by Noel Ignatiev
A 1983 film, WarGames, opens with an American pilot in the cockpit getting an order to launch a missile strike in retaliation for a Soviet attack on the U.S. Instead of carrying out the order, he refuses. We soon learn that there has been no Soviet missile attack, and that the report is part of an exercise to test of the willingness of U.S. pilots to follow orders even to the point of nuclear war. The exercise reveals that a significant number of pilots cannot bring themselves to turn the key required to launch the attack. Their refusals convince the systems engineers at the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) that control cannot be left in the hands of human beings. They develop a supercomputer, War Operation Plan Response (WOPR), programmed to continuously run war simulations and learn over time, and they hand over control to it.
All is well in their eyes… until a high school student and amateur hacker (Mathew Broderick), after breaking into his school’s computer in order to change his grades, accidentally connects with WOPR and begins to play what he thinks is a computer game, “Global Thermonuclear War.” Playing as the Soviet Union, he launches a simulated missile strike against the U.S. WOPR, interpreting it as a real attack, begins to prepare a real counter-attack. The hacker soon realizes it is not just a game, alerts the engineers, and tension builds as they try desperately to rein in WOPR, which, it must be remembered, was programmed to resist human control. Spoiler alert: they manage to stop it.
How much responsibility do ordinary citizens bear for the crimes of their government?
As I write, the death toll in Gaza is fifty-two over the last couple of days, seventy since the latest round of protests began. Since the Zionists seem determined to kill, kill, kill to purge “Greater Israel” of the people who have lived there since ancient times (for those to whom it matters, DNA tests confirm that the indigenous Palestinians are more directly descended from the Biblical inhabitants of the Holy Land than the Europeans displacing them), and since the Palestinians seem determined to break the siege of Gaza and return to the land from which they were expelled, it will probably go higher. Of course seventy is not so many when measured against other atrocities human beings have committed against each other, and even when you add the thousands, millions, displaced and otherwise affected, it still pales in comparison to the slave trade and other episodes from the past. In spite of Zionist efforts, Palestine lives. (I have never been so moved as I was by my visit to the Sabra and Shatila camps in Beirut in 2010; the people there have nothing and they share it with a visitor, even one from the country which, they well understand, is ultimately responsible for their misery. I heard of a young Palestinian man who, going out to take part in a demonstration in which he expected he might die, left a note along with money instructing survivors to pay back twenty-five dollars he had borrowed from a friend. They remind me of black southerners of my generation and older.)
The gold medal for atrocities is normally awarded to Hitlerite German, not for the number killed—the slave trade took far more lives than the Nazi genocide, and even the relatively unknown rule of King Leopold in the Congo cost ten million lives over fifteen years (more than the number killed by the Nazis between 1941 and 1945, not counting those who died in the war). It wins the prize not simply because it took place in “civilized” Europe but for its systematic character: the aim of the slave trade and of Leopold’s rule in the Congo was not extermination but the extraction of surplus value, in which the deaths were “collateral damage”; the Nazi genocide was its own end.
Perhaps the biggest horror in human history was the “Great Die-off” following European contact with the New World; it not merely killed millions and destroyed entire peoples, but wiped out the memory of their existence. Imagine the devastating effect of watching your neighbors’ skin blacken and their flesh fall off and see all the children and old people, bearers of the past and future, die—years before bearded pale-skinned strangers on horseback show up, when no one had a germ theory of disease. It makes every other historical event seem trivial. I have spent a fair portion of my life studying history, but learning of the Great Die-off made me ask if everything I thought I knew belongs in a footnote to that event. And it wasn’t even intentional.
I do not wish to focus on the impact of the horrors on their victims but on the perpetrators; in that respect what the Zionists have done to the indigenous Palestinians is almost without parallel, for in almost no other case has such a large proportion of the oppressing group taken a direct hand in the atrocities. “Israel” is a small place, and Tel Aviv is only ninety miles from Gaza and thirty from the West Bank, and in spite of the efforts of Zionist authorities to conceal the reality, one would think that the average resident of Tel Aviv, the capital of modern “Israel,” is aware of what is going on a few miles from his or her home, where ordinary settlers, formerly clerks in Brooklyn, including children, carry Uzis. No calls for gun control on the West Bank. We have seen the clips of Israeli Jews sitting on a hilltop sipping drinks and watching the bombardment of Gaza during the so-called war of 2014.
Of course there always dissenters, and so there are among the people called “Jews” in the place called “Israel,” people who refuse, often at great risk, to serve in the IDF, and stand against the mob. Honor to them; but in normal times they make no difference. I attended a conference in Lausanne, Switzerland in 2004 opposed to the Zionist state and favoring a democratic secular state open to all. Present were a few “Jews” from inside Israel. After listening to them agonize over being torn between their Jewish identity and their commitment to justice (sounding for all I could tell like “white” Americans torturing themselves with guilt while unable to embrace the abolition of whiteness), a friend commented, “Israel is a prison for Palestinians and a lunatic asylum for Jews.” And those were the good Israelis.
I am not speaking of exceptional individuals motivated by politics or conscience but of currents among the masses.
Or maybe ordinary Israelis don’t know. When World War II ended and the truth about Nazi policies came out, many Germans said they did not know of the death camps. I believe them. But the information was there to be had, and if they did not know it was because it was more comfortable not to know. Unlike “primitives,” modern men and women are capable of that sort of thing. But there was another factor: the Nazi authorities built the camps for the most part away from the centers of German life. They had learned that many young Germans, even after being brought up under Hitler, indoctrinated with the Nazi world view and subjected to constant military parades and rallies (an endless Super Bowl), were reluctant to kill old Jews, or children, or Jews from their home town (like the pilots in the film who couldn’t bring themselves to launch WW3). The authorities therefore assigned that work to specialists, men selected for their suitability for it, awarded privileges beyond those generally accorded the master race, kept apart from the general population, brought up in its spirit and distinguished by special uniforms (the SS with its death-head symbol, the Green Berets and SWAT teams of their day). And they mechanized the extermination, gas chambers replacing shooting (like WOPR in WarGames).
British imperial policy in India and elsewhere was carried out by a relative handful of British soldiers and administrators (aided by tremendous numbers of personnel from among the colonized; the British conquered and ruled India using Indian troops, they conquered and ruled Africa using African troops), far from the eyes of the ordinary Englishman, who, as Orwell said, dealt with the problem of Empire by simply not knowing it existed—the secret of the famous British hypocrisy. It was the unwillingness of the working class of Britain after WW2 to continue to sacrifice for the Empire, in conjunction with the resistance of the colonial peoples, that brought the Empire down. Likewise with the French, Dutch, Belgian and other colonial empires. The refusal was not always, or even usually, conscious; it simply meant that they refused to work twice as hard for half as much money to support the Empire; I recall visiting an American factory on strike during the first Iraq War, a factory that manufactured artillery shells; the workers, patriots all, flew yellow flags in sympathy with the troop, but they still walked the picket line, demanding higher wages than what the company offered.
Notice I qualified my statement about the unparalleled character of Zionism with “almost.” For there is one parallel that leaps out of the history books: the North American frontier, the “West,” which began in Plymouth, Massachusetts. (“‘Daddy’s family has been here in the Connecticut Valley since 1680,’ Mother said. ‘There were Indians here once, but they left.’” – Martin Espada, “Thanksgiving” from A Mayan Astronomer in Hell’s Kitchen)
In 1764 a group of colonists in western Pennsylvania submitted to the Provincial Council a statement of grievances; here it is, abridged:
The inhabitants of the frontier counties of Lancaster, York, Cumberland, Berks, and Northampton, humbly beg leave to remonstrate and lay before you the following grievances, which we submit to your wisdom for redress….
We apprehend that as freemen and English subjects, we have an indisputable title to the same privileges and immunities with His Majesty’s other subjects who reside in the interior counties of Philadelphia, Chester and Bucks, and therefore ought not to be excluded from an equal share with them in the very important privilege of legislation. Nevertheless… our five counties are restrained from electing more than ten representatives… while the three counties and city of Philadelphia, Chester and Bucks, elect twenty-six… Wherefore we humbly pray that we may no longer be deprived of an equal number with the three aforesaid counties, to represent us in Assembly.
We understand that a bill is now before the House of Assembly, wherein it is provided that such persons as shall be charged with killing any Indian in Lancaster County, shall not be tried in the county where the fact was committed, but in the counties of Philadelphia, Chester or Bucks. This is manifestly… to contradict the well-known laws of the British nation… that of being tried by their equals in the neighborhood where their own, their accusers’, and the witnesses’ character and credit, with the circumstances of the fact, are best known…
During the late and present Indian War, the frontiers of this province had been repeatedly attacked and ravaged by skulking parties of the Indians, who have with the most savage cruelty murdered men, women, and children, without distinction, and have reduced near a thousand families to the most extreme distress. It grieves us to the very heart to see such of our frontier inhabitants as have escaped savage fury with the loss of their parents, their children, their wives or relatives, left destitute by the public, and exposed to the most cruel poverty and wretchedness, while upwards of an hundred and twenty of these savages, who are with great reason suspected of being guilty of these horrid barbarities, under the mask of friendship, have procured themselves to be taken under the protection of the government, with a view to elude the fury of the brave relatives of the murdered, and are now maintained at the public expense…
It is contrary to the maxims of good policy, and extremely dangerous to our frontiers, to suffer any Indians, of what tribe soever, to live within the inhabited parts of this province while we are engaged in an Indian war, as experience has taught us that they are all perfidious, and their claim to freedom and independency puts it in their power to act as spies, to entertain and give intelligence to our enemies, and to furnish them with provisions and warlike stores… We, therefore, pray that this grievance be taken under consideration and remedied….
In the late Indian war this province, with others of his Majesty’s colonies, gave rewards for Indian scalps… as the most likely means of destroying or reducing them to reason, but no such encouragement has been given in this war… We, therefore, pray that public rewards may be proposed for Indian scalps, which may be adequate to the dangers attending enterprises of this nature….
We daily lament that numbers of of our nearest and dearest relatives are still in captivity among the savage heathen, to be trained up in all their ignorance and barbarity, or to be tortured to death will all the contrivances of Indian cruelty… We therefore earnestly pray that no trade may hereafter be permitted to be carried on with them, until our brethren and relatives are brought home to us.
Minutes of the Provincial Council of Pennsylvania (Harrisburg, 1852), 138-42
One can envision a similar petition addressed to Rome by Italian settlers on the Teutonic frontier in the first century CE, or by Han Chinese living by the nomadic people of the Eurasian steppes during the Ming Dynasty.
Two points I wish to emphasize: first, the petitioners’ insistence on being tried locally by people who share their interests and attitudes, which implies a lack of trust in the inhabitants of the more settled areas in the eastern part of the colony; second, their demand that all those captured by the Indians be returned to them. Never mind the pretended concern about torture: what was being expressed was the fear that some of the captives, if given a choice, would not return, preferring life among the Indians. That provision was a feature of every treaty ever signed with the Indians, and with good reason: as J. Hector St. John de Crèvecœur, author of Letters from an American Farmer, wrote a few years after the Pennsylvania Remonstrances:
“By what power does it come to pass that children who have been adopted when young among these people [the Indians] can never be prevailed upon to readopt European manners ? Many an anxious parent I have seen last war who, at the return of the peace, went to the Indian villages where they knew their children had been carried in captivity, when to their inexpressible sorrow they found them so perfectly Indianized that many knew them no longer, and those whose more advanced ages permitted them to recollect their fathers and mothers, absolutely refused to follow them, and ran to their adopted parents to protect them against the effusions of love their unhappy real parents lavished on them! Incredible as this may appear, I have heard it asserted in a thousand instances, among persons of credit. There must be in their (the Indians’) social bond something singularly captivating, and far superior to anything to be boasted of among us; for Thousands of Europeans are Indians, and we have no example of even one of these Aborigines having from choice becoming European.”
Why indeed? D.H. Lawrence wrote, “Not that the Red Indian will ever possess the broad land of America. At least I presume not. But his ghost will” – Studies in Classic American Literature (1912).
That ghost is the spirit of a society without private property, patriarchy, law, borders, prisons or the state, a society in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.
One hundred years after Lawrence wrote those words, Americans name their athletic teams and sports utility vehicles after those they nearly exterminated while paving over the beautiful land. An assistant clerk in a car-rental agency lays out forty thousand dollars for a Jeep Cherokee so he can imagine himself free, riding bareback over the plains with the wind blowing in his hair while he is sitting in traffic on the freeway breathing fumes. Many people resent that practice, and I can understand why, and join in protesting it. But for me it is a faint sign of hope in these dark times, like “Israeli” hummus.