. His last book, Poverty from the Wealth of Nations, was published by Palgrave in 2000. He may be reached at [email protected]. Visit his webpage at M. Shahid Alam

  Category: Americas, World Affairs
  Topics: George W. Bush, Iraq, Saddam Hussein
Views: 2360

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Older Comments:
The point of the article Mr.Ward, is that Americans and their "leaders" are a charlatans. Instead of spinning the article as leftist, why dont you come to your sense and defer to the facts.

I am not really sure what the point of this article is. It sounds like a leftist intellectual diatribe. American is not perfect, it has done bad and it has done good. It has done more good than bad. Any story can be spinned to make a point as is often the case on this website. You should be quite careful when listening to any university professor because for the most part they are thinkers and not doers. They quite often conjure ideas as a form of intellectual masturbation. This article was filled with negativity and anger which will only lead to further the terrorist take over of Islam. This site can always be counted on for supporting articles by individuals with an anti-USA slant.

I am in total agreement with this article; and I would just like to support the comment made by Mulimah. I too listen to those idiots: Hannity, the Savage nation, and O'Reilly. It is as if they crawl out of a vacuum unaware of the world around them; and its more amazing that a large segment of America agrees with them. Its enough to make you shake your head and giggle- but there is nothing remotely humorous about it.

Although it is years after the sanctions and now after their Occupation, Someone is intellectualizing it, and making it seen/represented which at any time is good, Unfortuanatley in is not preventing and helping the situation.

Assalamu alaikum. The good news in my opinion is that each one of us is granted an active part to play in determining the eternal judgement to be pronounced on us according to the will of Allah (subhanahu wa ta'ala).

If anyone is interested in the following topic there is a document defining the Iraqi Governing Council's special tribunal for crimes against humanity. The document is available at the Coalition Provisional Authority's web site.




Many Americans do not want to know the truth. They are very happy with the belief that America is the most moral country in the world, the beacon of justice.

As a matter of fact I have talked to some Americans and they told me the same thing in different wording. The Muslims hate us because they are jealous of our success. They really believe Muslims are against freedom and justice. Some even said Muslims are ungrateful for all America has done for them. America has given them billions of money, stopped the massacres of Bosnians and Kosovars, tried to help the starving Somalis etc... If I tried to tell them of the atrocities Muslims have been suffering with the direct support of the U.S. and the exploitation of their resources, they wouldn't believe it.

Have any of you listened to conservative radio talk shows like Hannity, the Savage nation, O'Reilly etc..? They have huge audiences and it will give you insight on why Americans believe in the perfect virtuosity of America and the utter evil of Muslims. The lies, misinformation in those shows are shocking. I couldn't believe people could say such lies and not be challenged at all. I couldn't understand why they were so popular, the only way I could explain it to myself is that their listeners are so ignorant and bigoted that they delight in such talk.

I am sure if the same talk was done toward any other group they would have organized and charge them with hate talk and would have boycotted the companies that advertise on those radios, they would have been loud. But instead, we have CAIR that is useless, Imams who do not lead and are cowardly being silent, the Muslims who are also cowardly silenced. Our silence will be our ultimate mistake, because of those who hate us go on unchallenged. I wish someone who was articulate and knowledgable would challenge those famous radio personalities to a debate on C-SPAN.


Actually, I think the theory goes something like this: tyrants who murder their own subjects are even less dependable than tyrants who only murder somebody else's subjects. If the author doesn't care for his nation's choice of tyrants then why not perhaps consider offering his readers a few possible candidates more to his liking? Generally speaking, if given a choice, to what sort of an empire would he prefer to be subjected? Not making a choice is still a choice - is it not?

If the author seriously disagrees with the policies of the World Bank, it is perhaps worth noting that many capitalists feel the same way. Of course, such details are perhaps unhelpful if one hopes to attribute to capitalism the callous policies of one's political opponents.

As I understand it, trade sanctions against Iraq were part of a compromise worked out with other members of the (first) coalition who preferred to see Saddam Hussein remain in power. Evidently some of them didn't care to see the Shiites or the Kurds in control of their own country.

I personally imagine that it is the People of Iraq who will be putting Saddam Hussein on trial. My guess is that members of Saddam's regime will be tried by an Iraqi court system dominated by Shiites of the clerical persuasion. Hopefully this will not result in any major objections raised by members of the world's anti-nationalist Sunni community.

Thanks for the article.

Well, well, well, well....

The day the American President declared that "..their plans can take 50 years to mature.." and that ...he was declaring a "CRUSADE" ...against Iraq, the future of the United State became sealed as a bully.

This article and many like it, have gone further to show how Americans are now getting the entire story about how a bunch of illetrates took the mantle of their leadership and are committing attrocities in the world, in the name of fighting terrorism. The problem is that ordinary Americans learn very slowly. This is hoping that it won't overshoot to 2005.

Americans need more articles like this one. LET TRUTH BE TOLD.

ABC123 said:
To H. A. ASAK ,
act wisely, dont get proud or be overconfident. Dont turn these discussions into personal fights. If you think that a miracle or a semi miracle has happened then thats fine but dont tease Romesh Chander for that, lest he become what he was before. Take Care. Hope you understand.

hypocrite article. to begin with name ONE country that doesn't feel "tribal". also as we all know the empire empire! how do you think all empires have acted throughout history?! how do you think Gengis Khan would deal with his problems...lets admit that within this empire we can write to criticize it for example, move to north Korea and try doing that there...all this universalist bs is small usual talk. all happening is mektoub, HE will judge

Wow!!! Everybody!!! Another semi-miracle has happened on this site.

H.A.'s dear Dada(brother) RAMESH CHANDER, all of a sudden, has developed antagonistic feelings toward the land of the "flying dollars" called the USA and the west. Just a few weeks back, he had great affinity for the west. I wonder what has submerged his boastful talks about the west!!!

Hmmm...let me ponder?
- Well, he has been absent from posting comments on this site for ~ 2 months. He probably had a real good vacation. OR He must have gone to Pakistan to further his education on Islam and Muslims. Oh! no! I wonder if Tora Bora had a new visitor recently.

Wow!!! Miracles after miracles!!! on this site. Mother Eve must be really happy. Let me phone mother Eve again. My dear brother John Norman from U.K. displayed similar transformation; He (John Norman) faithfully pronounced that he would NOT "...engage in trading insults with anyone no more...."

Well, it appears that taking a break does help people the see the reasonings...and to avoid accumulating tremendous penalties in the life hereafter.

But you don't have take my words for it. Let's wait to see what Dada Ramesh Chander has to say about his transformation....

Which is acceptable? Gassing your people or those of the enemy. Which is ethical or unethical?

US has plenty of gas and other chemical & biological weapons. Why did US accumulate a high level of gas and CBW? To use on other people. Is that ethical or acceptable? After all US used Nuclear weapons on Japan and has plenty of nuclear weapons which US intends to use whenever the need arises.

Ethics? What an oxymoron for US leadership and of all other countries!. What surprises me is that US public and intellectual class (universities / think tanks) don't question any of the statements of their rulers; rather they act like highly paid prostitutes and accept it without question.