Après le deluge, the ghoulish opportunists

Everyone from anti-terror crusaders to end-of-the-world greens is exploiting the Pakistani floods to revive their own flagging careers.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

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As if the Pakistani floods were not bad enough, there is now an invasion of ghoulish opportunists, who spy in those swallowed-up towns and villages a chance to reinvigorate their own self-serving campaigns. Western greens and anti-terror crusaders in particular see in the Pakistani floods, not simply hardship and destitution, but also a golden opportunity. For them, the floods are a timely and brilliantly colourful illustration of the kind of thing they’ve been warning about for years. Welcome to the unseemly, unsightly world of disaster exploitation.

With a fifth of Pakistan under water, 1,600 people dead, 20million homeless and entire agricultural industries wiped out overnight, this is a monumental tragedy. It is hard to think of how it could be made any worse. But it has been. The relentless politicisation of the floods – by Western governments, observers and green groups – has turned what ought to have been a straightforward, swift emergency aid operation into a minefield of political issues and war concerns. Pakistanis are suffering as a result of both the waters that flooded their land, and the cynical political considerations that flooded in soon after.

Those who feel that their political messages have lost their clout in recent years have been most keen to turn the floods into an apocryphal tale. First came the West’s terrorism-concerned politicians and commentators, for whom the further destabilisation of an already unstable country has confirmed, in the words of one writer, that Pakistan is ‘the most dangerous country in the world’; more than that, it is a ‘laboratory for world destruction’. I think they call this adding insult to injury. Many in the West claim that the post-monsoon chaos will strengthen the hand of radical Islamists. The crisis is being ‘exploited by Islamic militants’, we’re continually told, which could lead, in the words of one US military official, to the ‘growing radicalisation of the Pakistani population’.

The ‘war on terror’ has lost its purchase in recent years. It has suffered badly from diminishing returns, where someone like the ‘Pants Bomber’ is far less effective at convincing the public that we face an apocalyptic threat to our way of life than, say, the 19 hijackers who executed 9/11. That is why so many Western anti-terror crusaders have exploited the post-flood instability in Pakistan: to try to recast their fearmongering political project as still pressing, still urgent. For them, Pakistan is a place where radical ideology spreads even faster than the whooshing waters, drowning ordinary Pakistanis in a hatred for Western civilisation and threatening us over here. ‘Pakistani terror groups are expanding their influence’, says an American military adviser, calling on the ‘international community’ to do something about it.

Even worse, the issue of providing aid to Pakistan has become intimately bound up with this terror-beating agenda. Governments and ordinary people alike are now told that they must give charity to Pakistan or the terrorists will fill the gap, become more powerful, and perhaps unleash unspeakable hell against civilisation. Pakistan’s foreign minister said the world has to give aid in order to ‘keep terrorists from capitalising on the crisis’. Fatima Bhutto – whose surname and prettiness make her irresistible to British newspaper editors – warns that ‘without aid, West-hating militants will step in and take advantage of the catastrophe’. Headlines tell us – the apparently stingy public – that ‘Terrorists Capitalise On Pakistan’s Floods’.

This cynical linking of emergency aid with beating the terrorists is potentially another disaster for flood-hit Pakistanis. Emergency aid is supposed to be non-ideological and speedily delivered. Yet here we have charity as counterterrorism; charity as a form of blackmail, where the message to us Westerners is: ‘Give aid to Pakistan or else there will be violence and death and maybe more 9/11s.’ We are effectively being asked to give to Pakistan to save ourselves – from an even more unstable world packed with even more crazy Islamists – rather than to help Pakistanis rebuild their lives. This transformation of aid into a weapon in the West’s ‘war on terror’ could well be one of the reasons why there has been a lack of giving to Pakistan in comparison to disasters such as the Haiti earthquake and the Asian tsunami: after all, most people give to emergency-aid groups because they want to help the destitute, not because they want to become actors in a war against alleged barbarians.

The terrorification of the Pakistani floods could be having a detrimental impact right now. According to some reports, Pakistani officials are shutting down aid camps set up by radical Islamist groups. The Daily Telegraph says that in the badly hit north-western region of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, 16 camps have been shut. Some of these camps were reportedly providing shelter and two meals a day to homeless Pakistanis. This is the end result of the politicisation and even militarisation of a natural disaster: the focus becomes combatting the enemy rather than providing aid by any means necessary (and by any group necessary).

Hot on the heels of the anti-terror crusaders have come the greens. Initially hesitant about labelling the Pakistani floods a product of climate change, they’ve now discovered that doing so can inject their political project – which, post-Climategate and in our era of recession, was in danger of losing its grip on the public consciousness – with renewed, Biblical momentum.

While her military men used the disaster to remind people of the terror threat, US secretary of state Hillary Clinton used it to promote the climate-change agenda. The ‘predictions of more natural disasters are unfortunately being played out’, she said. And just as earlier generations, from Noah onwards, saw floods as some kind of Godly punishment for mankind’s behaviour and as the deliverers of a new world order in which only the righteous would survive, so one green-leaning commentator describes the Pakistani flood as ‘the harbinger of a raw, new reality’; this was caused by ‘polluting human industry’, she claims. Yet in a part of the world where there was bad flooding in 1928, 29, 55, 57, 59, 73, 76, 88, 92, 95, 96 and 97, blaming this latest flood on ‘human industry’ is about as scientifically airtight as when Catholics used to blame the deaths of black babies in Africa on Western kids who didn’t eat their greens.

Some have sought to marry together these two big concerns of fearful, misanthropic twenty-first-century Western society – terrorism and climate change – in their warnings about Pakistan. A former director-general of the UK Met Office says there will be ‘much more regular catastrophic flooding’ in Pakistan, which will make it harder for that nation to ‘campaign against terrorism’. So allegedly manmade floods also have ‘profound implications for geopolitics and international security’, he claims. Meanwhile, an American Congressional report warns that ‘environmental stresses, when combined with other socioeconomic and political stresses on Pakistan, have the potential to further weaken an already weak Pakistani state’.

Not only does this marriage of panic-about-terror and fretting-about-climate-change demonstrate that trendy environmentalism is as much a product of the politics of fear as is the un-trendy crusade against terrorism – it also shows what is really going on in the debate about Pakistan après le deluge. Pakistan is not the ‘laboratory for world destruction’; rather it has been turned into a laboratory for working out a sense of Western purpose and meaning. Bereft anti-terror crusaders and isolated greens are cynically – and super-narcissistically – using flooded Pakistan as a pool of propaganda, from which they can fish out all sorts of scary images and dire predictions to boost the impact of their campaigning. Pakistan has many, many problems, of course it does. But the post-floods presentation of it as a cesspit of destructive tendencies – whether of the terroristic or climatic variety – is misleading, and is designed to flatter the feverish, caliginous, nightmarish outlook of Western propagandists rather than to enlighten public debate.

And in the midst of all this, we have acres of coverage asking why people aren’t giving enough money. The flood-hit country has also been turned into a reflective pool into which we gaze and screw up our faces as we ask: ‘What is wrong with us?’ Here’s one possible explanation for the alleged lack of giving: it might be because this natural disaster has been turned into a military/end-of-the-world issue and is presented as only the latest in what will be a long line of manmade floods, hurricanes, plagues and famines. If that won’t induce a feeling of cynicism and resignation in the public, I don’t know what will. It’s time we focused on the needs of Pakistan’s homeless, not on the needs of well-to-do, beleaguered-feeling advocacy campaigners over here.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his personal website here.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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