This is Part One of Kanan Makiya’s essay. Part two can be found here.
It would have been nice if I could have started this conference confirming its title, namely accepting the premise that “mass atrocities” in Iraq have in fact ended. But I can’t, for a variety of reasons: part regional, to do with how the Arab Spring is turning out in Syria, and part internal–the more important part. It is not my intention today to discuss the former, but to focus on the latter.
Any examination of the reasons Iraq is today a country teetering on the edge of yet more potential instances of atrocity must start from the legacy of the atrocities it has already been subjected to in the last four decades or so. I said four decades and so I must justify my decision to begin such an examination in 1968, the year the Ba’th came to power.
Before 1968 the Iraqi norm in terms of state abuse of its own civilians does not depart much from that in many other countries of the so-called developing or de-colonizing world. However after 1968 that abuse, and the many new forms of it that are invented by the state, grow into a whole new levels of abuse that justify considering this year a watershed year in modern Iraqi history. Describing it in a nutshell, I would say 1968 was the turning point in the creation, over time of course, not all at once, of a whole new world in which very, very large numbers of people were turned gradually into both victims and victimizers. The nature of the regime, not the person of Saddam, somehow perfected an art of ruling by way of making ordinary people complicit in the criminality of their rulers. That is the legacy that continues long after the dictator has gone, to haunt the people of Iraq, and it could very well continue to do so well into the next generation.
After 2003, it might have been possible to mitigate this long legacy of abuse, to check and curb its worst manifestations after Saddam was gone, to confront the fact of that legacy and admit to it, to acknowledge it as an experience of all not some Iraqis. But that is not the path chosen by the political class put in power by American force of arms. Why they did not choose it, and what in fact is the path that they chose which leads me to such grim speculations about the possibility of future atrocities in Iraq, are perhaps matters I will leave for the discussion.
And so I start with a brief sketchy review of the Iraqi legacy of violence since 1968.
Institutionalized violence as practiced over an extended period of time tends to have form and structure–one might even say it has a history–which it be behooves us to explore and analyze. And the beginning of understanding is to be able to describe in detail what it is one wants to understand. And so I will attempt to list in roughly chronological order the many different forms of violence and abuse inflicted on Iraqi civilians from 1968 to today. Describing these, and thinking about the connections between different forms, is, I suspect, the first step to reducing it and in the long run diminishing it.
Following the argument of the first two chapters of Republic of Fear, I begin with the ‘spectacles’ of violence utilized by the Ba’th when they first came to power in 1968. Here violence is selective and targeted, however it is performed before society as a whole partly as an object lesson and partly as a signal to large numbers of people that something new is being injected into the arena—the necessity to fear the state. It is selective because the state is still too weak to extend it throughout a society that still has active and independent groups and structures. The purpose is to use spectacular violence to legitimate the party and state that have come to power by illegitimate means (a coup in the case of the Ba’th in 1968). Iraq’s very first victims were of course the tiny remnants of its Jewish community in 1968. Jews were followed by so-called Iraqi free mason cells, by the finding of spies and “agents” under every bed, by discovering treasonous intent behind perfectly innocent statements and so on.
The next stage followed in Iraq once the party-state had succeeded in eliminating all real organized forms of opposition (the ICP, the Kurdish movement, independent army officers and civil society organizations). This is the beginning of the police state proper, which in the Iraqi case may be said to have come into existence by the mid to late 1970s. It is accompanied by a rise of the mukhabarat and state security, and the virtual elimination of the army as a political player in the country. This kind of violence takes place in secrecy, and works because citizens have had it by now instilled in their bones, so to speak, what could happen to them if they say or do something the regime deems treasonous or disloyal. Politics, an activity Iraqis had taken to with great gusto after 1958, is now replaced by the fear of what may happen to them or to there loved ones if they even have a political thought or are imagined to have one.
The culmination of the logic of the police state in Iraq was the emergence of a type of violence against civilians that was no longer connected to real opposition or real threats. And by citizens, I mean all citizens, not just Iraqi Kurds or Iraqi Shiites—everyone. In fact Shiites had played a major role in the Arab Ba’th Socialist Party as it had named itself in the 1960s, acquiring leadership positions, and mid-leadership positions. The notion that the Iraqi Ba’th between the 1960s and through the 1970s was a Sunni party is patently ludicrous. The focus of the party is on perfecting the multiple uses of violence to control and pacify, purify even is the language used at the time, to create the new Ba’thi man and woman, who will be the ideal citizen. From being a means to an end, violence gradually, perhaps even imperceptibly, turned into an end in itself. The growth of the means of violence being unchecked in turn led to the turning around of violence from an inwardly directed activity—no longer really necessary as all real opposition had been destroyed already–to one that wanted or needed to project power outwards.
This is Part One of Kanan Makiya’s essay. Part two can be found here..
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