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Life in the Hall of Smashed Mirrors

Anthony Burke


I stared at my wife, but it wasn’t her. Her face was puffy, newly freckled, and so white. Drained-of-blood white. Still beautiful, but I did double-take after double-take as I listened to her voice emerge from the face of a woman I had never seen before. Every fifteen minutes one of the midwives came and did her obs, talking quietly to Jenny as she took blood pressure, looked at monitors, wrote down readings. Every few hours they changed one of the blood bags hanging from the stand beside her bed, gingerly detached the IV line from the needle taped into her arm, twisted the cap and shook the line as the red fluid flowed downwards once again.

It was the day after the birth. For a few minutes the night before, the twins had lain in the small portable cot beside her bed, swaddled and tiny, before being taken to the nursery to be fed their first meals and sleep under bright fluorescent lights. Now, for the first of a number of times that day, I walked with our boy, Nikos, and one of the nurses to the X-ray suite in the basement. There I dressed in a heavy lead gown and held his little body under the machine, so the doctors could trace the movement of barium meal through his intestines. The radiographer had her own gown, in leopard-print chic; I wore the blue, red and yellow shield of Superman. As I held Nikos’s tiny arms and slumped under the weight of the gown I thought of X-rays. The dentist’s chair, skeleton costumes, Superman’s X-ray vision. The way a nuclear explosion gives off huge pulses of them: X-rays, gamma rays—science fiction words for invisible, lethal wavelengths of energy.

But there was no dying here, where the object was life and the means nuclear medicine. That morning the on-call paediatrician, upon hearing that Nikos had vomited some bile, ordered the tests to see if he might need an operation. Upstairs in the nursery he was fed infant formula every three hours via a thin tube fed through his nose and into his stomach. I pushed his cot into lifts and along corridors and through the nursery doors, then went from there to check on Jenny, where the new blood was slowly beginning its saving work, feeding the exhausted cells in her body, making new ones and flushing away the dying.

Normally she would be in the ward with the babies, receiving visitors and learning to breastfeed, but this was her second day in the delivery room, which now functioned as a mini intensive care unit. For eight hours the day before she had lain in the same bed in labour, her pain dulled by an epidural, watching the contractions and the foetal heartbeats pulse across a paper graph. When Sophia’s heartbeat elevated, indicating distress, the obstetrician ordered an emergency caesarean section. Half an hour later I was being ushered into the operating theatre, where the doctors were already painting antiseptic on Jenny’s swollen belly. Soon after that, amid the anaesthetist’s soothing chatter, we watched as the babies were lifted, kicking and bluish-white, into the world.

Soon they were placed side by a side in a portable cot and moved to a room on the maternity ward, bare apart from an armchair, where I waited with them for Jenny to arrive from Recovery. I was struck by a sudden, terrifying sense of responsibility. Outside the sixth floor window the city gleamed and floated in the darkness. Long minutes passed. I watched planes float slowly into land at the airport, disappearing behind the university buildings as they descended, warning lights blinking on their wingtips. Nikos began to cry. As I picked him up I knew she had been too long.

I did not know that, just a few minutes before, Jenny was lying in recovery bleeding copiously from a vast tear in the wall of her womb. Telling the nurses she felt strange, faint. As she felt herself losing consciousness she heard the nurses debating what to do, dialling for the doctors who couldn’t be found, until she was finally stabilised with a saline drip. She had lost one and half litres of blood.

I did not know that as the babies were placed in my arms their mother had been ebbing away all too quickly, like a stabbing victim wheeled into Emergency at the edges of life.


This is an essay about life, and it starts, as seems only proper, with a story about a hospital—those vast and magical establishments our civilisation has invented to nurture and sustain life, from our first breaths to our last, in the face of every possible disaster, vulnerability or affliction. These establishments, and the human ingenuity, caring and work that sustains them, seem truly marvellous. For weeks afterwards I felt childishly grateful, writing cards to the midwives, the nursery staff and the obstetrician, pouring out our thanks in barely adequate words.

It starts with my marvel at life—at what Jenny had gone through to make these lives, the IVF, the ultrasounds, the emergency admissions during pregnancy, the anguish over untimely blood that promised the worst. And birth, a dangerous birth that just a few decades before may have not seen her live.

My marvel at the fierce, instinctive determination of these new lives: their lungs that worked, their howls for milk, their tiny breaths as they slept and woke and added another day to their existence. At the mysterious work of cells, growing, dividing, forming organs and blood and skin, following a code buried deep in their interior. My marvel at life’s sheer fragility; at how, in the face of it, we have constructed a vast working edifice of medicine and welfare and insurance to stand between ourselves and death. During those days in hospital I felt loved by science and government and reason; I had prayed to God but gave silent thanks to modernity.

But there was also something more unsettling. Often during that week I would go downstairs and stand at the entrance to call friends and family on my mobile phone. I watched the hospital helicopter warming up, then gaining height and turning over the car park, the blades of its rotors thrumming a deep martial beat through the air. I thought of the Chinooks and Apaches flying the Sunni triangle in Iraq, ferrying troops around in the daily hunt for insurgents, laying down fire, destroying houses with rockets. I thought of the research I’d done on the war in Afghanistan—how US AC-130 gunships attacked four villages during the war against the Taliban, killing fifty-four people and wounding 120 others. Afterwards US troops found villagers gathering up the limbs of their neighbours.

I thought of how after the US invasion in March 2003 Iraq’s hospitals lost power, because US bombers had deliberately targeted the electricity grid. Afterwards looters stripped them of medicines and equipment. The same hospitals filling with the wounded and dying, unable to provide more than the most basic and desperate of care.

I thought of how, even now, many hospitals only had access to a few hours of power each day; and of New Yorker writer George Packer’s description of a visit by the Iraqi occupation authority head L. Paul Bremer to a maternity hospital in the town of Diwaniya. They travelled down by helicopter, and Bremer swept though the corridors followed by a phalanx of journalists, aides and armed bodyguards with wraparound sunglasses. The power that day was on, but for a week before there had been none; an Iraqi doctor told Packer that the problems with the power supply had doubled infant mortality. Between seven and ten babies were dying every day. (In modern western hospitals like Prince of Wales in Randwick the death of a premature baby over 24 weeks is a rare event indeed, and would not be attributable to a failure of equipment or care.)

Bremer, who had been given stuffed animals by his aides to give out as presents, walked into a room to be confronted with a woman holding a ‘withered and skeletal’ premature baby, and in the next bed, a gravely ill three-year-old lying listlessly against its mother. He told the photographer to stop taking pictures and said: ‘I don’t like seeing this at all.’ A marine told Packer that just $20,000 was needed to repair the generator and ensure a 24-hour supply.

I thought of how Australian troops had joined the occupation of Iraq, of how our officials were placed in the allied military command and the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), and of how the Royal Australian Navy had bombarded Iraqi positions and our air force had flown bombing missions as the US armoured columns raced to Baghdad.

I pondered a some lines from Hedley Bull’s great text on international relations, The Anarchical Society:

First, all societies seek to ensure that life will be in some measure secure against violence resulting in death or bodily harm. Second, all societies seek to ensure that promises, once made, will be kept, or that agreements, once undertaken, will be carried out. Third, all societies pursue the goal of ensuring that the possession of things will remain stable to some degree, and will not be subject to challenges that are constant and without limit.

I thought about Western leaders’ insistence that this war was necessary to make us secure. I wondered at Bull’s calm certitude. All societies seek to ensure that life will be secure; that promises will be kept. I thought about stability, limits, about challenges without limit.

Cars drove slowly around to the hospital doors, stopped and released patients, then moved on. An ambulance stood outside the entrance to Emergency. People made calls and smoked cigarettes.

I wondered if the life I marvelled at and treasured, and the technology that made it possible, came at a price. If so, who is paying it? Could the living here and the dying there be connected? And would this too have a price? I wondered at the subtle caveat in Bull’s statement: in some measure secure.

Later, sometime after we’d come home, I read an almost throwaway line in one of Michel Foucault’s lectures: ‘The coexistence in our political structures of large destructive mechanisms and institutions oriented towards the care of individual life is something puzzling and needs some investigation … life insurance is connected with a death command’.


On 5 December 2005, the day the twins were born, a young man, Lutfi Amin Abu Dalem, travelled to a shopping centre in the Israeli town of Netanya and detonated explosives strapped to his body, killing himself and five others and wounding forty more. Two weeks later three Palestinians were killed in an operation by Israeli soldiers in the West Bank town of Nablus, while in the Gaza Strip Israel shelled sites believed to be used by Palestinian militants firing rockets into Israel. That month, according to the Red Crescent, twenty-eight people were killed and eighty-one injured by Israeli operations. Israel had withdrawn from the territory in September, but immediately imposed a blockade on Gaza that was strangling its economy, and was beginning an intensification of fighting with Palestinian factions that would culminate in a reinvasion of Gaza in mid-2006, the kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers by Hamas militants and a new war in Lebanon. Israel had met Palestinian rocket fire with a campaign of air strikes and shelling that led to the deaths of seven and the wounding of forty Palestinians as they sunbaked on a Gaza beach.

From that point only escalation was possible. In March 2006 in Gaza twenty Palestinians were killed and ninety-four wounded; in April thirty-one were killed and 126 wounded; in May forty-two were killed and 220 wounded; in June fifty-five people were killed and 222 wounded; and by 19 July, 111 had been killed and 310 wounded as an even more terrible war raged in Lebanon. Death creeps upwards on a graph, like a heartbeat in distress.

The Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, settlements and all, brought many expressions of optimism and hope, but others perceived darker forces at work: forces that saw the ‘peace process’ as an obstacle to securing permanent control over the West Bank, and who thought that raw military power could deal with any opposition. Forces who believed that life was theirs to secure, contain or destroy at will.

In October 2004 Dov Weisglass, an advisor to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, told the Israeli newspaper *Ha’aretz: ‘The disengagement [from Gaza] is actually formaldehyde. It supplies the amount of formaldehyde that’s necessary so that there will not be a political process with the Palestinians.’ And on 4 December 2005, the day before the babies were born, a columnist with the same newspaper wrote somewhat forlornly ahead of the Israeli elections that ‘soon, the new party platforms will be printed, and then Abu Mazen will learn that they all want the same peace—a peace without Palestinians, sprawled out over the road map, lifeless.’

Palestinian Red Crescent statistics state that as of 19 July 2006, 4080 Palestinians have died and 30,482 have been wounded since the Al-Aqsa Intifada broke out in September 2000. In the same period, according to the Israeli Defence Force and the human rights organisation B’Tselem, 197 Palestinians were killed by other Palestinians, and 1007 Israelis were killed by Palestinians.

On the day the babies were born the US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, gave a speech defending the ‘rendition’ of terrorist suspects to secret overseas prisons run by the CIA or to the intelligence services of US allies, where they are often tortured. She spoke of ‘hard choices’ and ‘responsibilities’; of the need to ‘gather potentially significant, life-saving intelligence’.

In Iraq, in the week the babies were born, 150 people were killed, mostly by insurgents fighting the US occupation or other Iraqis. By June 2006, conservative estimates put the civilian death toll of the war at 38,353. More than 24,000 of them had died in Baghdad, and more than 6000 deaths were attributable to the invasion itself. They are lives unrecognised by the US and the UK military, who do not record civilian casualties, even as they claim to adhere closely to international law and are ultimately responsible for the stability and security of Iraq under occupation.

And we know about Abu Ghraib. We’ve seen the photos: the electric Jesus, crucified by wires; the snarling dogs; the bodies covered in ice. Life-saving intelligence. Life and death coexist. I don’t mean in some clichéd ‘dust to dust’ way: being born and slowly growing old, being human and vulnerable. Or some bleak Sam Beckett way: being born astride a grave. I mean in the machinery of politics and government and security that we have built for ourselves. In the way we think about threat, and privilege, and survival. In the fact that killing is functional.

Take the word operation, for example. What occurs when one is admitted to hospital, allocated a room, prepped and placed in a bed and wheeled into theatre? Why is the same term applied to a military endeavour that links logistics, science and the complex organisation of men and machines into a coordinated application of violence with an end? The same end: life, security, survival.

An Israeli military intellectual, Shimon Naveh, calls soldiers planning manoeuvres ‘operational architects’, and has pioneered a field of ‘operational knowledge’. The operating theatre; the theatre of operations; the theatre of battle.

Carl von Clausewitz wrote that: ‘The maximum use of force is in no way incompatible with the simultaneous use of the intellect’.

Operation Iraqi Freedom. Operation Defensive Shield. Operation Restore Hope.


In April 2006, the state of New South Wales adopted new guidelines to be used in maternity hospitals to advise the parents of very premature babies. The guidelines advise that babies born at 23 weeks or earlier should be denied intensive care treatment and allowed to die naturally. However, according to the doctor heading the group that had drafted the guidelines, there was a ‘grey zone’ between 23 and 25 weeks of pregnancy during which there was ‘an increasing obligation to treat … At 24 weeks we’d recommend transfer to a specialist centre [before birth], but there can still be an option of non-intervention’. The recommendations were based on research showing that between 1998 and 2001 in New South Wales ‘209 pregnancies ended at 23 weeks, of which only 89 babies were born alive. Half of them received intensive care treatment but only 14 survived—and just four had no apparent disability at age three.’ The article that reported the decision also stated that ‘international research shows that on average parents want more to be done to save their child than healthcare professionals think reasonable’.

When I read this, out twins were four months old. They had been born at 38 weeks, a good term for twins, and both were of healthy weight. Their stay in the nursery, which they shared with a range of pre-term babies, was precautionary only—to enable Jenny to recover and monitor Nikos as the pediatrician ran through the tests on his digestive system.

I thought of the obstetrician’s advice to write the date we wanted the babies to arrive on a piece of paper and put it on the door of the refrigerator. To look at it every day. I thought of our feelings when Jenny bled so terribly in the middle of the pregnancy, the feelings that must come with a premature birth and especially with such a dilemma. I also thought of the power that brought such a dilemma into being: to be able to save the life of a child born at 25 weeks—not even two-thirds the period of human gestation—is truly an extraordinary thing. It takes science to the edge of the limits of nature. The power to make live is also the power to let die.

I thought of the IVF technology that enabled the babies to exist, and also of the debate that occurred during those months about the imminent approval of the so-called ‘abortion drug’ RU-486, which is used in combination with other methods to assist pregnancy terminations. I thought of the efforts of the federal health minister, Tony Abbott—spurred by his conservative Catholicism and anti-abortion views—to block its approval. Yet Abbott was a member of the government that had joined the invasion of Iraq and had stood silently by after becoming aware of the torture and abuses of Abu Ghraib. This was also the government that had detained the children of asylum seekers in immigration prisons, for years on end, until they went mad with the trauma.

I wondered why the lives of the unborn were worth more than those of the living. Why as a nation we accept that the incarceration of asylum seekers without charge or trial is necessary for our security and our way of life.

The obligation to save and preserve life is seen as one of the most fundamental values of our civilisation, and its violation is generally seen as a scandal—or, at the very least, so fundamental that it requires significant moral argument to justify its violation. Think of the just-war doctrine; utilitarian ethics; the law of war; and an obligation that dates from the Book of Exodus: Thou shalt not kill.

Francis Bacon, philosopher of science and one of the progenitors of enlightenment modernity, wrote that modern science and reason could reverse the fall of Adam and end man’s submission to God: ‘Man, by the fall, lost at once his state of innocence, and his empire over creation, both of which can be partially recovered even in this life, the first by religion and faith, the second by the arts and sciences.’

I was missing something. We thought we were gods, over nature and over each other. Moses’ law was now a ‘hard choice’. I began to understand that the power to save and make life coexists with the power to take it, to decide who shall live and who shall die, when, where, how and why; and with the power to develop elaborate systems of reason and policy and doctrine that can make this power useful, that can secure it to the ends of political authority, hegemony, profit.


Consider an essay published by two prominent nuclear strategists in 1980, Colin Gray and Keith Payne, at the height of the second Cold War. This essay was entitled ‘Victory is possible’ and argued for the United States to develop a nuclear targeting and war-fighting strategy that produces ‘the destruction of Soviet political authority and the emergence of a postwar world order compatible with American values’.

In 1998 Osama Bin Laden gave an interview to a journalist from the American ABC network. His organisation had recently declared a ‘fatwa’ on Americans and Jews; the journalist, John Miller, asked him to explain and clarify it. Bin Laden replied:

American history does not distinguish between civilians and military, and not even women and children. They are the ones who used the bombs against Nagasaki. Can these bombs distinguish between infants and military? … The only way for us to fend off these assaults is to use similar means.

In 2001 Payne and Gray were twenty years older. They were then respectively director and member of a National Institute for Public Policy study that served as a model for the US administration’s 2002 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), which determines US nuclear strategic policy.

More than ten years after the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, the study rejected the disarmament obligations imposed by the United States’ membership of the treaty on non-proliferation. Instead it stated that ‘nuclear weapons must be assayed in relation to their utility to serve national goals [which] are not limited to non-proliferation, international norms, and operational safety. Deterrence and wartime goals are also priorities.’

The study argued for five ‘current/future deterrence and wartime roles’ for nuclear weapons, including ‘enhancing US influence in a crisis’, ‘preventing catastrophic losses in a conventional war’ and ‘providing unique targeting capabilities’ such as ‘deep underground/biological weapons targets’. In turn the NPR stated that while ‘non-nuclear weapons may be particularly useful to limit collateral damage and conflict escalation’, nuclear weapons ‘could be employed against targets able to withstand non-nuclear attack (for example, deep underground bunkers or bio-weapon facilities’.

During 2005 the Pentagon was given the task of preparing a large set of strike options against Iran including suspected nuclear weapons or enrichment facilities, military training camps, airfields and missile sites. In early 2006 the Pentagon presented the White House with options that included the ‘use of bunker-buster tactical nuclear weapons, such as the B61-11, against underground nuclear sites’.

The B61-11 has a ‘dial-a-yield’ of 0.3 to 170 kilotons, compared to the Nagasaki bomb, which was approximately 22 kilotons. A Princeton University physicist, Dr Robert Nelson, has conducted dose calculations which indicate that a ‘one kiloton earth-penetrating “mini-nuke” used in a typical third world urban environment would spread a lethal dose of radioactive fallout over several square kilometres, resulting in tens of thousands of civilian fatalities’.

A few weeks later the Joint Chiefs of Staff grew nervous about the nuclear option and tried to remove it from the Iran plan. White House officials refused, saying: ‘Why are you challenging this? The option came from you.’

In 2003 an international criminal network for the sale of nuclear technology and secrets led by senior Pakistani scientist A.Q. Khan was discovered. It had given designs and arranged for the sale of technology to Libya, Iran and North Korea, and made unsuccessful approaches to Syria, Iraq and Egypt. Khan had also travelled to Afghanistan while it was under Taliban rule, raising fears that nuclear secrets may have also been passed to al-Qaeda.

Can these weapons distinguish between infants and military?

I think of some of these things as I walk the babies in their pram around the headland at Coogee in the days after we got home. Jenny is home asleep, her body still struggling to heal. Both of us are exhausted from the anxious stay in hospital and the sleepless nights adjusting to the frequent feedings.

The thoughts come foggy and jagged, but I am connecting it up. I think of the short, controlled bursts of radiation given to Nikos in the hospital, projected onto a film to create an image that might be used to save his life. (The condition the paediatrician was concerned about would have prevented him from absorbing nutrition, producing a situation known as ‘failure to thrive’.) I think of the vast bursts of radiation released by uncontrolled nuclear fission, entering people’s bodies, carried on the wind as minute particles of uranium and plutonium vaporised in the blast. I think of the constant low-level fission of uranium, of its high atomic number, the radical instability of its massive nucleus spitting lethal energy. Of hardened shells with depleted uranium tips, colloquially known as ‘DU’.

I think of the same basic discoveries that enabled each, the same scientific method that underlay the research’ the same application of logic and rationality, the same desire for progress.

I think of Condoleezza Rice’s glib, hammer-blow line as she did the rounds of the talk shows in 2003 selling the administration’s case for a preventive war against Iraq. ‘We don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud.’

Careful what you wish for.

I look at the bright blue sky, the people on the beach, the shops and apartment blocks packed together on the hillside. I sit on a park bench and give the babies their bottles before walking home. I think of a line from Robert Lowell’s poem ‘Fall 1961’: ‘A father’s no shield for his child.’


We have names for all this: strategy; diplomacy; intelligence; policy. We form departments and institutes and committees and centres to decide what they are and how they occur. To whom and for whom. We send ministers and envoys, we make doctrine, we procure technology and weapons and computers. We assemble and deploy forces. We create lists of targets. We destroy them. Clausewitz put it this way:

War is a continuation of policy by other means.
War is an act of force to compel our enemy to do our will.
War is an act of force, and there is no theoretical limit to the application of that force. Each side therefore compels the opponent to follow suit; a reciprocal action is started which must, in theory, lead to extremes.

Strategy is a system of rationality and organisation that seeks to connect violent means to political ends. The nuclear strategists think that even in the face of the unfathomable, terroristic power of these weapons Clausewitz’s argument still holds—that nuclear weapons are a tool of foreign policy.

Strategy, wrote the Nobel Prize–winning economist Thomas Schelling in his 1966 book Arms and Influence, ‘is the power to hurt’. ‘The power to hurt is a kind of bargaining power.’ He wrote of ‘the strategic role of pain and damage’, saying of the atomic bombs used against Hiroshima and Nagasaki: ‘They hurt, and promised more hurt, and that was their purpose … the political target of the bomb was not the dead of Hiroshima or the factories they worked in, but the survivors in Tokyo.’ Strategy is an attitude to life. It holds life hostage.

After the end of the war against Iraq in 1992 the United Nations Security Council passed a resolution obliging Iraq to dismantle its weapons of mass destruction and long-range missile capabilities under UN supervision. Sanctions imposed before the war would remain in force until UN teams had verified that this had occurred.

The governments of the United Kingdom and United States changed the policy. President George H.W. Bush authorised the CIA to begin covert operations to overthrow Saddam Hussein. Deputy national security advisor Robert Gates stated: ‘Iraqis will pay the price while he remains in power. All possible sanctions will be maintained until he is gone.’

Later the Clinton administration announced a new policy: the ‘dual containment’ of both Iraq and Iran. National security adviser Anthony Lake, writing in Foreign Affairs, stressed the ‘strategic principle … to establish a favorable balance of power, one that will protect critical American interests in the security of our friends and in the free flow of oil at stable prices’. He wrote that Iran and Iraq are:

a complex strategic puzzle that has confounded the policies of three previous American administrations.

As the sole superpower, the United States has a special responsibility for developing a strategy to neutralize, contain and, through selective pressure, perhaps eventually transform these backlash states into constructive members of the international community.

A US study established that, by 1999, the sanctions had directly caused the deaths of between 106,000 and 227,000 Iraqi children under five. Other estimates, which include adult mortality, are much higher.

In the week I write this an Irish Nobel peace laureate speaks to the press in Brisbane. She speaks of her recent visit to Iraq: ‘We went to a hospital where there were 200 children; they were beautiful, all of them, but they had cancers that the doctors couldn’t even recognise. From the first Gulf war, the mothers’ wombs were infected.’ The cancers were the result of depleted-uranium.

Now consider the words of the enemy. ‘We believe that the biggest thieves in the world and the terrorists are the Americans. The only way for us to fend off these assaults is to use similar means.’

Osama Bin Laden often returns to the containment of Iraq in his writings and interviews. It is, after the experience of the Palestinians, the central theme in his theology of outrage and his exhortations to Muslims to wage war on the West. In his 1998 ABC interview he told a story. ‘The prophet said: “A woman entered hell because of a cat.” She did not feed it and blocked it from finding food on its own. She is going to hell for blocking cat to death [sic], but [what do you] say to those who agreed and gave reason for the hundreds of thousands of troops to blockade millions of Muslims in Iraq?’

On 6 November 2003 George W. Bush announced a ‘forward strategy of freedom in the Middle East’. He said:

The success of freedom is not determined by some dialectic of history. [It] rests upon the choices and the courage of free peoples, and upon their willingness to sacrifice. In the trenches of World War I, through a two-front war in the 1940s, the difficult battles of Korea and Vietnam, and in missions of rescue and liberation on nearly every continent, Americans have amply displayed our willingness to sacrifice for liberty.

Sixty years of Western nations excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom in the Middle East did nothing to make us safe.

On 29 October 2004 Osama Bin Laden issued a message to ‘the people of America’, admitting for the first time direct responsibility for the 9/11 attacks:

I speak to you today about the best way to avoid another Manhattan.

Security is one of the pillars of human life. Free men do not underestimate the value of their own security, despite Bush’s claim that we hate freedom. Perhaps he can tell me why we did not attack Sweden, for example?

We have been fighting you because we are free men who cannot acquiesce in injustice. We want to restore security to our umma. Just as you violate our security, so we violate yours. Whoever encroaches upon the security of others and imagines that he himself will remain safe is but a foolish criminal.

Bush said: ‘The advance of freedom leads to peace’. A year earlier, one of his advisers had told a journalist: ‘We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality.’

In February 2004 an internal US army report on the abuse of prisoners at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison was completed. It listed the following practices:

Breaking chemical lights and pouring the phosphoric liquid on detainees; pouring cold water on naked detainees; beating detainees with a broom handle and chair; threatening male detainees with rape; allowing a military police guard to stitch the wound of detainee who was injured after being slammed against the wall in his cell; sodomising a detainee with a chemical light and perhaps a broom stick.

One of the key figures in the abuse policy was under secretary of Defence for Intelligence Stephen Cambone. With the blessing of then secretary of Defence Rumsfeld, Cambone took methods and personnel from the Pentagon’s secret ‘special access program’—which managed the incarceration and interrogation of prisoners detained in the war on terror, including ‘renditions’ to foreign countries and the facility at Guantanamo Bay—and brought them to Abu Ghraib.

A Pentagon consultant told the New Yorker: ‘The White House subcontracted this to the Pentagon, who subcontracted it to Cambone. This is Cambone’s deal, but Rumsfeld and Myers approved the program.’ Cambone was also a member of the team that produced the 2001 National Institute for Public Policy study on new uses for US nuclear weapons.

I think of the explanation offered by a member of the Indonesian radical Islamist cell that bombed the Australian embassy in Jakarta in October 2004: ‘The Australian Government is the American lackey most active in supporting American policies to slaughter Muslims in Iraq. It had the aim of preventing Australia again leaning on Muslims, especially in Iraq.’

I push the babies’ pram up the steep path at the north end of the beach. I pass the sculpture placed there by the state government as a memorial to the eighty-eight Australians killed in the bombings at Kuta Beach, Bali, in October 2002. I turn and walk halfway down the hill, to the entrance to the sea baths, where I can watch the waves breaking over the rocks. I look at the bronze plaque listing the names and photographs of twenty eastern suburbs residents killed in Bali.

When we act, we create our own reality. Living in a giant fairground hall of mirrors, smashing them as we go. Moving from mirror to mirror, we see in the enemy only a distorted reflection of ourselvesWe see in each other the mirror of our prejudices and desires, given added force and meaning by every new atrocity, every policy, every response—the images broken into shards, jagged and blood-streaked silver.

Where are the leaders who would add to their anger at injustice and murder a horror of violence? Or an understanding of its chaotic, proliferating effects? An understanding that fear and hatred feed on each other until they cannot be stopped, like fissioning atoms running out of control.

Where was the international criminal tribunal to try bin Laden and his allies for their atrocities? Where was the international criminal tribunal to try Saddam Hussein for his crimes? Where are the tribunals to try Rumsfeld and co? Who will act to create institutions and values that delegitimise terror, theirs and ours, so that it becomes ever less possible?

A power against hurt.


In 1982 the Israeli defence minister, a former general named Ariel Sharon, convinced his prime minister, Menachem Begin, to begin an invasion of Lebanon. His cabinet believed they had authorised a limited intervention to deal with PLO fighters who were firing rockets and launching attacks across the border into northern Israel.

Sharon, however, had a ‘grand plan’: to push north to Beirut, drive out the PLO, and install a Christian regime that would sign a peace treaty and enable him to absorb the West Bank into ‘Greater Israel’ and create a ‘Palestinian’ state in Jordan.

On 6 June 1982, 45,000 troops poured into Lebanon, overrunning the south and laying siege to Beirut. Israeli Air Force F-16s bombed entire apartment blocks, collapsing them onto their occupants like vast concrete houses of cards. At least 11,000 people were killed by Israeli actions alone.

In the October 2004 interview in which he admits responsibility for 9/11, Osama Bin Laden spoke of this war:

The events that made a direct impression on me were during and after 1982, when America allowed the Israelis to invade Lebanon with the help of its third fleet … It was like a crocodile devouring a child, who could do nothing but scream.

In those critical moments, many ideas raged inside me, ideas difficult to describe, but they unleashed a powerful urge to reject injustice and a strong determination to punish the oppressors.

As I looked at those destroyed towers in Lebanon, it occurred to me to punish the oppressor in kind by destroying towers in America …

I will explain to you the reasons behind these events, and I will tell you the truth about the moments when the decision was taken, so that you can reflect on it.

It seems important to say: he did not reject injustice.

In July 2006 Sharon lay comatose in a Jerusalem hospital after a massive stroke. The Israeli Air Force continued to bombard southern Lebanon and Beirut. The army shelled the south. This time the objective was not the PLO but the Islamist guerrilla organisation and political party Hezbollah, which had stepped up its rocket attacks in solidarity with the Palestinians fighting Israel in Gaza.

The war had gone on for two weeks. The IAF had bombed ambulances, lines of cars and trucks, and a UN observer post. They had destroyed whole neighbourhoods of apartment blocks. Children filled the hospitals, their faces a sea of burns. US diplomacy deliberately frustrated an international push for a cease-fire.

The streets were thick with dust and ash, like another city on another day five years before.

An Israeli Army spokesman told the Associated Press that Israel had hit ‘1,000 targets in the last eight days, 20 percent missile launching sites, control and command centers, missiles and so forth.’ ‘We are still working through our original targeting menus,’ said another official.

Refugees and visitors crowded the ports, hoping to get out. In Tyre, a Shiah woman was filmed being helped onto a small boat taking refugees out to a ferry moored in the bay. It was the last boat of the day, before the bombardment began again, and it was already pulling away. She was agitated, screaming at the driver, at the shore, her teeth bared in a rictus of distress. The shot cuts to two small boys stranded on the wharf—a ten- or eleven-year-old holding his brother, who looks three or four, his mouth open and face streaming with tears. Her sons.

The chief of staff of the Israeli Defence Force, Air Force General Dan Halutz, was asked after his forces bombed a residential district in Gaza, killing fourteen civilians, how he felt after dropping a bomb. He replied: ‘A slight bump to the wing.’

We want to restore security to our umma. Shards.

Outside, the weather is clearing after days of rain. The beach is deserted and appears like a painting, with a row of steel dinghies at one end, the waves rolling in, the sand-coloured surf club at the other. Mothers push prams past joggers and people with dogs. People sit on the steps eating ice-creams and drinking fruit smoothies from long foam cups. The cafés are busy with customers. A council van drives slowly over the grass and onto the road.

Jenny is alive. The babies are alive. What could be wrong?

Sometimes at night I go into the babies’ room to watch them sleep. I touch their faces, so serene and still. They are too young to speak, reason or hate. The quiet is broken by a bus, its sound rising and falling as it passes and then brakes at the end of the street. I listen for their breaths, so light as to be imperceptible, and I am afraid.

Note: A full bibliography and a longer version, of this essay can be found at <>