The Guardian 13 July, 2005

TAKING ISSUE with Marcus Browning

History repeats, but in a new way

"Freedom is necessarily a product of historical development".
Frederick Engels

Marxism tells us history repeats itself, but never in exactly the same way, reflected by Engels' insight that over a long historical period consciousness grows through experience, until, as Tom Pearson's poem Vinimo a la Guerra puts it, "…the meaning of it all can be found/ in a simple action like the grinding of corn."

"American planes hit North Vietnam after second attack on our destroyers: Move taken to halt new aggression". So ran the front page headline of the Washington Post on August 5, 1964. The administration of Lyndon Johnson claimed that North Vietnamese vessels had attacked US warships in Vietnam's Bay of Tonkin As we now know, there was no attack. Johnson lied to the people and the concocted "incident" was used as a trigger to start an all-out war on Vietnam.

The US Attorney General at the time, Nicholas Katzenbach, described this deception as "the functional equivalent" of a declaration of war. The mass media, almost without exception, ran with the government's line. The Los Angeles Times urged Americans to "face the fact that the communists, by their attack on American vessels in international waters, have themselves escalated the hostilities".

A resolution was quickly passed through the US Congress which said in part, "The United States is assisting the peoples of south-east Asia to protect their freedom and has no territorial, military or political ambitions in that area, but desires only that these peoples should be left in peace to work out their own destinies in their own way."

Sound familiar?

Here in Australia Prime Minister Harold Holt committed the country to the war on Vietnam, welcoming Johnson to Australia in 1966 with a huge parade through Sydney under the banner "All the way with LBJ".

History repeats itself …

Fast forward to 2003 and US claims of Iraq's non-existent weapons of mass destruction. British PM Tony Blair even claims Saddam Hussein could be bombing London with his non-existent weapons inside 45 minutes. The US Congress applauds a speech by President George W Bush announcing America was going to attack and invade Iraq.

Here in Australia Prime Minister John Howard announces Australia's unequivocal commitment to join the US war.

An endless war on terrorism is proclaimed, effectively the functional equivalent of a declaration.

… but never in exactly the same way.

Already by this time fundamental democratic rights had been taken away under cover of anti-terrorism laws and the Howard government was locking up asylum seekers in privately operated, secretive prison camps, some out in the middle of the desert.

Their inmates were being tortured; children were being born inside the camps and were growing up knowing no other life but incarceration. People such as mentally ill Cornelia Rau were caught in the broad net and locked up as a suspected illegal immigrants. Another citizen, Vivian Alvarez, was arrested and illegally deported to the Philippines. Over 200 non-asylum seekers have been locked up at last count.

The government, under increasing public pressure, then floats the idea of residential detention where asylum seekers would be locked up and under surveillance 24 hours a day: imprisonment by another name. The Palmer inquiry into the practices of the Department of Immigration does not propose that asylum seekers be released into the community but that a special facility be built where those suffering mental illness as a result of their incarceration would be locked away.

The overwhelming majority of those applying for asylum are found to be refugees. Locking them up is meant to create a public mindset that the imprisonment of growing numbers of people based on no evidence, but simply on the word of the government, is acceptable.

… a product of historical development.

The USA has, for many decades, used terrorism as a pretext to strike at other nations. Here is human rights activist and academic, the late Edward W Said, writing in 1986 on the changing nature of terrorism promotion by the state, where formerly "to produce a piece of scholarship on, say, the Vietcong, you had to go through the motions of exploring Vietnamese history, citing books, using footnotes — actually attempting to prove a point by developing an argument.

"This scholarship was no less partisan because of those procedures, no less engaged in the war against enemies of ‘freedom', no less racist in its assumptions; but it was, or at least had the pretensions of, a sort of knowledge.

"Today's discourse on terrorism is an altogether more streamlined thing. Its scholarship is yesterday's newspaper or today's CNN bulletin. Its gurus … are journalists with obscure, even ambiguous backgrounds.

"Most writing about terrorism is brief, pithy, totally devoid of the scholarly armature of evidence, proof, argument. Its paradigm is the television interview, the spot news announcement, the instant gratification one associates with the White House's ‘reality time', the evening news."

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