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How Do You Blow the Whistle on a Whole Society?

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By David Swanson
Remarks at Peace Center, Los Angeles, January 18, 2020


Like perhaps most people who visit Los Angeles, I consider it my duty to offer a brilliant new idea for a film script. My idea is in the genre of science-fiction mafia, a genre that I think has not been sufficiently exploited. In this film, the protagonist wakes up to the fact that without knowing it, he has somehow joined the mafia. I expect people to be able to relate to the story because I believe that this entire country either has become aware or needs to become aware that it has joined the mafia.

How do major U.S. newspapers and television news programs refer to the murder of an Iranian general? Never with the word murder. Often with words like "deal with" or "take out." Trump had to deal with him. You could read an article like that, about a guy who is famous for hiring someone to put his name on a book called The Art of the Deal, and imagine that Trump had made a bargain with Suleimani, rather than blew him up along with whoever was nearby.

There have been societies studied by anthropologists that were literally incapable of understanding, much less committing, murder. But you'd only have to be incapable of understanding mafia talk to be bewildered by a U.S. newspaper. I want to live in a society where "took him out" indicates that you went with a friend to a restaurant and had a nice meal. But first, we're going to have to create a society in which a murder is referred to as murder. Assassination comes close, but it's beginning to be treated as potentially acceptable, whereas murder still means unacceptable.

So-called progressive Senator Chris Murphy, who days earlier had mocked Trump for being weak and not making enough people in the Middle East "fear us," listened to a secret White House explanation of why the Trump Family (I use family in the mafia sense) had taken out Suleimani. Murphy denounced the explanation as utter nonsense, but labeled the murder "a strike of choice." Remember when Trump said he could get away with a murder on Fifth Avenue? Maybe he could, but if you one of you here tonight killed someone on Santa Monica Boulevard, you couldn't tell the police, "Well, yes, officer, I shot that man, but it was just a strike of choice, and I never apologize for my strikes of choice, because that would make me look weak, and now would you mind helping me wave my personal flag?" Nor, of course, could you crib from Obama and say "Let me be clear, officer, the guy is dead now, and it's our job to look forward not backward." Nor could you pull a George W. Bush and announce that your victim was an imminent threat or could potentially have become an imminent threat (given enough time and U.S. weapons) or that he had himself shot somebody else last week, or that you had a dream in which he was planning to attack four U.S. embassies with a ray from a death star. I mean, you could say such things, but you'd be locked up for saying them.

Now, the fact that people in the U.S. all talk a little bit like the mafia doesn't make them the mafia, any more than their borrowing phrases from Star Wars for their various pretentious Rebellions or their new branches of the U.S. military makes them handsome space warriors who can breathe without oxygen, travel faster than light, and survive technology far worse than nuclear weapons with a culture far more primitive than ISIS and magical powers that seem to turn on and off on the basis of orchestral music that permeates all space-time from an unknown source.

The question is why does the United States talk like the mafia? Well, why would a mafioso avoid using the word "murder" and employ various euphemisms and code words instead? Perhaps in order to deceive himself but certainly in order to avoid incriminating himself if he's overheard. If cops weren't potentially listening, then "I made him an offer he couldn't refuse" might have been more simply if less dramatically stated as "I threatened to kill him."

Why would a U.S. journalist talk about Trump "dealing with" Suleimani? The journalist isn't guilty of murder. He or she can simply say that Trump murdered Suleimani. Yes, but he or she, or his or her editors, or their owners have identified with the U.S. Family (I use family in the mafia sense). And the cops aren't listening, but we are. We, the people. We are the cops in this analogy. If we read in our newspapers that the 45th U.S. president in a row has committed murder, eventually we might start to question that. If instead we hear that Trump has taken out a scary threat through a strike (any kind of a strike, there's nothing much wrong with a strike, after all), well, then we can move on to the sports game or the summer weather in winter that we revel in like insects enjoying a rain puddle on a freeway just before rush hour.

We're all in the mafia, because we're all engaged in murder and all trying to hide the fact from all of us. Even opponents of a war on Iran or of any of the current wars tend to avoid ever mentioning the principal thing wars do. We're eager to tell each other that such a war would cost money or hurt what are called "our troops" or change Iran in exactly the opposite way purportedly intended or even risk nuclear apocalypse or otherwise damage the natural environment, or shift money to the wealthy, strip away liberties, brutalize society, etc., but never that it would kill, injure, traumatize, and render homeless huge numbers of human beings albeit non-U.S. human beings. That's what a war is. The other things are the side-effects. They should all be listed on the bottle and read before opening, but they're not what war is. What war is must never be mentioned, or understood.

Last week, Congresswoman Ilhan Omar mentioned that she suffered PTSD as a result of being traumatized by war as a child. Of course, the vast majority of those killed, injured, traumatized, or given PTSD, by war are civilians, and disproportionately they are children and the elderly, and overwhelmingly they are on one side when a rich nation attacks a poor one. But these basic facts have been so diligently hidden, that people screamed out in outrage, that only U.S. troops were permitted the status of having PTSD.

Now, I doubt you could find a single such troop who thought of it as a status or wouldn't gladly give it up. And I think many suffer simultaneously from brain and other injuries, as well as moral injury, compounding the PTSD in particular ways. But the moral injury is because they know what they've done, because they've stopped (sometimes very abruptly stopped) imagining that war has no victims. Imagine the absurdity of telling Congresswoman Omar that the people bombed and occupied and forced to flee and mourn and go hungry and face disease epidemics don't suffer, that someone sitting in a trailer in Nevada pushing buttons can be traumatized (as indeed they can) while someone living beneath the constant buzzing of a deadly drone that can end life at any instant cannot be traumatized. After all, such a person is foreign and has dark skin and ought to be used to toughing it out, right? Americans aren't used to such affairs and need to be given a little more consideration, don't they?

Now, sometimes it's admitted that an assassination is a killing, and sometimes that it's an act of war, and sometimes that some particular actions within a war can be illegal, but virtually never that an assassination is illegal or that war is itself illegal or that assassination is murder or that war is a collection of murders. When Trump threatened to bomb Iranian cultural sites as revenge for the 1979 hostage taking, he was doing an awful thing in many ways. He was threatening wonderful beauty and history, he was (in the imagery of The Godfather) using revenge as a justification for slaughtering a prize horse and sticking its bloody head in somebody's bed, he was perpetuating widespread misunderstanding of what happened in 1979, he was provoking anger and retaliation. But the outcry in the U.S. media was "war crime!"

It's worth noting that we don't have rape crimes. If Harvey Weinstein both rapes you and makes you read really bad dialog, we aren't supposed to declare the latter to be a "rape crime" and ignore the rape itself. We don't have armed robbery crimes, where if you rob a store and knock over a shelf, you're legally guilty of knocking over the shelf as an armed robbery crime, with the robbery itself being acceptable. We don't have animal cruelty crimes where if you torture a dog and make too much noise doing it, the latter is an animal cruelty crime while the animal cruelty itself is just a strategic household security imperative. It's not that I don't want people outraged about threats to cultural sites. It's just that I want them outraged as well by threats to human lives, and I want it admitted that war is itself a crime, that it is banned under the UN Charter with narrow exceptions that are never met and under the Kellogg Briand Pact with no exceptions.

Both war and murder are crimes. It is a crime under Iraqi law to murder someone in Iraq, just as under U.S. law to murder someone here. It is a crime under international law to commit war in Iraq just as it would be in the United States. War is murder by military. Murder is war without military. The legal and moral distinction between murder and war is not and should not be what people suppose. And the distinction should not be a question of who the victims are. Remember last week, when Trump had murdered people in Iraq, and Iran had threatened to retaliate, and Trump had already threatened to re-retaliate if Iran retaliated, and even after Iran had launched missiles, the big question in the United States was what should be done if any "Americans" were to die from Iranian actions. That was the overwhelming concern. If mere Iraqis were to die, there seemed to virtually no concern that World War III would be required. (We saw the same phenomenon during Obama's drone murder spree. U.S. victims generated the majority of the disturbingly tiny amount of opposition in the corporate media.)

But when Trump murdered Suleimani, the major concern among Democrats in Washington seemed to be that he hadn't done it in the way Obama might have. Obama would have properly notified a handful of Congress members. Obama would have refrained from tweeting about it. Obama would have expressed grave regret and cited the moral quandaries of Christian saints rather than Fox News hacks. Obama would have provided his victim with a proper Muslim sea burial. But the Obama era, through his actions, and activists' inactions, and the corruption of the media and Congress, and other factors, gave us this era we are in. Murder was normalized. Progressive law professors testified to Congress that drone murders were horrible indefensible murders unless they were part of a war, in which case they were totally fine. Now they've become so totally fine that we are told that the murder of Suleimani is only a problem if it starts a new war. If it is just a murder, then it is just the family business. Murder Inc.

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David Swanson is the author of "When the World Outlawed War," "War Is A Lie" and "Daybreak: Undoing the Imperial Presidency and Forming a More Perfect Union." He blogs at and and works for the online (more...)
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