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"Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter"

25 July 2002

David Hare and other writers who enjoy a public platform should listen to Desmond Tutu: "Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter"

On 17 June, I wrote about Martin Amis's recent Guardian essay, "The voice of the lonely crowd", in which he described the response of acclaimed writers like himself to 11 September as a "pitiable babble". In fact, they were and remain mostly silent.

The playwright David Hare broke his silence this month in a Guardian article promoting his play Via Dolorosa, which is about Israelis and Palestinians, and was written in 1997-98, during what Hare described as a "moment of romantic open-mindedness". By this, he meant the negotiations that led to the failed Camp David meetings in September 2000 which, in reality, would have trapped the Palestinians in cantons designed by the earlier Oslo accords. One Israel commentator called this "the autonomy of a prisoner-of-war camp".

Hare's Guardian piece was also a reply to my 17 June piece. He wrote that I had lamented "the endemic poverty of British cultural life". Not so; Britain's cultural life is fine, if you discount the drawing-room introspection of its rich and famous writers: those whose reticence is inexcusable at this time of great danger.

While the rampant superpower is delivering the Palestinians into the arms of Ariel Sharon (found "personally responsible" for the massacres at Sabra and Shatila in 1982) it is planning an attack on a sovereign state, Iraq, with the prospect, according to the Pentagon, of 10,000 civilian deaths. Its major ally, the Blair government, has doubled arms shipments to Israel and will almost certainly join the Americans in their latest bloody spree. By any measure of international law, if not morality, both these enterprises are historic crimes.

You might think that, in the tradition of Zola and Miller and Orwell, David Hare - once described as "Britain's radical playwright" - might have something to say about this. No. He tells us what a bother it is to receive "some glib questionnaire [that drops] through a writer's door, asking him or her to take sides, to explain . . . why they personally do or do not approve of the particular actions of particular governments - as if profound questions of power and faith could somehow be despatched to the historical boundary by the flick of a novelist's wrist".

Can it be right that Britain's radical playwright does not feel equipped to take sides? Dr Ala Khazendar of Cambridge, responding in the Guardian to Hare's article, pointed out the subtle contrast of the language used by Hare to describe the Israelis and Palestinians. To Hare, whole "Israeli families" are "destroyed" by the suicide attacks on their country. However, Palestinians, and only the "innocent" among them, are "caught" in the violence. Israeli terrorism is described merely as harming those who get in "the path of a military subjugation" but Palestinian terrorism is "murderous". Extremists on the Israeli side are condemned as "fanatics and expansionists", but among those resisting and reacting to this fanaticism, there exists the "vilest inhumanity".

The radical playwright is dismayed that George W Bush has let him down. "It seemed reasonable to accept", he wrote, that Bush's "commitment" to a Palestinian state "was an offer made in good faith, and that the president had learnt the lessons of his initial reluctance to use America's power to intervene in the region". Reluctance? Since 11 September, Bush has shipped 228 guided missile systems to the Israeli air force, along with 24 state-of-the-art Black Hawk helicopter gunships and 50 F-16 fighter bombers, with British parts.

Hare is disappointed by Colin Powell, "who promised so much . . ." Is this irony? General Powell's last job was overseeing the killing of tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians during the one-sided slaughter called the Gulf war. His previous distinction was conducting the US army's cover-up of the My Lai massacre in Vietnam.

Indeed, the radical playwright is upset that Powell and Bush have "suckered" him. This is understandable. As he puts it, he was one of those "who strongly supported the American action in Afghanistan, not only as a legitimate act of self defence but also as a humanitarian undertaking on behalf of a country desperately in need of relief [and] enjoyed a brief moment of hope last autumn when we thought we detected . . . a welcome seriousness in US foreign policy".

While he was enjoying this moment of hope, the New York Times reported that Bush had "demanded . . . the elimination of truck convoys that provide much of the food and other supplies to Afghanistan's civilian population". And last December, the University of New Hampshire released the results of a study which found that US bombers had killed in excess of 3,000 Afghan civilians - more than the number of those killed in the twin towers.

It was during those few weeks of hope, wrote Hare, that "we were able to believe that the west had rediscovered its role". Many would say that "role" was never lost. In describing the routine American "role" last October, William Blum wrote in Rogue State: "US gunships machine-gunned and cannoned the remote farming village of Chowkar-Karez, killing as many as 93 civilians. A Pentagon official was moved to respond at one point: 'The people there are dead because we wanted them dead.' Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld commented: 'I cannot deal with that particular village.'"

David Hare's best play, Pravda, was an eloquent shout against the abuse of power. With Bush now openly backing the crypto-fascist Likud regime in Israel, while about to destroy countless lives in Iraq, those with the privilege of a public platform have both a moral and an intellectual duty to stop wringing their hands and speak out. When that great voice of freedom, Desmond Tutu, recently called for a boycott on Israel, he drew the parallel with apartheid South Africa and the boycott that helped defeat it.

As if addressing himself to inert liberals who find "glib" the commitment of others, he quoted Martin Luther King: "Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter."

John Pilger
© John Pilger

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