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Niemöller be Damned
Standing By in Empire

by Kim Petersen
May 24, 2004

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First they came for the Communists,

and I didn’t speak up,

because I wasn’t a Communist.

Then they came for the Jews,

and I didn’t speak up,

because I wasn’t a Jew.

Then they came for the Catholics,

and I didn’t speak up,

because I was a Protestant.

Then they came for me,

and by that time there was no one

left to speak up for me.


-- Reverend Martin Niemöller


The young student was stirred from his sleep. He heard noises coming from the alley behind a modest East Vancouver apartment in the early morning. It was a young woman screaming frantically for help. He shook the disorientation from his sudden awakening and gazed out the window but could see nothing. The man quickly donned a pair of jeans and a coat over his pajamas and headed down the three flights of stairs to out back. He called out if everything was okay and spotted a man and a woman. He overheard a male voice plead with the woman, “Someone’s coming; be quiet.” The woman was free to respond but she murmured, “Everything is okay.” It was a false alarm; the woman had apparently tried to embarrass the man with her by shouting. The situation could have been more threatening but it wasn’t. There was no heroism involved, just a willingness to investigate a disturbance early in the morning.


Yet nobody else had bothered to check on what was going on in a relatively, highly populated residential area. The student was well acquainted with the story of Kitty Genovese -- a young woman who was stabbed outside her apartment in Queens, New York. Although many heard her screams, nobody intervened. The perpetrator Winston Moseley fled but had the gumption to return later to rape, rob, and stab again the barely conscious woman who had managed to drag her ensanguined body into the hallway of the apartment building. Genovese died on the way to the hospital.


The psychological literature refers to the inaction of people to assist when others are present as the Bystander Effect. The Bystander Effect is generally attributed to a diffusion of responsibility or maintaining one’s dignity -- a lurid explanation since by any moral standard inaction should reflect conversely on a person’s dignity. Yet many of us are pained to intervene. It is too easy to walk by a bearded, bedraggled man lying motionless on a sidewalk and to alleviate the dissonance caused with some excuse, such as he was probably a drunk sleeping off a hangover, in ignorance of the serious gash on his forehead.


It is likewise too easy to escape the truth of the atrocities occurring now in Iraq and Palestine. The corporate media has served well the adage: out of sight, out of mind. And so the world stands by. The greatest military power in history is wreaking its awe-uninspiring might on poor nations that refuse to genuflect before it. The US has the potential do such great works that it could truly be a beacon to the people of the world. But the US government has historically squandered any claim to such moral greatness.


This is not rocket science. It is indisputable that the US arose from the mother of all genocides and ethnic cleansings -- that perpetrated against the native peoples of the New World. The European settlers knew well that territory could be acquired through barbarity. The next great genocide was the enslavement of Africans to enrich the European masters. The expansion rolled southward and militarily annexed much of Mexico’s landmass. It was naked imperialism as revealed by the Monroe Doctrine; the Americas were slated to be the US’ unchallenged hemisphere of influence. With the increase in power, the insatiable lust for greater power and wealth was loosened. Since the end of WWII the US has been engaged in near perpetual war, as documented by William Blum in Rogue Nation.


Nine-eleven did occur but it did not occur in a vacuum; it certainly didn’t occur because they (whoever they are) hate westerners’ freedoms. Al Qaeda has stated its opposition to the presence of American forces in Muslim holy lands and the American-abetted ethnic cleansing in Palestine is a festering sore in the Arab psyche. This is a far more compelling explanation than the risible they-hate-our-freedoms brayed by the Bush circle.


Targeting the Weak


Cuba and Venezuela are still in the line of imperial fire. Haiti has been pushed out of the media limelight, Colombian atrocities continue at low media ebb, and Afghanistan still sees little hope. Afghanistan is split into fiefdoms of warlords, where forces from countries allied with American power attempt to assert their power.


Iraq, crippled by genocidal UN sanctions, was deemed an “imminent” threat by the “lunatics running the asylum” in Washington. The patently false casus belli morphed into a liberation of Iraq but it is obvious that Iraqis only want to be liberated of its occupiers.


Some reports indicate tens-of thousands of Iraqi civilians have been murdered by their self-proclaimed liberators. The revelations of rape, killing, and utter humiliation of Iraqi prisoners (up to 90% of who are innocent according to the International Committee of the Red Cross) in the American gulag did little to inflame American public sentiment to the point of demanding enough-is-enough. No, the occupation, bereft of any moral pretense, persists. On the heels of Abu Ghuraib was the slaughter of a wedding party in northern Iraq.




The US military might arrived in the early morning hours of Wednesday morning, 19 May, in the outlying Iraqi village of Mukaradeeb. More than 40 rural folk that had celebrated a wedding were reportedly massacred. Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt confirmed the fatalities but insisted the actions were in self-defense: “We took ground fire and we returned fire.” The massacre occurred “within [US] rules of engagement.”


Commenting on the killing of infants Kimmitt said, “I have not seen the pictures but bad things happen in wars. I don’t have to apologize for the conduct of my men.”


The Guardian reports that Major General James Mattis was indignant at the suggestion that a wedding party had been slaughtered. “How many people go to the middle of the desert ... to hold a wedding 80 miles (130km) from the nearest civilisation? These were more than two dozen military-age males. Let’s not be naive.”


It seems to be an Iraqi male of military age is a capital crime these days.


Naivety better describes those people who persevere in belief of any pronouncements originating from the occupation forces and their governments after the cacophony of cockamamie that they have sprayed forth. Credulity can only be stretched so thin.


As for naivety, how quick some are to forget: on 1 July 2002, American troops celebrated US Independence Day with a wedding party massacre in the village of Kakrak in southern Afghanistan. One surviving woman described the scene: “It was like a slaughterhouse. There was blood everywhere. There was smoke and dirt all around, and people were running helter skelter. It was a doomsday scene.”


As the Revolutionary Worker pointed out, the Americans are quick to justify the killing as self-defense “but they never apologize.” The villagers were supposedly responsible for their own deaths.


The parallels with the occupation of Iraq are striking, right down to the comments of a shopkeeper in the Afghan capital of Kabul about the foreign troops: “They are not liberators but occupiers.”


While the US forces massacre wedding parties in Iraq, its partner-in-terrorism Israel wipes out children in the Gaza. Just as the US morality approved the slaughter of 600 civilians in Fallujah for the mutilation of four occupation mercenaries, Israeli morality condones killing children in vengeance against a legitimate resistance to brutal occupation forces.


Unwitting American citizens hardly flinch while the rest of the western world stands abjectly by. 


What gives?


It doesn’t require more than a few correctly firing synapses to comprehend what is happening. The empire is drenched in blood, but apathy and the blind refusal to consider that the US could do wrong despite the preponderant evidence confronting all immobilizes action. It seems Americans are trapped in the malaise of a twilight zone.


It is not just Americans but much of the western world and other nations cowered by US might.


Geneva Conventions have been systematically abrogated. This is not about a few bad apples. The empire stands revealed in vainglorious nakedness. This apple is rotten to the core.


The immediacy of a solution to end the killing of people begins with realization that we are all people with the right to a decent life. But it must lead to a declaration affirming occupation as anathema by all civilized nations and the honoring of international proclamations on the right to self-determination of the people of a nation. However, a reality check tells us that this is antipodean to imperialism.


Humble Solutions


Withdrawal of occupation forces and a cessation of violence is the only way out of this savagery. Justice cannot be righteously imposed by military might. Iraqis and Palestinians have the same right as westerners to decide on the future direction of their nations. Occupation manifests the lingering legacy of a colonial mentality -- something humanity should have evolved past long ago.


A fundamental principle here is that the citizens of a nation must be accorded the right to decide among themselves without outside interference.


Some will no doubt assert that this is all too simplistic. What about security in Iraq? After all one often hears about a potential civil war and the splitting of Iraq. First, the division of Yugoslavia wasn’t so distressful to the western powers. Second, it seems the lessons learned regarding outside intervention in preserving nationhood were not assimilated. Third, most of the talk about Iraqi infighting stems from the occupiers and dissembles as a pretext for continuing the occupation. Iraqis must decide the future geographic demarcations of Iraq. If logic dictates, then a federation will emerge. Kurds, with malevolent Turkish interests poised nearby, will consider whether their security interests best reside as an autonomous entity within a federated Iraq.


Iraqis have responsibilities too. They must recognize the equal rights of all Iraqis just as humanity is honor-bound to recognize the rights of all peoples. While Islam is a unifier of Iraqis, Islam’s divisions point to a freedom of religion and the separation of religion from state.


If any good can come out of the slaughter then the fostering of democracy might be one. Iraqis are scornful of monarchs, dictators, quisling councils, and occupation overlords. The time seems ripe for true democracy to take root.


An Iraqi Truth and Reconciliation Commission along the lines of the South Africa model seems a good bridge-building measure for a divided nation.


Restoring real sovereignty to Iraqis does not imply merely withdrawing from Iraq. The US, UK, willing occupation nations, and the UN owe a mega debt to Iraq. Iraq must be rebuilt and the world is obligated to help -- as directed by Iraqis. The Iraqi environment has been desecrated and contaminated; it must be cleaned up.


The Palestinians must be accorded the same dignity and respect.


The world has stood by for far too long. People within their nations have the power and the responsibility to wield it. The war criminals behind this outrage against humanity must be brought to justice. Americans, as citizens of the only superpower, have a special responsibility to be guided by universal moral principles. The US is in a unique position to push for respect for moral principles. But it must lead the way through its own actions. It should push peace with world disarmament by being at the forefront. A beacon repels when actions conflict with proclaimed ideals and attracts when the truth of ideals meet actions.


Without a revolution, though, this will never happen today, tomorrow, or anytime soon.


Kim Petersen is a writer living in Nova Scotia, Canada. He can be reached at:


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