I wrote this piece for the Bodley Head FT Essay Prize 2017
I remember standing on the platform at Baron’s court reading about the beheading of Steven Sotloff at the hands of Islamic State on the 2nd September 2014. His was the second beheading to be plastered across our news feeds and screens and fill all of us with horror. I recall grasping at my neck as if it were my own throat being cut, such was the power ISIS* propaganda. I could only impotently and naïvely hope that they would be bombed into submission and peace restored.
Two years later, I am stood with my fixer on the outskirts of Bashiqa, a recently flattened town in North Eastern Iraq. Bashiqa was liberated by Peshmerga** forces in November 2016 as part of the operation now underway to retake Mosul. The sky is grey and low, rain falls in cold spits. A relentless wind is blowing dismembered shop shutters around in a dreary chorus of banging and rattling. The entire town stinks of corpses which reveal themselves to us as we walk around. Underneath a collapsed wall I can see cracked ribs fanning out from an exploded chest, here a trainer contains a severed foot, there a smashed face is stuck in an eternal scream. Passing soldiers spit the taste in the air out of their mouths.
A journalist by the name of Saif Aldin Kader Sef I met in Kobane in 2016 once described an ISIS attack as like being in front of a herd of stampeding bulls. He told me there was an inhuman quality to them, manic, charging forward in front of withering fire and not hindered by fear of death. Looking at these corpses now I can almost hear the pounding of their feet, their snorting, the sweat and stink in the heat. After all the terror ISIS has caused, it was cathartic to see so many of their corpses.
We walk cautiously down a dirt track, wary of unexploded ordinance on the ground. The track opens into a field at the end of which is a badly damaged house. To the right of it, a lone ISIS militant lies dead face down in the dirt. His belly is exposed, swelling and yellow. His hair matted and smeared across the back of his head. He is missing a hand and a foot. Someone has cut the overhead wires with a pair of shears which now hang twisted on the end of the severed cable. They swing in the air with the wind and occasionally clang against the metal pole like a bell.
We go into the house watching for trip wires and anything that might explode. The smell of death makes your stomach heave so we pull our jumpers over our faces and fight the urge to vomit. The hallway is filled with broken glass, chunks of plaster and concrete. The living room has been blown open by a huge shell. At the far end, I can see two bodies in the desert coloured military jackets and black jumpers that have become the hallmark of ISIS. We can’t get any closer because it is not safe. I can’t see any more corpses until I look down at my feet and see a rotten face staring straight up at me. His left eye is open and shrivelled. His top lip is curled open exposing his long yellow teeth and black gums. I take photos, make some sketches. My fixer leaves me with the body.
I stare at him and think about the M1 Abrams tanks storming across the desert in 1991 and again in 2003 during the US-led intervention. I think of Saddam’s statue being pulled to the ground in Firdos Square on April 9th, 2003. Some of those same Abrams tanks can now be seen flying black flags after they were captured by ISIS from the Iraqi army. A symbolic subversion of US power has taken place. It seems the world I grew up in is coming to an end.
Recently though, that ending has felt more like a suicide. The election of Donald Trump to office and the Brexit vote seem to fit well with what the Frech Philosopher Jean Baudrillard had to say about 9/11: ‘The terrorist hypothesis is that the system will commit suicide in response to multiple challenges posed by deaths and suicides.’1. The twin towers were the most visible symbol of globalization and neo-liberal. In bringing down the twin towers, the nineteen hijackers were making a global call for the suicide of the system. As Bin Laden himself said in November 2001 Qandahar, Afghanistan:
‘Those young men (...inaudible...) said in deeds, in New York and Washington, speeches that overshadowed all other speeches made everywhere else in the world.’2.
Rejections of globalization and neoliberalism in their current forms were central to the Trump and Brexit votes. As a result, we have entered into a period of major traumatic adjustment in the political and economic order of the world.
As Gideon Rachman reported from the 2017 World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos;
‘although delegates at Davos this week, fuelled by champagne and canapes, will do their utmost to pretend that it is business as usual, the fact is that the worldview epitomized by the WEF is under attack as never before.’3.
Within the rejection of neo-liberalism and globalization is a rejection of the free movement of people, in Western Europe at least by the handling of the refugee and migrant crisis. Trump and Brexit supporters might cheer the end of ‘Davos’ class, but the WEF has increasingly focussed on a much darker specter that poses a much greater threat to us all, climate change.
Over the last 10 years, Climate Change related risks have slowly crept up the WEF’s Global Risks Report. In 2017, the report lists the top three major risks in terms of likeliness to occur as extreme weather events, large-scale involuntary migration, and major natural disasters. The report also labels water crises as one of the top five global risks in terms of impact. These relate to climate change.
In December 2016 the chairman of the Global Military Advisory Council on Climate Change, Maj Gen Munir Muniruzzaman stated that “Climate change is the greatest security threat of the 21st Century”4. The threat comes not from us burning up in our houses, but from the knock-on effects of water scarcity and food scarcity. Drought, flooding, natural disaster. These problems create instability and the conditions for groups like ISIS, Al Qaida and Al Nusra. These groups are not formed in vacuums but are a by-product of economic and social instability. The fact that it uses the Islamic faith is an accident of history.
Trump might call this dead man I am looking at the face of ‘Radical Islamic Terror’ but he is also the face of climate change.
As Naomi Klein writes in her 2016 essay ‘Let Them Drown’: “Just as bombs follow oil, and drones follow drought, so boats follow both: boats filled with refugees fleeing homes on the aridity line ravaged by war and drought.”5. As the tropic belt expands, so there will be more drought, more drones, more boats.
However, Trump has been voted in on a Climate Change denying ticket and is threatening to pull the US out of the Paris agreement. Nigel Farage doesn’t want wind turbines in his back yard and everyone seems to love fracking. US Senators throw snowballs in the Senate to prove global warming is a myth.
Parts of Iraq could be described as what Naomi Klein and Steven Lerner call ‘sacrifice zones.’ These zones are parts of the world suffering near permanent environmental damage or economic disinvestments such as the Niger Delta or the Alberta Tar Sands, whilst being exploited for natural resources. In those sacrifice zones live sacrifice people, children mining Coltan for my iPhone in the Democratic Republic of Congo.6. Young girls stitching my clothes together in Bangladesh.7. But these modern day slaves are far away, they are not our problem.
The Oxfam ‘Even It Up’ a report released in January 2017 estimates that eight men own the same wealth as the poorest half of the world. Our current system of division of wealth and labor is also poorly suited to the coming 4th Industrial Revolution.9. With automation of many jobs, a looming this inequality looks set to only worsen. This means more inequality, more destabilization.
We will continue to distance ourselves from this reality. We can build a wall in our minds against the truth. It is what Klein calls ‘othering’; “the whole point of othering is that the other doesn’t have the same rights, the same humanity, as those making the distinction. What does this have to do with climate change? Perhaps everything.” 5.
What are the consequences of the mass migration of people? We have already seen the effects. It has destabilized Europe and torn apart our political establishment. Besides, ‘othering’ will only get you so far.
“Go with me or go with the mob.”
In April 2016 I stood alongside Syrian refugees who had occupied the harbor on the Greek island of Chios after a riot broke out at their camp and they were forced to flee. Some two hundred men, women, and children lived for about a week on the concrete loading area. One night the locals decided they were fed up with the occupation of a key piece of infrastructure by the refugees. They showed up in force and surrounded the harbor. The police arrived but the refugees didn’t want to leave. The despairing mayor of Chios Manolis Vournous addressed the terrified refugees urging them to get on the buses saying:
It was an ugly night, but it was a scene played out endlessly across Eastern and Southern Europe. People that had left everything and risked their lives crossing the sea now being beaten up and terrorized by comparatively rich Europeans. It is easy to criticize the locals who had otherwise been welcoming, but they were living with reality. I imagined how the village where I grew up in middle England would deal with the sudden arrival of two hundred people on the village green. Surely they would be welcomed at first, but tensions build, outsiders get involved, changes are promised and not delivered on, help is offered but impossible to sustain, microaggressions become overt hostility and then you have open violence.
This is the point where it becomes impossible to ‘other.’
I can still hear those well-meaning and hardworking volunteers decrying what they saw as the barbarism of the EU; “We have enough for everyone. No Borders! Open the borders!”
Ultimately, we won’t have enough for everyone because it will never be shared evenly. By 2050 it is estimated there will be almost 10 billion people on the planet. There will come a point for us when to ‘other’ means not only to kill through labor and exploitation but to outright kill because it is expedient. By that time, we will not regard them as innocent, because it will be the only way we will be able to cope. The only way a chosen few of us will ever be able to ‘flourish’ and not merely survive. Surely this vision of the future is only a matter of degrees away from what we are doing to ourselves now?
We are horrified by Trump’s wall, but if the predictions of the World Economic Forum materialize, and the current refugee crisis has caused this much disruption, the potential disaster we are sleep walking into will dwarf the current crisis. But then, on our side of the wall, what harm would a few more machine guns, a few more watchtowers, a few more inconvenient truths do to our breakfast reading of newspapers?
Being shot for crossing a border wall is not new.
Outside this house of corpses, I can see my fixer skulking around the car and looking bored. I have grown used to the foul smell of the bodies. I move closer to the face of the ISIS fighter and stare into that one open rotten eye.
First, yes, of course, you will hold up signs that say ‘No human is illegal’ and you will give up your spare room. You will be horrified by the wall. You will march in protest... a year will pass, frictions will start to occur. Little fissures. You cannot escape it.
One day you will start to reason for it and say; “at least we should be able to control things”, or “how can we help the world if we can’t protect our own?” Eventually, people will agree, grudgingly perhaps, but just as with your iPhone and your slave clothes, you will go along with it.
Time will pass, the news screens will fill with seas of black clothed, brown-faced people streaming over barbed wire fences. FEAR will set in. Fear like you never felt before. When fear takes hold you will find yourself seeing the wall as the only solution. Anything to protect you from that horde of incomprehensible and un-helpable humanity. They are beyond help, there are too many of them. Your own grandmother will have to pack her suitcase in tears and your leafy suburban street will be awash with tents, tents, tents! Where will you go? You will have nowhere to go.
Finally then, on your knees, you will beg for them to build that wall.
When? Look at the world around you, it’s already begun.
* - ISIS – The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. Also known as ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant), IS (Islamic State) and Daesh.
** - Peshmerga – The military forces of the autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan. ‘Peshmerga’ is a Kurdish word which loosely translates as ‘those who face death.’
Jean Baudrillard: The Spirit of Terrorism (Verso Books, 2002).
Osama Bin Laden’s speech transcript: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-
Gideon Rachman, ‘Political Upheaval casts cloud over Davos.’ The Financial Times.
Jan 15th 2017. https://www.ft.com/content/f9f4b23a-b711-11e6-961e-a1acd97f622d
Damian Carrington, ‘Climate change will stir ‘unimaginable’ refugee crisis, says
military.’ The Guardian. 1st December 2016. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/dec/01/climate-change-trigger- unimaginable-refugee-crisis-senior-military
Naomi Klein, ‘Let Them Drown.’ The London Review of Books. 2nd June 2016. http://www.lrb.co.uk/v38/n11/naomi-klein/let-them-drown