Democratic Underground

The Passion of Robert Fisk
December 19, 2001
by Jack Rabbit

Robert Fisk, the distinguished correspondent for the London Independent, was beaten last week within an inch of his life by a mob in Kila Abdullah, an Afghan refugee camp located in Pakistan. This story is remarkable both for the way in which Fisk coolly continued to report horrific events of which he was the focal point and the greater meaning of the event itself in light of the triumphalism of the Bush administration and its supporters in the press and public.

Fisk tells his story in the Independent. His problem started on the late afternoon of December 8 when the jeep in which he was riding with his driver, Amanullah, his translator, Fayyez Ahmed, and his fellow British journalist, Justin Huggler, broke down on a crowded street in the refugee camp. As the driver went to find another car, Fisk and his companions remained amid a crowd of refugees. Feeling uncomfortable in the situation, Fisk and Huggler moved towards the open road while Fayyez remained by the jeep.

As Fisk and Huggler walked away from their jeep, a small rock flew past Fisk's head and a child attempted to take Fisk's bag away from him. Fisk was punched in the back and the mob descended on him and Huggler. Fisk writes of having stones cracked over his head and kicked and punched. Fisk, bleeding from his head, fought back with his fists and escaped back to the middle of the road. There, a man in advanced middle age, whom Fisk believes to be a mullah, came to Fisk's aid and guided him to the back of a police truck that took Fisk to the hospital.

It is ironic that this should happen to Robert Fisk, the Western correspondent who, more than any other, has brought home to the West the point of view of the common people caught in this war between petty tyrants with Kalashnikovs and small rocket launchers and another tyrant wielding cluster bombs dropped from B-52's.

In one article by Fisk, we learn the point of view of an Afghan village mullah, a parochial man suspicious of all foreigners. In another gripping story, Fisk writes of his encounter with a lone woman fleeing the remnants of her village, telling Fisk of each of her children who were crushed in their hut under a American bomb. This is the war about which Donald Rumsfeld does not want us to know. For those who feel they have a right to know and have sought on the internet the facts given by the foreign press, Robert Fisk, more than anyone else, has been the witness of the true victims of this war. How ironic that they should have turned on him.

And what was Fisk's reaction to being in a position where he had a choice between using physical violence against Afghan refugees or dying at their hands? As he stood in the middle of the road, unable to see because of the blood in his eyes, he began to collect his thoughts:

"I began to see again and realised that I was crying and weeping and that the tears were cleaning my eyes of blood. What have I done, I kept asking myself? I had been punching and attacking Afghan refugees, the very people I have been writing about for so long, the very dispossessed, mutilated people whom my own country - among others - was killing, along with the Taliban, just across the border. God spare me, I thought. I think I actually said it. The men whose families our bombers were killing were now my enemies too."

Fisk's story is drowned out in the American press by the triumphalism of a great success of American air power. Writing in the December 17 issue of The Nation, Christopher Hitchens chortled:

"The United States of America has just succeeding in bombing a country back out of the Stone Age. This deserves to be recognized as an achievement, even by those who want to hasten past the moment and resume their customary tasks (worrying about the spotty human rights record of the Northern Alliance is the latest thing) . . . . We are rid of one of the foulest regimes on earth, while one of the most vicious crime families has been crippled and scattered. It remains to help the Afghan exiles to return, the save the starving and to consolidate the tentative emancipation of Afghan women."

Early on, Hitchens took it upon himself to be the administration's spokesman on the Left. In a piece appearing in The Nation shortly after the September 11 attacks, Hitchens rightly called the Taliban and al-Qaida the representatives of "fascism with an Islamic face." Hitchens also explained why progressives should support the opportunity to overthrow the Taliban and their foreign supporters:

"What [the terrorists] abominate about the West . . . is not what Western liberals don't like and can't defend but what they do like and must defend: its emancipated women, its scientific inquiry, its separation of religion from the state."

Hitchens had a good point about this, too, even if there was nothing new about it; the Left had long decried the Taliban and other radical Islamic fundamentalists groups for those reasons, among others. However, Hitchens jumped on the bandwagon with the Bush administration and couldn't understand why the rest of the Left didn't follow him. The ensuing debate on the Left was bitter, with Hitchens at times taunting his opposition, notably Noam Chomsky with phrases like "Wazzup, Noam?"

Hitchens erred in supporting the administration because he failed to see, as many others did, that there were alternatives to immediately taking military action against Afghanistan. This would have involved preparing for action in a manner consistent with international law, a process that would have forced the administration to take more time before commencing action and use it do what is necessary to avoid war.

We on the Left should admit that such diplomatic efforts might have proven futile and resulted in the violence we have seen in any event, but such efforts would have drawn more international support and less suspicion concerning the administration's ulterior motives. No one would then have cause to believe, as should now be apparent, that the administration's approach in Afghanistan is to undermine the very structure of international law, fragile as it is at this juncture of history, to give a tyrannical, unilateralist US administration free rein to conduct military strikes to achieve narrow economic ends without regard to prior treaties, international agreements or world public opinion.

That is what has been posited by the action taken by the Bush administration and supported by Hitchens. That is a state of affairs that no progressive can tolerate and still call himself a progressive. (Wazzup, Chris? Do you want to chime in with something?)

Hitchens also said in his December 17 piece of the fall of the Taliban:

"It deserves to be said, also, that the feat was accomplished with no serious loss of civilian life, and with an almost pedantic policy of avoiding 'collateral damage.'"

Perhaps Mr. Hitchens is unaware that civilian deaths are estimated at 3500. Perhaps Mr. Hitchens will discount the humanitarian disaster facing Afghanistan as something exacerbated by US bombing. Perhaps Hitchens believes Secretary Rumsfeld that nothing happened in Kama Ado, in which case he should read Richard Lloyd Perry's account of how there was nothing left of the village where nothing happened.

Perhaps someone should tell Mr. Hitchens that given a war, collateral damage is inevitable and that the fact that great pains were taken to minimize it is small comfort to the survivors of the collateral damage. Perhaps Mr. Hitchens and other supporters of the administration's action in Afghanistan believe that the refugees who attacked Robert Fisk after they had American bombs destroy their villages and kill their children are just ungrateful to the West for the wonderful thing the Bush administration did for them.

What motivated the refugees in Kila Abdullah to attack Robert Fisk? As it turned out, many of the refugees had been watching television earlier and had seen coverage of the massacre of prisons of war from Mazar-i-Sharif at the hands of Northern Alliance troops under the command of General Dostum supported by American bombing. They had seen how POW's died with their hands bound. They had also seen videotape of the two CIA interrogators threatening a POW with death.

Fisk also reports one more interesting fact leading up to his beating:

"A one point a screaming teenager had turned to my driver and asked, in all sincerity, 'Is that Mr. Bush?'"

Make no mistake about it: Robert Fisk nearly died for George W. Bush's sins - and ours.

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