Western Terror: From Potosi to Baghdad

Origins of the culture of terror

by Andre Vltchek

Z magazine, December 2002


The North American empire is admired by some, condemned by others, but feared by all. There are those, including the British prime minister, who see it as the mighty defender of the civilized world's values. For many people, it is the world's most potent terrorist state-mostly those who have tasted the brutality of U.S. foreign policy in dozens of unfortunate places all over the world.

But is the responsibility for the pitiful state of today's world exclusively American? Is the United States unique in its ruthlessness, after all? Is there anything new and creative in its post-colonial, arrogant, and thuggish approach towards the world?

The answer to both questions is "No."

There is nothing original in the desire of the U.S. to impose its western economic and cultural will upon the rest of the planet. For centuries, the world had been terrorized and plundered by numerous European powers.

Disregard for the interests of people with different skin color, cultures, philosophies, religions, languages, ways of life, and socio-economic structures, is not something recently invented in Washington DC or New York City. All European empires built their fortunes by plundering the world. Silver from the mines of Potosi, spices from the Indonesian archipelago, precious stones and even trade in human beings from Africa, all paying for gigantic palaces, museums and theaters, for cathedrals and municipal buildings-for almost everything that we now call "western civilization."

Not unlike the present day, the rest of the world always had a free choice, "be with us or be against us." To be "with us" meant (and still means) "to serve us."

We must never forget that the West behaved as if it had an inherited, but undefined, right to profit from the misery of the rest of the world. In many cases, the conquered nations (for many cases, read most of the nations of the world) had to give up their own culture, their religions, even their languages, and convert to our set of beliefs and values that we defined as "civilized." The West has never doubted that its cause is the only one that is just, its religions the only ones that lead to God, its greed (whether it is called capitalism or the market economy) the only pure and honest expression of human nature.

During the colonial era, Europe acted like a brutal thug. In comparison to its colonial armies, any present-day terrorist group looks like nothing more than a bunch of second-graders. Colonial powers (past and present) vigorously imposed religious, racial, and other dogmas. No opposition was tolerated. Any kind of expression of dissent, especially that coming from men and women of enslaved nations, was brutally suppressed.

European terror and greed has, for centuries, plundered the great civilizations of Africa, Central and South America, the Middle East, and Asia. No official apology has ever been issued; no compensation has ever been paid. The topic is taboo, even though the plunder continues in a post-colonial manner, utilizing so-called globalization, and the increasing power of unaccountable multi-national companies.

Most left-wing European intellectuals conveniently place the burden of responsibility exclusively on the shoulders of the United States, its government, and its companies. Shockingly, Europe, by cashing in on its few half-hearted critics of U.S. foreign policy, somehow manages to feel morally superior.

The same is happening in South America. While the U.S. terror against sovereign Latin nations and their progressive governments and movements in the 20th century is well remembered, the terror of the Spanish conquest seems to have been forgotten and forgiven, at least by the ruling whites, regardless of their position (on the right or the left) in the political spectrum.

It is unnecessary to say that the Latin American system of power is one of the most cynical examples of European colonial legacy: most of the continent is still ruled by the European minority, while indigenous populations are discriminated against by ruling elites that feel closer to the West than to their own countries. Brazil, for instance, has the fourth-worst disparity of income distribution in the world, and Chile (often hailed as an economic star performer) is not far behind.

U.S. bashing is very much the vogue in cafes of Santiago de Chile. It would be just and appropriate if the U. S. were to be criticized for its countless crimes, such as the orchestration of the coup against Salvador Allende on September 11, 1973 or its support for the abortive coup against Hugo Chavez earlier this year. But Allende is now looked down upon by most Chileans, the result of long decades of a successful brainwashing campaign. Chavez is no longer celebrated as a great reformist, friend of the poor, and the only truly brave and democratic South American leader, Almost everyone in Chile, including those who call themselves leftists, have accepted right-wing propaganda that labels Chavez as a populist demagogue and would-be tyrant.

South American intellectual hostility towards the U.S., and its supine admiration of everything European, is often based more on unsatisfied desire to suffer from the European cultural superiority complex rather than any real opposition to the U.S. foreign policy. Many intellectuals in South America are of European stock, holding at least one European passport (granted because of their "blood") and desperately need to demonstrate their European identity to themselves, and to the whole world. Many of these pseudo-leftists are not really against the U.S., they are against everything American in general, good and bad, from Big Mac's to original cultures of the South American continent and its indigenous people.

Without mentioning European plunder, rape, and murder in Central and South America, without speaking of racist European-descent rulers who are still in control of the majority of Latin American countries and their economies, singling out U.S. policy towards Latin America as only responsible for the current situation would be out of context.

It is worth noting that many Latin intellectuals who are always ready to ridicule "big brother in the North" as the exclusive culprit, are simultaneously hostile to any serious opposition to the new world order. Their worst nightmares, it seems, are about people like Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who dares to address the grievances of the poor world that is not particularly white.

U.S. foreign policy towards Latin America has been reprehensible for decades and centuries. It can justly be described in one word-terrorism. But again, the U. S. is not the one that invented the wheel, nor is it the only one that sits on the wagon. Even its worst excesses have not managed to exterminate 20, 50 or, as was the case during the French invasion to Grenada in the 17th century, even 100 percent of the population of the territories of its modern day colonies.

Eduardo Galeano wrote in his "Open Veins of Latin America," "Spain owned the cow, while Europe drank the milk."

Geopolitics have changed. The U.S. and its companies now own many cows, including those in Latin America. But do you hear that contented sucking sound coming from Europe and the Far East? While Japan is often justifiably attacked for its stubborn refusal to apologize openly to Korea and the other countries that it occupied before and after the Second World War, Europe still treasures its shameful colonial past. If it were only the past, let it be-but European world rule gave birth to the present global power structure and provided the foundation for today's world order, for American imperialism, and for one-way cultural globalization.

Remarkably, European justifications have existed virtually unchallenged until recently. Hardly anyone in Europe or in the United States spends sleepless nights wondering why four out of the five countries that belong to the UN Security Council-the UK, France, Russia, and the U.S.-are former and, to some extent, present colonial powers with absolutely no moral mandate to advise the world on what is right and wrong.

While preparing to invade Iraq because of some unconfirmed speculations that it has weapons of mass destruction, the world is supposed to feel comfortable knowing that several western powers like UK, France, Russia, and the U.S. are sitting on enormous arsenals of such weapons and proudly admitting it. In the distant, and not so distant, past, all four nations have terrorized dozens of countries and regions all over the world. Who gave them a mandate to be sole masters of the universe'?

The answer is, of course, "nobody." But, somehow, everything is justified by a blurry dogma and popular belief in the West, perfected during several centuries of European colonial rule. The finished product was a conviction that defining "civilization" and, above all, deciding what is "right" and "wrong," should take place in European capitals and, lately, in Washington, instead of anywhere else in the world.

Should those butchered by the French, the British, the Americans, and the Russians reserve the right of a pre-emptive strike based on their justifiable fear and concern that what had been done to them once might be done again? That would be unthinkable. That would be defined as "terrorism." It's only us, only the West, that can make decisions on such important matters.

At present, geopolitically irrelevant countries, such as the UK, Russia, and France (is there anything that makes them more important than much bigger non-western nations, except a determined belief in their cultural and racial superiority?), representing nobody but themselves, are on the Security Council making sure that their voices are heard. Other enormous nations and geographical and cultural blocks, are not allowed to participate in world decision-making. Why has France, with about sixty million people, the right to veto UN resolutions, while India, with over one billion, has not? Why is the British vote more powerful than those of all Latin America and Africa combined?

Considering this, can we really talk of a U.S.-dominated world, or should we admit that a fraternity of western countries rules the world, as it has done for centuries?

It is a fraternity that rules the rest of the world by virtue of its control of the UN Security Council and the world economy and culture. It controls linguistics by polluting the languages of the world with terms such as freedom, democracy, and liberty, words that have lost their meaning, but are still supposed to define western superiority, as well as by many other means. It is a fraternity with its cultural, political, and imperialistic roots firmly planted in all parts of the body of the old continent.

In the recent past, Spain celebrated the 500th anniversary of the discovery of the "New World"-in reality the beginning of one of the most perverted and sadistic chapters in the history of humanity. During the Spanish conquest, the colonized nations were given the choice referred to earlier: be with us (become our slaves and bury your culture and free will forever) or be against us (be tortured to death or exterminated).

The French still cling to their idea of a Francophone world-for that, read "the part of the world where the French language was pushed down the throat of the colonized people."

Writing these words in Hanoi, from my window I can see a corner of the central jail, now a national monument of Vietnam, that commemorates the victims of brutal torture and executions performed by French colonizers on the local people. As in so many other places colonized by European powers, the inhabitants of Indochina were stripped of their dignity, robbed, and enslaved. It seems that everyone in the world recalls the dreadful brutality of the U.S. armed forces in Vietnam, but hardly anyone wants to remember French terror in Indochina. The only ones who seem to remember are the Vietnamese and the other inhabitants of Indochina's nations. Of course, nobody speaks French in Vietnam anymore, apart from a few very old men and women. The naiveté of the French would be almost touching, if it wasn't so monstrous: how can a nation torture, kill, and steal from another nation for decades, then return and wonder why almost no one wants to learn their language.

Half-hearted criticism of the present U.S. foreign policy by European intellectuals will not lift the burden of the responsibility that the old continent should feel for the present state of the world. For centuries, the world had been assaulted by European greed, enriching one small continent at the expense of the rest of the planet. After the Second World War, the U.S. surpassed Europe as the prime world ruler; while improvement is not always visible, there should be little or no doubt that the situation would be much worse if Europe had retained its control over the world.

Consider the tens of millions of victims in Central and South America, the Caribbean, Africa, the Middle East and Asia; massacres of native people in North America and Australia, mostly performed by the first and second generation of European immigrants, the 100 Years War, the 30 Years War, the First World War, the Holocaust and the Second World War. This is only a short summary of the dark side of the glorified western civilization under European leadership. In the 20th century alone, over 100 million men, women and children murdered in the wars, conflicts and the Holocaust.

Noam Chomsky calls the U.S. "an offspring of Europe." Despite its claim to be culturally diverse, the United States is based almost exclusively on western/Christian values. President George W. Bush is a Christian fundamentalist, not a Muslim or Buddhist scholar. The U.S. Senate still looks like an exclusive, rich, white boys club. One wonders; how many Congresspeople were influenced by Confucian philosophers, how many of them ever studied Shinto or Islam'? How many Supreme Court justices ever learned languages such as Thai, Swahili, Quechua or Mandarin?

All members of the loosely defined club of the rich nations (call it the OECD or anything you choose, but it generally consists of the U.S. and Canada, western and central Europe, Japan, Singapore, I long Kong, Australia, and New Zealand), have more or less identical global interests. Criticism of U.S. foreign policy by its allies, if it occurs at all, is half-hearted and serves mostly short-term domestic interests, as in the recent 2002 elections in Germany, for instance.

The United States acts in the interest of the members of the club of the rich and against those of the majority of the world that remains poor and is mainly controlled by "bandit" governments friendly to the business interests of the rich world. It therefore enjoys the wholehearted support of the political and economic establishment in Europe and several rich countries in Asia.

While the U. S. prefers to play its role openly, other ruling states are much more discreet. The U.S. invasion of Iraq, the so-called Gulf War, was funded by Japan and Germany, countries that preferred to shed cash instead of sending their combatants.

Of course, in order to create some sort of vision of the global democracy and political and intellectual diversity, various European governments express disagreement with the U.S. foreign policy from time to time. Such altercations typically last no more than several days or weeks before the U.S. is again promised support and eternal friendship.

No matter how brutal the U.S. aggression- whether in Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Grenada or indirectly in El Salvador, Guatemala, Chile, Nicaragua and elsewhere-no European or rich Asian country-nor any other member of the rich part of the world-ever came to the rescue of the innocent victim. Even the very rare diplomatic condemnations of U.S. acts of terror were extremely vague.

The rich world has common interests, and pursues them consistently and ruthlessly. The poor world that makes up the overwhelming majority of our planet, has common interests as well, but is effectively prevented from defending them. The United States does the shooting, and the rest of its allies carry, reload and hold the gun. Call it "partnership," "cooperation," or whatever word you choose-the outcome is the same: the world dictatorship is enforced by one group, not by one country.

The U.S. is not the only country responsible for the present day global dictatorship. However, it is the most visible one. It does most of the shouting and shooting. It often wears ugly military fatigues. It has incredibly bad speechwriters and government members like Rumsfeld, a man who looks like he could do some very ugly things with one's body and brain if allowed. The U.S. is still too much in love with itself, too willing to brag about its power to the rest of the world.

Europe is old and much more cynical. It knows the game. It doesn't offer too many words, doesn't send too many soldiers unnecessarily. While the young friend across the Atlantic does all the yelling and bombing voluntarily, it concentrates on its favorite activity of making and saving money.

But, don't be tooled. If threatened, if its power were to be challenged, if its position in the world was ever put in doubt, the old continent would become active again to defend what it believes is its right to maintain its privileged position.

The world is being increasingly divided into the rich and poor, into the powerful and powerless, into those who suffer and those who make others suffer. Responsibility for this morally contemptible situation lies equally at the doorsteps of the old and the new world. The most brutal chapter of human greed and terror probably started during the conquest of what is now Mexico. Or maybe it started in the corridors of devilishly cold silver mines, high in the Andes, in Potosi. Or maybe much earlier. It continues until now. Before the Spanish conquest, the Inca Empire had not been perfect. Of course, no human society can be. Iraq under Saddam Hussein is very tar from perfection, too. But we had no right then, and we do not have the right now, to enter foreign lands, to kill men and women, to change their rulers, to impose our interests.

After long decades and centuries of cooperation between the old and the new colonial powers, Europe has a unique chance to prove that it is different, that it has changed, that it repents its past and is willing to come to the defense of those who are defenseless. If it can say "No" to the U.S. war plans instead of using vague diplomatic language that no one can figure out, there can be some hope for pluralism, for a world that is not dominated by a single ideology and just one set of interests.

If Europe goes along with the attack on Iraq or stands on the sidelines as it did in Indochina and Central America during the reign of U.S. terror, it will have to bear the same moral responsibility as its offspring, the United States.


Andre Vltchek is an American writer raised in Prague. He has been working for European, Asian and Latin American newspapers and magazines, mostly covering wars and conflicts. He is presently chief editor of the international web-based journal WCN. He lives in Vietnam and Japan.

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