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Robert Fisk: Shining a light on western abuses in the Middle East

With decades of experience in chronicling the horrors of war, Fisk did not shy away from holding western powers accountable
Journalist Robert Fisk passed away at the age of 74 (The Guardian)

It was the Day of the Dead here in Mexico when I received news of the death of Robert Fisk, who himself spent much of his life writing about dead people. 

The award-winning journalist and author passed away on 30 October in Dublin at the age of 74. Based in Beirut since 1976 - the year after the launch of the 15-year Lebanese civil war - Fisk joined the Independent in 1989 as the British paper’s correspondent in the region.

Various obituaries have commemorated him as an acclaimed but “controversial” figure, with the Guardian specifying that he was “known for his criticism of the US”.

Speaking truth to power

Indeed, while the ostensible function of journalism is to speak truth to power, the few journalists who actually do so are labelled as problematic. Much of the “controversy” surrounding Fisk stemmed from his efforts to place the 9/11 attacks - the horrific and criminal nature of which he fully acknowledged - within the necessary context of malevolent US-led machinations in the Middle East. 

Nor did the powers-that-be appreciate Fisk’s insistence on connecting the dots back to that time in Afghanistan when Osama bin Laden was fighting on, you know, our side. Fisk, who interviewed bin Laden on three occasions, understood quite well that history mattered not a bit in the propagation of the “war on terror”, and was instead something to be actively covered up in favour of reductionist rhetoric featuring hordes of Muslims who hate us for no reason.

While it would seem that Fisk's own extensive history of seeing human bodies torn to bits … would have inured him to suffering or made him less human himself, the sense of moral outrage remained

As Fisk writes in his tome The Great War for Civilisation: The Conquest of the Middle East: “‘Terrorism’ is a word that has become a plague on our vocabulary, the excuse and reason and moral permit for state-sponsored violence - our violence - which is now used on the innocent of the Middle East ever more outrageously and promiscuously.”

Of course, the hijacking of the “terrorism” discourse by the West and its Israeli appendage has meant that the terminology is not permitted when describing, for example, the 1982 massacre of up to thousands of people in the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila in Beirut, perpetrated by Lebanon’s Christian Phalangist militia.

During a lecture at Barcelona’s Centre of Contemporary Culture in 2002, Fisk noted that no western newspaper had ever referred to the mass murderers of Sabra and Shatila as terrorists, and wondered ironically: “Did it fail to meet the terrorism test because Israeli forces had surrounded the camp in 1982 and because Ariel Sharon, then Israel’s defence minister, had sent the Phalange into the camps?”

'Blood and fire and slaughter'

As with so many blood-drenched events on the contemporary Middle Eastern timeline, Fisk was an eyewitness to the horrors of Sabra and Shatila. In his book Pity the Nation: Lebanon at War, he recounts finding himself inadvertently treading atop a mound of corpses: “A large stone turned out to be a stomach. I could see a man’s head, a woman’s naked breast, the feet of a child.”

He was also on the scene after the 1996 Israeli massacre of 106 persons sheltering at a UN compound in Qana, Lebanon, directed by then-Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres. Fisk’s 2016 obituary-of-sorts for Peres thus began: “When the world heard that Shimon Peres had died, it shouted ‘Peacemaker!’ But when I heard that Peres was dead, I thought of blood and fire and slaughter.”

People commemorate the victims of Lebanon’s 1982 Sabra and Shatila massacre (AFP)
People commemorate the victims of Lebanon’s 1982 Sabra and Shatila massacre (AFP)

His recollection of Qana involved “legs and arms, babies without heads, old men’s heads without bodies”, plus a girl who sat holding a grey-haired corpse and crying: “My father, my father.”

Sounds pretty terroristic. And yet, you’d never find such a depiction of Arab victims of Israel - humanised even in their corporeal destruction - in the US mainstream media, which often appears to double as the public relations arm of the Israeli military. 

Ditto for Fisk’s reporting on Israeli atrocities in Palestine. In a January 2009 article on Israeli-inflicted slaughter in the Gaza Strip, Fisk detailed Western “complicit[y] in the savagery” by virtue of Israel’s insertion into “our war against ‘international terror’”. The piece was titled “Why do they hate the West so much, we will ask” - but, as usual, Fisk was among the few willing to provide the context to answer that question.

The language of power

In 2010, Fisk remarked that journalists had more and more become “prisoners of the language of power”, parroting the politically motivated lexicon of the ruling classes (think not only “terrorists”, but also “peace process”, “road map”, “surge”, and “hearts and minds”). He noted: “There is no battle between power and the media. Through language, we have become them.”

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Fisk, however, largely eluded this fusion with power. In November 2006, he once again expressed moral outrage at the “ghastly … hell-disaster that we have inflicted upon Iraq”, thanks to which “death is now visited upon even more Iraqis than Saddam was able to inflict on his Shias and Kurds and - yes, in Fallujah of all places - his Sunnis, too”. 

He went on to review relevant details from past decades of US and British complicity in Saddam’s brutality, far from the version of history authorised by those peddling the “democratising invasion” alibi in 2003. 

And while it would seem that Fisk’s own extensive history of seeing human bodies torn to bits - from Lebanon to Palestine to Algeria, Iraq, Bosnia and beyond - would have inured him to suffering or made him less human himself, the sense of moral outrage remained. So did the commitment to connecting the dots between imperial predations, as in his 2001 article that began: “In Baghdad we had the bunker where our missile fried more than 300 people to death. In Kosovo we had a refugee column torn to pieces by our bombs. Now in Afghanistan, a village called Karam is our latest massacre.”

A breath of fresh air

I met Fisk in 2008 in Beirut, after Lebanon’s mini-civil war in May of that year, and was treated to a couple of seven-hour, cognac-heavy lunches courtesy of his meal budget at the Independent. I also visited him at his home on the Beirut corniche, where we sat on his balcony with cheap wine - this courtesy of me and my budget - and he proudly showed me a pair of ancient military binoculars that had him in child-at-Christmas mode. He then spoke at length about the Armenian genocide, which had him in tears.

Though Fisk may be gone, his contributions to setting the historical record straight will endure

Like any human and journalist, Fisk had his quirks, contradictions and complexities. He was not immune to Orientalist moments, or to intermittently adopting the language of the western establishment. In later years, he was frequently accused of engaging in apologetics for the Syrian government.

But overall, he was a tireless and passionate journalist who - as a “controversial” figure critical of the US - was obviously on the right track. While the subject matter of his reportage was often terribly depressing, it nonetheless constituted a breath of fresh air in a profession that is so often dedicated to smothering the truth.

In a 2014 article, Fisk wrote: “Men die … History goes on forever.” And though Fisk may be gone, his contributions to setting the historical record straight will endure.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Belen Fernandez
Belen Fernandez is the author of Exile: Rejecting America and Finding the World and The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work. She is a contributing editor at Jacobin magazine.