Every month, it seems, brings a new act in the Trump administration’s war on the media. In January, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo exploded at National Public Radio reporter Mary Louise Kelly when he didn’t like questions she asked -- and then banned a colleague of hers from the plane on which he was leaving for a trip to Europe and Asia. In February, the Trump staff booted a Bloomberg News reporter out of an Iowa election campaign event.
Some time ago I wrote a book about one of the great crimes of the last 150 years: the conquest and exploitation of the Congo by King Leopold II of Belgium. When King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in Colonial Africa was published, I thought I had found all the major characters in that brutal patch of history. But a few weeks ago I realized that I had left one out: Tarzan.
This piece originally appeared on TomDispatch.
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Veterans Day Celebrates Warriors From Our Disastrous Wars, But the Day Was Established for Peace and the End of War's Destruction
[The illustrations in this piece come from Joe Sacco’s The Great War: July 1, 1916: The First Day of the Battle of the Somme with the kind permission of its publisher, W.W. Norton, and the slightly adapted text, which also appears in that book, comes originally from Adam Hochschild’s To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918 and is used with the kind permission of its publisher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.]
If we needed more evidence that those surrounding President George W. Bush have a tin ear for the lessons of history, it came ten days ago when National Security Advisor Stephen J. Hadley referred to increasing the number of American troops in Iraq as "the big push" that would bring victory closer.
"The Big Push" is a phrase that came into the language with another troop surge that was supposed to bring another war to victory. For months beforehand, the Big Push was how British cabinet ministers, propagandists, generals, and foot soldiers talked about the 1916 Battle of the Somme. (It is even the title of a later book on the subject.)
The First World War had been in a deadly stalemate for the better part of two years. A string of horrific battles had revealed the huge toll of trench warfare: Defenders could partially protect themselves by building deeper trenches, concrete pillboxes, and reinforced dugouts far underground. But when you went "over the top" of the trench to attack, you were disastrously vulnerable -- out in the open, exposed to deadly, sweeping machine-gun fire as you clambered slowly across barbed wire and bypassed water-filled artillery-shell craters.
So, what did the Allies do? They attacked. At the time, in numbers of men involved, it was history's largest battle. The plan was to break open the German defense line, send the cavalry gloriously charging through the gap, and turn the tide of the war. The result was a catastrophe.
The British army lost nearly 20,000 killed and some 40,000 wounded or missing on the first day alone. German machine gunners, after waiting out the long preliminary bombardment in their fortified bunkers underground, returned to the surface in time to mow down the advancing soldiers. After four and a half months of fighting, British and French troops had suffered more than 600,000 casualties. The Big Push had gained them roughly five miles of muddy, shell-pocked wasteland.
Like the Big Push of the Somme, the Big Push in Iraq is a reapplication of tactics that have already proven a calamitous failure. As the outspoken retired U.S. Army Lieutenant General William Odom, former director of the National Security Agency, puts it, it's like finding yourself in a hole and then digging deeper.
Every piece of evidence from these past nearly four bloody years makes clear that many Sunnis and Shiites alike are driven to rage by the very presence of American soldiers walking Iraqi streets, barging into Iraqi homes, and arresting or killing people who may or may not be insurgents. Furthermore, the people arrested or killed, however unsavory, are sometimes the only force protecting their communities against attacks from the opposite side in an extremely bitter civil war.
Therefore, as sociologist Michael Schwartz explained the matter some six weeks ago, a previous joint U.S.-Iraqi counterinsurgency drive in Baghdad, of exactly the type now being planned, actually increased civilian casualties.
There are huge differences, of course, between the First World War and the current fighting in Iraq. But, even beyond the optimistic talk of the Big Push, there is another eerie resemblance between the two conflicts. In both cases, a great power was itching to launch an invasion, and seized on a handy excuse to do so.
For the Bush administration, of course, the excuse was September 11th. From a long string of insider revelations, we know that its top officials were hungry to invade Iraq, looked eagerly for the most far-fetched connections between Saddam Hussein and 9/11, and -- even then not finding them -- invaded anyway, while continuing to vaguely imply the connections were there.
Something remarkably similar happened in 1914. Austria-Hungary was a shaky empire of restless ethnic minorities ruled by a German-speaking elite in Vienna. Nearly half the population was Slavic, including many Serbs. As a result, the imperial rulers in Vienna felt threatened by the very existence on their border of the independent nation of Serbia, small though it was. They were determined to invade it, possibly partition it, and so stamp out pan-Slavic and Serb nationalism once and for all.
They drew up detailed invasion plans. Then, most conveniently, Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary, the Emperor's nephew and heir to the throne, was assassinated while on a visit to the provincial city of Sarajevo. Like the White House after 9/11, the imperial palace in Vienna promptly began an eager search for a connection to the Serbian government.
Frustratingly, however, the Archduke had been killed on Austro-Hungarian soil by Gavrilo Princip, an Austro-Hungarian citizen. The assassin, an ethnic Serb, had indeed had help from a shadowy secret organization of Serb nationalists, but no connection to the government of Serbia was ever proved. No matter. Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia anyway. Other countries quickly jumped in on both sides, and a conflagration began that remade the world.
Part of that remaking, ironically, was the post-war cobbling together of three provinces of the defeated Ottoman Empire into what was first a British protectorate and then, after 1932, independent Iraq.
There is a final resemblance between the present bloodshed there and the First World War. Both conflicts were fought for a curiously shifting set of noble-sounding goals. With Iraq, the Bush administration has tried on for size finding weapons of mass destruction, liberating the Iraqis, combating Islamist terrorism, and installing democracy in the Arab world. In the First World War, the Allies initially talked of coming to the defense of innocent, invaded little Belgium, then of defeating German militarism and defending the British and French way of life. Once Woodrow Wilson brought the United States into the conflict, he spoke of "the war to end all wars."
It didn't. The humiliation of the losers and the catastrophic loss of life on both sides did nothing to end all wars and much to light the fuses of later ones -- especially the Russian Civil War and the Second World War. The longer the war in Iraq goes on, and the more American troops are planted by Big Pushes in a highly combustible part of the world, the more we will continue to stoke a widespread humiliation and anger whose consequences are already guaranteed to haunt us for decades to come.
Every Briton knows that the Magna Carta, which placed some of the first limits on the absolute power of kings, was signed in 1215 by a reluctant King John and his barons in a meadow at Runnymede, beside the Thames. Every American knows that the Declaration of Independence was adopted in Philadelphia in 1776, in the building later known as Independence Hall. But another such milestone, equally worth celebrating, too few people remember.
The document involved is merely the minutes of a meeting. And if you go today to the spot where the meeting took place, 2 George Yard, a small courtyard in London's financial district, you will find no monument, no plaque, no troops of schoolchildren – only the service entrance to an office building.
Yet the reverberations from what happened on this spot, on the late afternoon of May 22, 1787, eventually caught the attention of millions of people around the world, including the first and greatest student of what today we call civil society. The result of the series of events begun that afternoon in London, wrote Alexis de Tocqueville decades later, was "absolutely without precedent. ... If you pore over the histories of all peoples, I doubt that you will find anything more extraordinary."
The building that once stood at 2 George Yard was a bookstore and printing shop. The proprietor was James Phillips, publisher and printer for Britain's small community of Quakers. On that May afternoon, after the pressmen and typesetters had gone home for the day, 12 men filed through his doors. They formed themselves into a committee with what seemed to their fellow Londoners a hopelessly idealistic and impractical aim: ending first the slave trade and then slavery itself in the most powerful empire on Earth.
The interests they were taking on were entrenched and influential. Britain dominated the Atlantic slave trade. Roughly half the slaves taken across the ocean to its lucrative West Indian sugar islands, to the United States and to other European colonies were transported in British ships. Starting an anti-slavery movement in Britain in 1787 was like starting a renewable energy movement in Saudi Arabia today.
The minutes of that historic meeting, preserved in a leather-bound volume at the British Library, are only a single page long, in the clear, flowing handwriting of the committee's firebrand organizer, Thomas Clarkson.
They begin simply: "At a Meeting held for the Purpose of taking the Slave Trade into consideration, it was resolved that the said Trade was both impolitick and unjust." Throughout history, of course, slaves and other oppressed people have periodically staged uprisings. Given the conditions under which they lived, that was only to be expected. But what made the movement that grew out of the George Yard meeting so unprecedented was this: It was the first time that a large number of people in one country became outraged – and stayed outraged for many years – over the plight of other people, of another color, in other parts of the world.
The movement took off immediately, in a way that earlier scattered abolitionist efforts, in both Britain and North America, never had. Petitions flooded Parliament, which the following year took the timid first step of regulating conditions on the slave ships. Slavery became the prime topic of the London debating societies. Anti-slavery books and posters flooded the country. In a seven-year period, Clarkson rode 35,000 miles by horseback through England, Scotland and Wales, setting up local anti-slavery committees.
No one was more astonished than the powerful slave owners' lobby, which previously had only concerned itself with sugar tariffs and the like. "The Press teems with pamphlets upon this subject, and my table is covered with them," Stephen Fuller, London agent for the Jamaican planters, reported in despair to his employers. "The stream of popularity runs against us."
The outpouring, moreover, defied economic self-interest. From Sheffield, famous for making knives, scissors, razors and the like, 769 metalworkers petitioned Parliament against the slave trade, saying that even though their wares had routinely been purchased by slave-ship captains and then traded to buy slaves in Africa, they nonetheless "consider the case of the nations of Africa as their own." Fuller was amazed that the petitions pouring into Parliament were "stating no grievance or injury of any kind or sort, affecting the Petitioners themselves."
It took the movement more than 50 years from that first meeting to end slavery in the British empire. That goal was finally reached in 1838, a full quarter of a century before slavery died in the United States. No more chained slaves cross the Atlantic today, but the spirit that crystallized at George Yard is with us in a different way. In the idea that those who suffer "no grievance or injury" have the obligation to speak up for those who have suffered them lies the birth of the vision that human rights are universal.
In this very unequal world of ours, where decisions made in our own country – on subjects including military intervention, the sanctioning of torture and the complex economics of globalization – connect us morally to the farthest corners of the Earth, this is an idea that seems more relevant than ever. In that sense, the process born on that long-ago afternoon in 1787 is not only incomplete, it has barely begun.
Some fifteen years ago, while writing about apartheid-era South Africa, I visited one of its nominally independent black "homelands." This crazy quilt of territories was a control mechanism the white regime had come up with in a country where whites were vastly outnumbered by South Africans of other colors. For the most part rural slums, the homelands, also known as Bantustans, made up about 13 percent of the nation's land. I was driving across miles of veldt where blacks were trying to scratch a living from eroded or unyielding patches of earth that white farmers didn't want, interspersed with shantytowns of shacks constructed out of corrugated metal, discarded plasterboard, and old automobile doors. Suddenly, looming out of this desolate landscape like an ocean liner in a swamp, was a huge office building, perhaps 4 or 5 stories high and 150 yards long, with a large sign saying, in English and Afrikaans, "South African Embassy."
I remembered that building the other day when reading about the new U.S. Embassy that will open in Baghdad this week. With a staff of more than 1,700 – and that may be only the beginning – it will be the largest diplomatic mission in the world. Just as our embassy will be considerably more than an embassy, so the Iraqi state that will officially come into being in its shadow next Wednesday, after the speechmaking and flag-raising are over, will be considerably less than a state.
With nearly 140,000 American troops on Iraq's soil, plus tens of thousands of additional foreign soldiers and civilian security guards armed with everything from submachine guns to helicopters, most military power will not be in Iraqi hands, nor will the power of the budget, largely set and paid for in Washington.
If the new Iraq-to-be is not a state, what is it? A half century ago one could talk about colonies, protectorates, and spheres of influence, but in our supposedly post-colonial world, the vocabulary is poorer. We lack a word for a country where most real power is in the hands of someone else, whether that be shadowy local militias, other nations' armies, or both. Pseudostate, perhaps. From Afghanistan to the Palestinian Authority, Bosnia to Congo, pseudostates have now spread around the globe. Some of them will even be exchanging ambassadors with Iraq.
Pseudostates, in fact, are nothing new. They have a long and fascinating history, and two notable groups of them had surprising fates near the twentieth century's end.
One collection was those "homelands" of South Africa, four of which were formally granted independence. The so-called South African Embassies evolved seamlessly out of the white-controlled administrations that had run these territories when they were still called "Native Reserves," just as the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad will begin life in the very same Republican Palace from which occupation administrator L. Paul Bremer III has run Iraq for the last year. The South African government invested large sums in equipping the homelands with everything from foreign ministries to luxurious, gated residential compounds for cabinet members and their families. Collaborating chiefs were made heads of state, and their territories were given flags, national anthems and coats of arms. But when a coup temporarily deposed the handpicked president of Bophuthatswana – seven separate islands of desperately poor land and poor people spread out across hundreds of miles – it was the South African army that promptly restored him to power.
As South Africa made its miraculous transition to majority rule in the early 1990s, the homelands as separate political entities swiftly vanished. The former foreign ministries and embassies were put to other uses and the only people to whom the past trappings of homeland independence still matter today are collectors who do a lively trade in the former territories' stamps.
Another group of pseudostates, however, had a very different fate. The Soviet Union was composed of 15 "Soviet Socialist Republics" – entities, like those in South Africa, set up on ethnic lines as mechanisms of control. These, too, were decked out with the external symbols of sovereignty, and in the case of two Soviet pseudostates, you didn't even have to go there to see their flags. For Byelorussia and the Ukraine had something South Africa's homelands never got: seats at the United Nations, a concession Stalin wrung from the Allies at the end of World War II.
I traveled through a number of these pseudostates in the course of reporting from the old Soviet Union, and we hardheaded journalists always knew, despite Soviet propaganda, that these so-called republics were nothing of the sort and never would be. After all, they had no armies and no independence; Russians migrated to them in large numbers, knowing that ultimate power resided in Moscow. (They could even be dissolved at Moscow's will: A short-lived 16th Soviet Socialist Republic along the Finnish border disappeared with little ado in 1956.) And yet, in that other great transformation of the early '90s, unexpected by hardheaded realists and dogmatic Communists alike, it was the Soviet Union itself that evaporated. Almost overnight its 15 pseudostates turned into real ones. Their coming to life left millions of surprised and unhappy ethnic Russians stranded outside Russia.
The Iraq that will come into being this Wednesday does not closely resemble either the South African homelands or the old Soviet republics. But their histories, however different, might suggest the same lesson to American planners: Pseudostates often turn out quite differently than their inventors intend, for their very creation is an act of hubris. And the larger and more unstable the pseudostate, the greater the hubris and the more likely that imperial plans will go awry. Washington's hopes for what Iraq will be in five or ten years, or even in five or ten months, may prove as unreliable as its predictions that U.S. invasion troops would be greeted with cheers and flowers and would be home in a year.
Clearly White House strategists have a set of hopes, already somewhat battered, for what the Iraqi pseudostate will evolve into: a willing home for the permanent military bases the Pentagon is building in the country; an oil reservoir safely under U.S. influence; and a strategic ally against militant Islam, all with the facade, at least, of democracy. On the other hand, with its vast oil wealth and restive population, at some point Iraq could take a very different path, and embody the religious fervor of its Shiite majority, demand that U.S. forces leave, try to cancel reconstruction contracts with U.S. firms, and reverse the privatization of state assets now under way. Of course, it's not necessarily a matter of going entirely down one path or the other. Iraq may well take on some characteristics from each – or might fracture into Sunni, Shiite, and Kurdish entities, or follow a path no "expert" can now guess.
Whatever happens – whether Iraq dissolves in pieces, is seen largely as a compliant U.S. satellite, or becomes a cheeky avatar of Arab defiance of the West – its territory seems likely to continue to be what it has rapidly become in recent months, a literal and figurative minefield for U. S. troops and a hotbed of Al Qaeda recruitment. The volatile, unpredictable nature of pseudostates, and their role as incubators of troubles that can come back to haunt their creators, has certainly been no great historical secret. Perhaps that was why one of the candidates in the 2000 Presidential election said, "I don't think our troops ought to be used for what's called nation-building." The candidate was George W. Bush.
Strangely, in a city where it seems that on every block a blue-and-white glazed plaque commemorates a famous event or resident, none marks this spot. All you can see today, after you leave the Bank station of the London underground, walk a block or two east, and then take a few steps into a courtyard, is a couple of low, nondescript office buildings, an ancient pub, and, on the site itself, 2 George Yard, a glass-and-steel high-rise. Nothing remains of the bookstore and printing shop that once stood here, or recalls the late afternoon in 1787 when a dozen people -- a somber-looking crew, one man in clerical black and most of the others not removing their high-crowned blade hats -- filed through its doors and sat down to launch one of the most far-reaching citizens' movements of all time. Cities build monuments to kings and generals, not to people who once gathered in a bookstore. And yet what these particular citizens did was felt across the world -- winning the admiration of the first and greatest student of what today we call civil society. What they accomplished, Alexis de Tocqueville wrote, was "something absolutely without precedent in history.... If you pore over the histories of all peoples, I doubt that you will find anything more extraordinary."
To fully grasp how momentous was what began at 2 George Yard, picture the world as it existed in 1787. Well over three-quarters of the people on earth are in bondage of one land or another. In parts of the Americas, slaves far outnumber free people. African slaves are also scattered widely through much of the Islamic world. Slavery is routine in most of Africa itself. In India and other parts of Asia, some people are outright slaves, others in debt bondage that ties them to a particular landlord as harshly as any slave to a Southern plantation owner. In Russia the majority of the population are serfs. Nowhere is slavery more firmly rooted than in Britain's overseas empire, where some half-million slaves are being systematically worked to an early death growing West Indian sugar. Caribbean slave-plantation fortunes underlie many a powerful dynasty, from the ancestors of Elizabeth Barrett Browning to the family of the fabulously wealthy William Beckford, lord mayor of London, who hired Mozart to give his son piano lessons. One of the most prosperous sugar plantations on Barbados is owned by the Church of England. Furthermore, Britain's ships dominate the slave trade, delivering tens of thousands of chained captives each year to French, Dutch, Spanish, and Portuguese colonies as well as to its own.
If you had proposed, in the London of early 1787, to change all of this, nine out of ten people would have laughed you off as a crackpot. The 10th might have admitted that slavery was unpleasant but said that to end it would wreck the British Empire's economy. It would be as if, today, you maintained that the automobile must go. One in ten listeners might agree that the world would be better off if we traveled instead by foot, bicycle, electric train, or trolley, but are you suggesting a political movement to ban cars? Come on, be serious! Looking back, however, what is even more surprising than slavery's scope is how swiftly it died. By the end of the 19th century, slavery was, at least on paper, outlawed almost everywhere. Every American schoolchild learns about the Underground Railroad and the Emancipation Proclamation. But our self-centered textbooks often skip over the fact that in the superpower of the time slavery ended a full quarter-century earlier. For more than two decades before the Civil War, the holiday celebrated most fervently by free blacks in the American North was not July 4 (when they were at risk of attack from drunken white mobs) but August 1, Emancipation Day in the British Empire.
On March 18, 1783, the Morning Chronicle and London Advertiser carried a short letter to the editor about a case being heard in a London courtroom. The item caught the eye of a former slave living in England, Olaudah Equiano. Horrified, he ran immediately to see an Englishman he knew, Granville Sharp, an eccentric pamphleteer and known opponent of slavery. Sharp recorded in his diary that Equiano "called on me, with an account of one hundred and thirty Negroes being thrown alive into the sea."
Months earlier, under Captain Luke Collingwood, the ship Zong had sailed from Africa for Jamaica with some 440 slaves, many of whom had already been on board for weeks. Head winds, spells of calm, and bad navigation (Collingwood mistook Jamaica for another island and sailed right past it) stretched the transatlantic voyage to twice the usual length. Packed tightly into a vessel of only 107 tons, slaves began to sicken. Collingwood was worried, for a competent captain was expected to deliver his cargo in reasonable health, and, of course, dead or dying slaves brought no profits. There was a way out, however. If Collingwood could claim that slaves had died for reasons totally beyond his control, insurance -- at £30 per slave -- would cover the loss.
Collingwood ordered his officers to throw the sickest slaves into the ocean. If ever questioned, he told them, they were to say that due to the unfavorable winds, the ship's water supply was running out. If water had been running out, these murders would be accepted under the principle of "jettison" in maritime law: A captain had a right to throw some cargo -- in this case, slaves -- overboard to save the remainder. In all, 133 slaves were "jettisoned" in several batches; the last group started to fight back and 26 of them were tossed over the side with their arms still shackled.
When the Zong's owners later filed an insurance claim for the value of the dead slaves, it equaled more than half a million dollars in today's money, and the insurance company disputed the claim. The moment Equiano showed him the newspaper article, Granville Sharp leaped into action. He hired lawyers, went to court, and personally interviewed at least one member of the ship's crew and a passenger. But the shocking thing about the Zong case -- as much to Equiano and Sharp then as to us now -- is that after more than a hundred human beings had been flung to their deaths, this was not a homicide trial. It was a civil insurance dispute.
Sharp tried and failed to get the Zong's owners prosecuted for murder. But he fired off a passionate salvo of outraged letters about the case to everyone he could think of. One letter apparently reached a prominent clergyman, who, the following year, became vice chancellor -- the equivalent of an American university's president -- of Cambridge. Disturbed by what he had heard, he put to use one of the most powerful tools at his command: He made the morality of slavery the subject of the annual Cambridge Latin essay contest.
Latin and Greek competitions were a centerpiece of British university life. To win a major one was like winning a Rhodes scholarship or the Heisman trophy today; the honor would be bracketed with your name for a lifetime. One entrant in the Latin contest was a 25-year-old divinity student named Thomas Clarkson. He had no previous interest in slavery whatever, he later wrote, but only "the wish of ... obtaining literary honour." Unexpectedly, however, as he read everything he could find, studied the papers of a slave trader who had recently died, and interviewed officers who had seen slavery firsthand in the Americas, Clarkson found himself overcome: "In the day-time I was uneasy. In the night I had little rest. I sometimes never closed my eyelids for grief. ... I always slept with a candle in my room, that I might rise out of bed and put down such thoughts as might occur to me ... conceiving that no arguments ... should be lost in so great a cause."
He won first prize. When it was awarded in June 1785, Clarkson read his essay aloud in Latin to an audience in Cambridge's elegant Senate House; then, his studies finished, already wearing the black garb of a deacon, he headed off toward London and a promising church career. But he found, to his surprise, that it was slavery itself that "wholly engrossed my thoughts. ... Coming in sight of Wades Mill in Hertfordshire, I sat down disconsolate on the turf by the roadside and held my horse. Here a thought came into my mind, that if the contents of the Essay were true, it was time some person should see these calamities to their end."
'A Fire of Indignation Kindling Within Me'
It was time some person should see these calamities to their end. If there is a single point at which the anti-slavery movement in the British Empire became inevitable, it is the moment Thomas Clarkson got off his horse and sat down beside the road. When he remounted and rode onward to London, it was with the determination, first of all, to publish his essay in English. In the office of one well-known London publisher, he was dismayed that the man was interested only because the essay had won a prize. Clarkson, by contrast, "wished the Essay to find its way ... among such as would think and act with me." He had just left the publisher's office when, on the street, he ran into a Quaker friend of his family's. The Quakers were the only religious denomination that had come out against slavery, and the man said Clarkson was just the person he was looking for: Why hadn't he published that essay of his?
Together, they walked a few blocks to the bookstore and printing shop of James Phillips, in George Yard, in the warren of narrow curving streets of London's business district. Bookselling, publishing, and printing usually happened under the same roof in those days (with the printer's family often living upstairs and perhaps a cow or pig or two in the back yard), and this was the work that Phillips did for Britain's small Quaker community. Clarkson took an immediate liking to him, and on the spot said Phillips could publish the essay. This was the day Clarkson discovered that he was not alone.
With ferocious determination, he now dedicated himself to finding out everything he could about slavery. Many ships sailed for Africa from the docks along the Thames, and after climbing on board and exploring one, he wrote, "I found soon afterwards a fire of indignation kindling within me." He systematically visited anyone with firsthand information: merchants, sea captains, army and navy officers. With the instincts of a good reporter, "I made it a rule to put down in writing, after every conversation, what had taken place."
The key people he would have to work with were clearly the Quakers; they were rock-firm in their convictions, and they had a small but dedicated network around the country. To them, it was clear that Clarkson was a godsend: He was young, brimming with energy, and, above all, he was a member of the all-powerful Church of England. The major reason the Quakers' anti-slavery efforts had so far accomplished nothing was simply because they were Quakers. People mocked them as oddballs who said "thee" and "thou," who refused to take off their distinctive black hats except when preaching or praying, and who refused to use the names of the months or the days of the week because these derived from Roman or pagan gods instead of from the Bible. To influence public opinion, the Quakers needed a talented Anglican willing to devote all his energy to the movement, and in Clarkson, at last, they had one.
Together, Clarkson and his Quaker allies carefully planned a broad organization from both faiths. "Went to town on my mare to attend a committee of the Slave Trade now instituted," wrote one Quaker in his diary. In the late afternoon of May 22, 1787, the group of a dozen men officially assembled for the first time, at James Phillips' bookstore and printing shop. Probably the printers had gone home for the day, so there would have been no clanking flatbed press, but large sheets of uncut book pages would have been hanging from overhead wooden racks in the ceiling, the ink drying.
The committee targeted the slave trade, rather than slavery itself, because abolishing the first seemed within easier political reach and it also seemed likely to eventually end the second. West Indian slavery was by every measure far deadlier than slavery almost anywhere else. Cultivating sugar by hand, under a broiling sun, was-and still is-one of the hardest forms of labor on earth. Tropical diseases were rampant; the slaves' diet was much worse than in the American South; they died younger; they had far fewer children. The death rate on the brutal Caribbean plantations was so high that the slave population would have been dropping by up to 3 percent a year if it were not for the steady shipments of new slaves from Africa. Stop the trade, abolitionists were-naively-convinced, and slavery itself would in the long run become impossible.
The committee now had to ignite its crusade in a country where the overwhelming majority of people considered slavery totally normal. Plantation profits gave a major boost to the British economy, and the livelihood of tens of thousands of seamen, merchants, and shipbuilders depended upon the slave trade. How to even begin the massive job of changing public opinion? More than nine out often Englishmen, and all Englishwomen, could not even vote. Without this most basic right, could they be roused to care about the rights of other people, of a different skin color, an ocean away?
In all of human experience, there was no precedent for such a campaign.
'Success to the Trade'
In June of 1787, Thomas Clarkson got on his horse again and set off for the big slave-ship ports of Bristol and Liverpool. He was looking for veterans of the trade who could eventually testify before parliamentary hearings. he would also distribute pamphlets and quietly set up local abolition committees. Amazingly, for many years to come, he would be the movement's only permanent, full-time organizer.
A sense of foreboding came over Clarkson as he approached Bristol: "The bells of some of the churches were then ringing; the sound ... filled me ... with a melancholy ... . I began now to tremble, for the first time, at the arduous task I had undertaken, of attempting to subvert one of the branches of the commerce of the great place which was then before me. ... I questioned whether I should even get out of it alive." This was not, it turned out, an unreasonable fear.
In the autobiographical history of the movement Clarkson later wrote, the very paper seems to burn with his outrage. When he tracked down information about a massacre of some 300 Africans by British slave traders on the coast of what is today Nigeria, he wrote, "It made ... my blood boil ... within me."
More than 6 feet tall, Clarkson had thick red hair and large, intense blue eyes that looked whomever he spoke to directly in the face. As he stalks purposefully through the streets of Bristol, we can sense him fully finding his calling: "I began now to think that the day was not long enough for me to labour in. I regretted often the approach of night, which suspended my work."
The brutality of the slave trade, Clarkson discovered, wasn't confined to the mistreatment of the slaves themselves. He found a slave ship in the harbor, just returned from a voyage on which 32 seamen had died -- a number larger than many a ship's entire crew. The treatment of one sailor, a free black man named John Dean, wrote Clarkson, "exceeded all belief. ... The captain had fastened him with his belly to the deck, and ... poured hot pitch upon his back, and made incisions in it with hot tongs." Dean had disappeared, but Clarkson found a witness who "had often looked at his scarred and mutilated back."
Each discovery led to another. If slave vessels were so notoriously brutal, why did sailors continue to sign on? For several weeks, Clarkson haunted Bristol waterfront pubs to see how officers recruited their crews. "The young mariner, if a stranger to the port, and unacquainted with the nature of the Slave-trade, was sure to be picked up." He would be told that wages were high and women plentiful. "He was plied with liquor. ... Seamen also were boarded in these houses, who, when the slave-ships were going out, but at no other time, were encouraged to spend more than they had money to pay for." The pub keeper then demanded payment, and only "one alternative was given, namely, a slave-vessel, or a gaol."
Captains and mates refused to talk to Clarkson. But one day in the street, an overheard fragment of conversation made him follow a well-dressed man, a doctor, as it turned out, named James Arnold. He had made two slave voyages, which he described to Clarkson in gruesome detail, and was about to leave on a third. (These ships often carried doctors; healthy slaves fetched higher prices.) Arnold "had been cautioned about falling-in with me," but spoke boldly nonetheless, explaining that he was "quite penniless ... but if he survived this voyage he would never go another." Would Arnold be willing "to keep a journal of facts, and to give his evidence, if called upon, on his return"? The answer was yes.
Several times, Clarkson tried to get slave-ship captains prosecuted for murder. None of these attempts succeeded, but word of them got back to London, where the sober Quaker businessmen on the committee were alarmed that instead of quietly investigating, Clarkson was getting too combative. One wrote to him, "I hope the zeal and animation with which thou hast taken up the cause will be accompanied with temper and moderation."
But Clarkson showed no moderation as he rode on to Liverpool, the world's largest slave-trade port, which would be sending 81 ships to Africa that year. As he was walking past a ship chandler's shop, he was shocked to see handcuffs, leg shackles, and thumbscrews in the window. He also noticed a surgical instrument with a screw device, used by doctors in cases of lockjaw. The shopkeeper explained: It was for prying open the mouths of any slaves on shipboard who tried to commit suicide by not eating. Clarkson bought one of each item; from here on, he would display them to the newspaper editor in every town he passed through. He was learning that organizing alone is not enough; you need to wage a media campaign.
At the King's Arms tavern in Liverpool, where he stayed, men pointed him out in the dining room. "Some gave as a toast, Success to the Trade, and then laughed immoderately, and watched me when I took my glass to see if I would drink it." Before long, he began receiving anonymous death threats. One day, looking back from the end of a pier in a heavy gale, "I noticed eight or nine persons making towards me. ... They closed upon me and bore me back." The group included one of the ship's officers he was trying to have prosecuted for murder. At this moment, his tall, strong build saved him from harm-and possibly from death if, like most Britons of his day, he did not know how to swim. "It instantly struck me that they had a design to throw me over the pier-head. ... There was not a moment to lose. ... I darted forward. One of them, against whom I pushed myself, fell down. ... And I escaped, not without blows, amidst their imprecations and abuse."
The Blood-sweetened Beverage
Within two or three months of Clarkson's return to London, where the committee had been energetically recruiting supporters and distributing books and pamphlets, there appeared a dramatic sign of a sea change in public opinion. There were no Gallup polls in those days, but there was one group of businessmen whose living depended on shrewdly gauging public tastes: the proprietors of London's debating societies. (Sex was always popular, for instance, with debate topics such as "Whether the fashionable infidelities of married couples are more owing to the depravity of the Gentlemen or the inconstancy of the Ladies?") After years in which slavery was only rarely a subject, abruptly the abolition of the slave trade was the topic of half of all 14 public debates on record in the city's daily newspapers in February 1788.
At one, an ad promised that "A NATIVE OF AFRICA, many years a Slave in the West-Indies," would speak. The anonymous African was probably Olaudah Equiano. Another newspaper reported "a circumstance never before witnessed in a Debating Society. A lady spoke to the subject with that dignity, energy, and information, which astonished every one present. ... The question was carried against the Slave Trade." Other than at religious meetings, these may be, scholars believe, the first occasions that either a black person or a woman gave a public speech in Britain.
The most important expression of public feeling came on great, stiff rolls of parchment. By the time Parliament adjourned for the year, petitions asking for abolition or reform of the slave trade had been signed by more than 60,000 people. Petitions were a time-honored means of pressure in a country where voters had no control whatever over the House of Lords, and where fewer than one adult man in ten could vote for the House of Commons. Anti-slave-trade petitions -- never seen before -- suddenly outnumbered those on all other subjects combined.
The superbly organized anti-slavery committee also pioneered several techniques used ever since. For example, they periodically printed copies of "a Letter to our Friends in the Country, to inform them of the state of the Business" -- the ancestor of many a newsletter, print or electronic, published by activist groups today. They also agreed on a piece of text delivered to every donor in greater London appealing for another contribution, at least as big as the last. This may have been history's first direct-mail fundraising letter.
When the famous one-legged pottery entrepreneur Josiah Wedgwood joined the committee, he had one of his craftsmen make a bas-relief of a kneeling slave, in chains, encircled by the legend "Am I Not a Man and a Brother?" American anti-slavery sympathizer Benjamin Franklin, impressed, declared that the image had an impact "equal to that of the best written Pamphlet." Clarkson gave out 500 of these medallions on his organizing trips. "Of the ladies, several wore them in bracelets, and others had them fitted up in an ornamental manner as pins for their hair." The equivalent of the lapel buttons we wear for an electoral campaign, this was probably the first widespread use of a logo designed for a political cause. It was the 18th century's "new media."
Within a few years, another tactic arose from the grassroots. Throughout the length and breadth of the British Isles, people stopped eating the major product harvested by British slaves: sugar. Clarkson was delighted to find a "remedy, which the people were ... taking into their own hands. ... Rich and poor, churchmen and dissenters. ... By the best computation I was able to make from notes taken down in my journey, no fewer than three hundred thousand persons had abandoned the use of sugar." Almost like "fair trade" food labeling today, advertisements quickly filled the press: "BENJAMIN TRAVERS, Sugar-Refiner, acquaints the Publick that he has now an assortment of Loaves, Lumps, Powder Sugar, and Syrup, ready for sale ... produced by the labour of FREEMEN." Then, as now, the full workings of a globalized economy were largely invisible. The boycott caught people's imagination because it brought these hidden ties to light. The poet Robert Southey spoke of tea as "the blood-sweetened beverage."
Slavery advocates were horrified. One rushed out a counter-pamphlet claiming that "sugar is not a luxury; but ... a necessary of life; and great injury have many persons done to their constitutions by totally abstaining from it."
The abolitionists pioneered another key organizing tool as well, and you have seen it. Rare is the TV program or illustrated book about slavery that does not show a detailed, diagram-like top-down view of rows of slaves' bodies packed like sardines into a ship. The ship is a specific one, the Brookes, of Liverpool, and Clarkson and his colleagues swiftly printed 8,700 copies of the diagram, and it was soon hung on the walls of homes and pubs throughout the country. Part of its brilliance was that it was unanswerable: What could the slave interests do, make a painting of happy slaves on shipboard? Precise, understated, and eloquent in its starkness, it was the first widely reproduced political poster.
The First Political Book Tour
Uprisings of the oppressed have erupted throughout history, but the anti-slavery movement in England was the first sustained mass campaign anywhere on behalf of someone else's rights. Sometimes Britons even seemed to be organizing against their own self-interest. From Sheffield, famous for making scissors, scythes, knives, razors, and the like, 769 metalworkers petitioned Parliament in 1789. Because their wares were sold to ship captains for use as currency to buy slaves, the Sheffield cutlers wrote, they might be expected to favor the slave trade. But they vigorously opposed it: "Your petitioners ... consider the case of the nations of Africa as their own."
Consider the Africans' case as their own? Stephen Fuller, London agent for the Jamaican planters and a key figure in the pro-slavery lobby, wrote in bewilderment that the petitions flooding into Parliament were "stating no grievance or injury of any land or sort, affecting the Petitioners themselves." He was right to be startled. This was something new in human history.
Meanwhile, something else feeding the country's growing antislavery fervor was Olaudah Equiano's autobiography, a vivid account of his life in slavery and freedom. At seven shillings a copy, it became a best seller. For an extraordinary five years, he promoted his book throughout the kingdom, winning a particularly friendly reception in Ireland, whose people felt that they, too, knew something about oppression by the British. Equiano's was the first great political book tour, and never was one better timed.
The slave interests were piqued. In the biggest slave port, the editor of the Liverpool General Advertiser bemoaned the "infatuation of our country, running headlong into ruin." Pro-slavery forces now launched counterattacks. They bought copies of a pro-slavery book for distribution "particularly at Cambridge" (college towns leaned left even then) and printed 8,000 copies of a pamphlet about how each happy slave family had "a snug little house and garden, and plenty of pigs and poultry." They sponsored a London musical, "The Benevolent Planters," in which two black lovers, separated in Africa, end up living on adjoining plantations in the West Indies and are reunited by their kindly owners. But Britons dependent on the slave economy were worried. Some doggerel made the rounds in Liverpool: If our slave trade had gone, there's an end to our lives / Beggars all we must be, our children and wives / No ships from our ports, their proud sails e'er would spread / And our streets grown with grass where the cows might be fed.
The slave interests' tactics bore a fascinating resemblance to the way industries under assault try to defend themselves today. When, for instance, there were moves in Parliament to try to regulate the treatment of slaves, the planters hastily drew up a lofty-sounding code of conduct of their own and insisted no government interference was necessary. They considered other P.R. techniques as well. "The vulgar are influenced by names and titles," suggested one pro-slavery writer in 1789. "Instead of SLAVES, let the Negroes be called ASSISTANT-PLANTERS; and we shall not then hear such violent outcries against the slave-trade."
The Movement Deflected
In Parliament, slavery's most colorful spokesman was the Duke of Clarence, one of the many dissolute sons of King George III. As a teenager, he had entered the Royal Navy and gone to the West Indies, where he was wined and dined enthusiastically by the plantation owners. He showered marriage proposals and cases of venereal disease on their daughters and thoroughly imbibed their attitudes. In his maiden speech before fellow members of the House of Lords in their red and ermine robes, he called himself "an attentive observer of the state of the negroes," who found them well cared for and "in a state of humble happiness." On another occasion, he warned that Britain's abolishing the trade would mean the slaves would be transported by foreigners, "who would not use them with such tenderness and care."
Parliament was, of course, where the ultimate battle over the slave trade had to be fought. As spokesman in the House of Commons, Clarkson had lined up William Wilberforce, a wealthy, diminutive member of Parliament from Yorkshire, widely respected for his piety and eloquence. Except for his lifelong opposition to slavery, Wilberforce was Clarkson's political opposite. Where Clarkson was swept up by the radical currents of the age, Wilberforce feared democratic impulses, labor unions, rising wages, and women's participation in political life. Nonetheless, the two men were good friends and worked together closely for nearly 50 years.
But before Parliament could act, there were lengthy hearings. Witnesses like James Penny, a former captain, made the slaves on the middle passage sound almost like cruise passengers: "If the Weather is sultry, and there appears the least Perspiration upon their Skins, when they come upon Deck, there are Two Men attending with Cloths to rub them perfectly dry, and another to give them a little Cordial. ... They are then supplied with Pipes and Tobacco. ... They are amused with Instruments of Music peculiar to their own country ... and when tired of Music and Dancing, they then go to Games of Chance."
Rounding up eyewitnesses willing to speak against the trade was as difficult as finding military or corporate whistleblowers today. For a seaman or ship's officer to testify critically meant he could never find work on slave ships again. At one point Clarkson rode 1,600 miles in two months, scouring the country for more witnesses. Often, he complained, "when I took out my pen and ink to put down the information, which a person was giving me, he became ... embarrassed and frightened." The most dramatic witness had just returned from a slave voyage: James Arnold, the Bristol doctor whom Clarkson had persuaded to keep a journal.
The slave interests skillfully used the hearings as a delaying tactic, spreading them out over several years, and outmaneuvering Wilberforce, who was a naive and disorganized legislative strategist. They beat back several of his attempts to get Parliament to abolish the slave trade, but by the spring of 1792, some five years after that first landmark meeting at 2 George Yard, it looked as if public feeling against the trade was too strong to be resisted. "Of the enthusiasm of the nation at this time," wrote Clarkson, "none can form an opinion but they who witnessed it.... The current ran with such strength and rapidity, that it was impossible to stem it." Exhausted, he had just finished one of his horseback organizing marathons around the country; Equiano was finding friendly audiences wherever he went; and the sugar boycott was at its peak. William Wordsworth wrote that the anti-slavery fervor of that spring was nothing less "than a whole Nation crying with one voice."
Clarkson and other activists lobbied members of Parliament with unrelenting intensity. Anti-slavery petitions flooded Parliament as never before. When unrolled, the one from Edinburgh stretched the entire length of the House of Commons floor. Twenty thousand people signed in Manchester -- nearly one-third of the city's population. Petitions from some small towns bore the signatures of almost every literate inhabitant. Altogether, there were 519 petitions from all over England, Scotland, and Wales.
Four petitions arrived in favor of the trade.
The hearings for now finished, the parliamentary debate ran through the night. And so we must imagine the House of Commons chamber dimly lit by candles in a chandelier and wall brackets; the gowned, bewigged Speaker in his pulpit-like chair; members bowing to him when they leave the floor; the black-cloaked clerks below him; the snuffboxes at the doors; the candlelight glinting on the silver-and-gold ceremonial mace lying upon the central table; and, rising into the gloom, the benches of members, many in boots and spurs. The narrow visitors' galleries high above them were packed, and newcomers were turned away. Equiano got there in time, however. Clarkson slipped a doorkeeper a handsome 10 guineas to let in 30 abolitionists.
When Henry Dundas, the politically powerful Home Secretary who controlled a large block of Scottish votes, rose to speak, no one knew where he stood. Dundas began by declaring himself in favor of abolition, at which those in the gallery must have felt their spirits rise. He then went even further, and declared himself in favor of emancipation of the slaves ... but far in the future, he added quickly, and after much preparation and education. Then, to the abolitionists' dismay, he introduced an amendment that inserted the word "gradually" in Wilberforce's motion to abolish the slave trade. This signaled the moment that comes in every political crusade, when the other side is forced to adopt the crusaders' rhetoric: The factory farm labels its produce "natural"; the oil company declares itself environmentalist. Dundas had called himself an abolitionist, but he asked that abolition be postponed.
The tall, slender prime minister, William Pitt, not yet 33 years old, spoke last, at 4 a.m. He declared himself "too much exhausted to enter so fully into the subject ... as I could wish." But to read his speech today is to feel shame at the sound-bite political rhetoric of our own time. Pitt spoke for more than an hour, extemporaneously. He began by taking the "gradualists" at their word, that they favored abolition, and then one by one showed how each of their points was a better argument for ending the trade now. Then he demolished the classic arguments of the slave traders. Like arms exporters today, British ship owners claimed that if they ceased carrying slaves, the business would merely go to other countries, especially the great rival, France. But how could anyone expect France to increase its slave trading when it was desperately trying to put down a vast rebellion -- the Haitian revolution -- in its prime colony? And as for the trade itself, Pitt asked, "How, sir! Is this enormous evil ever to be eradicated, if every nation is thus prudentially to wait till the concurrence of all the world shall have been obtained?"
Finally, Pitt made a grand historical comparison that cleverly made use of the country's imperial arrogance. Britain, he declared, and British laws and achievements, were the acme of human civilization. But was it fair to call Africa barbarous and uncivilized, and to say that the slave traders were doing no harm by removing people from that continent? For in Britain, too, many centuries earlier, one would have found slavery and human sacrifice. "Why might not some Roman Senator ... pointing to British Barbarians, have predicted with equal boldness, 'There is a people that will never rise to civilization'...?" Legend has it that just as he concluded, the first rays of the rising sun burst through the large window behind the Speaker's chair.
Pitt's eloquence was not enough. The gradualist proposal passed, and after more debate the House set 1796, four long years hence, as the year when the slave trade was to end. A far more significant obstacle, however, was the House of Lords, which voted down any abolition at all, gradual or otherwise. The abolitionists were deeply discouraged. Nonetheless, for the first time anywhere in the world, a national legislative body had voted for an end to the slave trade.
'My Children Shall Be Free'
Before the issue could come up again at the next year's parliamentary session, Britain and France went to war -- a conflict that lasted, with only two short interruptions, for 22 years, ending only at Waterloo. The fighting brought with it a wave of repression: Every progressive movement, including abolition, was stopped in its tracks. It was not until 1806, after Clarkson, his hair now turning white, had toured the country rallying the faithful again, that the abolitionists found a way of cloaking a partial slave-trade ban in patriotic colors. Despite the war, British-owned slave ships, it turned out, were stealthily but profitably supplying slaves to French colonies. Parliament swiftly forbade this, and with the momentum from that move, the abolitionists were able to get both houses to ban the entire British slave trade in 1807.
They were still confident that this would soon spell the end of slavery itself. However, now that Caribbean planters were no longer able to replace slaves worked to death by buying shiploads of new ones, they eased working conditions and improved the slaves' diet. By the 1820s, the slave birthrate was rising. In England, the movement came back to life, pushing now for emancipation. Once again, in his 60s, Clarkson headed off around the country, traveling for more than a year all told, visiting his contacts from decades before -- or, more often, their children -- and helping to start more than 200 local committees. With their eyes again on a very conservative Parliament, he and his colleagues were cautious, advocating freeing the slaves in slow stages.
But this time something different happened. More than 70 "Ladies'" anti-slavery societies sprang up throughout Britain; influenced by a fiery Quaker pamphleteer named Elizabeth Heyrick, they mostly pushed for immediate, not gradual, freedom. One woman activist wrote, "Men may propose only gradually to abolish the worst of crimes, and only mitigate the most cruel bondage, but why should we countenance such enormities ...?"
When news of the revived movement crossed the Atlantic, at the end of 1831, it helped ignite the largest slave rebellion ever seen in the British West Indies. More than 20,000 slaves rose up throughout northwestern Jamaica. Planters had long liked to build their grand balconied homes on breezy heights, and, now going up in flames, they acted as signal beacons. As the militia was closing in on one plantation in rebel hands, a slave set fire to the sugar works, shouting, before she was shot, "I know I shall die for it, but my children shall be free!"
By the time troops suppressed the revolt, some 200 slaves and 14 whites were dead. The gallows or firing squads claimed more than 340 additional slaves. However, the rebellion helped convince Britain's establishment that the cost of continued slavery was too high. William Taylor, a former Jamaican plantation manager and police magistrate, testified before a parliamentary committee that the revolts "will break out again, and if they do you will not be able to control them. ... I cannot understand how you can expect [slaves] to be quiet, who are reading English newspapers."
After the most massive campaign of petitions and demonstrations yet seen, Parliament finally gave in. Nearly 800,000 slaves throughout the British Empire became free on August 1, 1838. On the sweltering night before, the Baptist church in Falmouth, Jamaica, hung its walls with branches, flowers, and portraits of Clarkson and Wilberforce. A coffin was inscribed "Colonial Slavery, died July 31st, 1838, aged 276 years" and was filled with chains, an iron collar, and a whip. An open grave laid waiting outside. Just after midnight, singing parishioners lowered the coffin into it. Slavery in the largest empire on earth was over.
Of the 12 men who had assembled 51 years earlier in the Quaker bookstore and printing shop at 2 George Yard, Thomas Clarkson was the only one still alive.
Changing the World
Though born in the age of swords, wigs, and stagecoaches, the British anti-slavery movement leaves us an extraordinary legacy. Every day activists use the tools it helped pioneer: consumer boycotts, newsletters, petitions, political posters and buttons, national campaigns with local committees, and much more. But far more important is the boldness of its vision. Look at the problems that confront the world today: global warming; the vast gap between rich and poor nations; the relentless spread of nuclear weapons; the poisoning of the earth's soil, air, and water; the habit of war. To solve almost any one of these, a realist might say, is surely the work of centuries; to think otherwise is naive. But many a hardheaded realist could -- and did -- say exactly the same thing to those who first proposed to end slavery. After all, was it not in one form or another woven into the economy of most of the world? Had it not existed for millennia? Was it not older, even, than money and the written word? Surely anyone expecting to change all of that was a dreamer. But the realists turned out to be wrong. "Never doubt," said Margaret Mead, "that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has."
Adam Hochschild is the author of King Leopold's Ghost, A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa. This article is based on his history of the British anti-slavery movement which will be published by Houghton Mifflin next fall.
In the war that has just begun, soldiers and civilians will not be the only casualties. Although President Bush trumpets the bringing of democracy to Iraq, in a larger sense the deadly rain of missiles on Baghdad has dealt a major setback to what historians someday may call the Age of Human Rights
Perhaps that's too grand a term for a principle that major nations have applied erratically, hypocritically, or often not at all. But the idea of human rights as an international standard, as something which transcends national boundaries, has gathered much force over the last several decades. It has been one of the great, fragile triumphs of today's world.
A major human rights landmark was the 1961 founding of Amnesty International, an organization based on the principle that no one should be imprisoned -- whether by Poland or Argentina, China or El Salvador, Pakistan or Bulgaria -- only for his or her beliefs. This proved a powerful, subversive message that rattled many governments in a world divided by the Cold War -- the repressive regimes of the Soviet bloc on one side, and the United States with its dictator allies in Latin America and elsewhere on the other. In 1978, across the kitchen table in the Moscow apartment of the famed physicist and dissident Andrei Sakharov, a Russian writer told me that a friend of hers in prison had once received a postcard of support from an Amnesty member in Switzerland. "I felt as if the doors of the prison had opened," the man told her years later, "And I could see the sky."
Today a report by Amnesty, Human Rights Watch, Antislavery International or other similar groups carries moral weight because people know that it is based on a universal standard. And that standard has broadened: The concept of human rights now increasingly includes not just the legal rights of free speech, due process and the vote, but the social and economic rights to health care, a living wage, and more.
Another set of human rights landmarks has been the setting up of United Nations tribunals for those who committed war crimes in Rwanda, Sierra Leone, and the former Yugoslavia. So far, such trials have been for officials from small and powerless countries only; it will be a long time before Russia is called to account for its atrocities in Chechnya, or the United States for a century of military interventions in Central America. Nonetheless, a principle is on the table that applies to all nations great and small. Many a would-be dictator now knows that he could someday be put in the dock outside his own country. And even where there are no tribunals, another set of rights is implicitly now on the table: the right for survivors of brutal, repressive regimes to know the truth. South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission has been a bold and daring experiment, imperfect but unprecedented in history, and is now being imitated in more than half a dozen other countries. Could something like it have even been imagined before our imperfect but unprecedented Age of Human Rights?
One of my favorite institutions of this era few Americans even know about: the European Court of Human Rights. Participating nations -- including many which are not yet members of the European Union -- must allow the court to overrule legal decisions made by their national courts. I recently heard a Danish former judge of the court describe how in an important test case the court had reinstated in her job a German schoolteacher fired only because of her membership in the Communist Party. The Dane was then asked by a new and bewildered fellow-judge from Eastern Europe, "Explain this to me. I don't understand it. In my country we're trying to fire Communist Party members!" Perhaps today that judge better understands how human rights extend even to those whose political opinions you loathe. Millions of Europeans certainly do.
A high point of the Age of Human Rights came on the evening of October 16, 1998, when Scotland Yard detectives walked into a private clinic in London's exclusive Marylebone district and placed retired General Augusto Pinochet of Chile under arrest. Pinochet had the blood of thousands of tortured, murdered and "disappeared" Chileans on his hands; a Spanish judge had issued a warrant for him; and under European Union agreements Scotland Yard had no choice but to obey it -- even though the arrest left the British government with a huge diplomatic headache. After dithering for more than a year, the British finally let Pinochet return to Chile, on spurious grounds of ill-health. Still, Pinochet was deeply and publicly humiliated; Chilean authorities were emboldened to move against him in ways they had not done before; and retired human rights abusers around the globe -- including Pinochet-supporter Henry Kissinger -- are more careful where they travel.
And now? Even before launching its senseless and unnecessary war on Iraq, the way the Bush Administration has waged the necessary war on Al-Qaeda has made a mockery of human rights. At home and abroad, prisoners are held in secret, in harsh, isolated conditions, without the rights of either civilian defendants or POWs. Suspects captured by Americans are turned over for interrogation to foreign security services, like those of Morocco, Jordan and Egypt, that routinely practice severe torture. U.S. intelligence and military officers boast of brutal measures as well, such as withholding pain medication from wounded captives. And intellectuals who should know better, like Alan Dershowitz, argue, appallingly, that torture as a means of interrogation can sometimes be justified.
In building the vast network of military bases that surround the Persian Gulf and its oil (or "our oil," as some in Washington say), we've gotten more deeply entangled with the repressive allies we already have, like Saudi Arabia and the Arab sheikdoms, and have acquired a raft of ungodly new ones. In gas-rich Turkmenistan, one of many countries now hosting U.S. troops, dictator Saparmurad Niyazov has thrown 20,000 of his enemies in prison. Ruling from a palace as fancy as any of Saddam Hussein's, Niyazov has renamed months of the year after his first and last names, his mother, and his self-given title, Father Of All Turkmen.
Despite lip service by President Bush and his team about bringing democracy to Iraq, attacking that country has nothing to do with human rights. Saddam Hussein is a murderous despot, but this is still a war of conquest. The only right involved here is the one baldly asserted by Bush and his fast-diminishing number of allies: the right of an imperial America to assert its control over other countries. If all well-armed nations followed this example, the world would be doomed to perpetual, all-engulfing war. And don't expect any human rights paradise when the conquest of Iraq is complete. A regime friendly to the U.S. and its oil companies is the goal; an untidy democracy that might empower independence-minded Kurds or Islamicist Shi'ites is the last thing U.S. occupation troops will let happen.
And yet, is the Age of Human Rights really dead? In the last few weeks legal authorities in Denmark and Britain have warned that if they take part in an invasion unsanctioned by the U.N., soldiers or officials from those countries could risk prosecution by the new International Criminal Court. Britain and Denmark are supporters of the ICC; it is one of the many international human rights institutions the United States has turned its back on. Inaugurated only this month, not yet hearing cases, the new court has already had an impact. The European Court of Human Rights is still in business. However much the United States may trample on the spirit of the Age of Human Rights, bodies like these will last -- and there will be more of them.
Furthermore, the ideals behind them remain contagious. I have spent the last three years writing about some human rights crusaders of an earlier time, the men and women who, in the England of the 1780s, began voicing the almost unheard-of idea that slavery was immoral. Like many activists today, they were mocked as naïve idealists. Self-styled realists informed them that ending slavery was a pipe dream, because doing so would wreck the empire's economy. They went through discouraging years when they made no headway. Their campaign was set back tremendously by war -- the two decades of combat that ended only at Waterloo. But they prevailed. Human societies on every continent had taken slavery for granted for millennia, but the largest empire on earth finally freed its slaves in the 1830s, half a century after the campaign began. Some ideas are so powerful, so true to their times, and take root so deeply that even dark and violent passages, like the one we are entering this week, cannot suppress them forever.
This article originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.
Adam Hochschild lives in San Francisco and is the author of "King Leopold's Ghost, A story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa" as well as "Finding the Trapdoor" and other books.