North Africa, West Asia: Opinion

‘The right to defend oneself’: An utterance with a bloody colonial history

Only those who have invaded and institutionalised their laws have had ‘the right to defend themselves’

Ghassan Hage
19 May 2021, 1.27pm
Mounted police attack Indigenous Australians during the Slaughterhouse Creek Massacre of 1838
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wikimedia commons / Public Domain

During the Spanish conquest of the Americas that began in 1492, Indigenous peoples were dispossessed and massacred by the millions. Sometimes, the Indigenous people resisted and killed some of the Spanish colonists. When they did so, the Spanish retaliated with more massacres.

“They are attacking us, they have killed some of us, and we have the right to defend ourselves,” the colonists said.

Most white Europeans, at the time, agreed. They acted as if the difference between how many were killed by the Indigenous people and how many by the colonists was unimportant. They acted as if who invaded whose home was unimportant, and as if who was subjugating whom was not important either. To them, the only thing that mattered was: “They are attacking us, they have killed some of us, and we have the right to defend ourselves.”

That this was a rather selective way of describing the truth was obvious to all, including to those who deployed variations of this formula. These people did not deploy it because they were searching for the truth, they deployed it as a weapon, a kind of warring incantation. It aimed at further subjugating the colonised and reinforcing the white European colonizing apparatus.

This was something that escaped those who were opposing colonialism by highlighting the falseness of the statement. They invariably failed to recognise that they were dealing with white colonial warriors who needed to be defeated, not truth-seekers that needed to be empirically corrected.

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This also happened during the Portuguese conquest of Brazil. Colonial massacres, dispossession, subjugation. Some Indigenous resistance followed by more massacres. And for those who asked, “Why more massacres?” The Portuguese explained: “They are attacking us, they have killed some of us and we have the right to defend ourselves.”

And again, at the time, most white Europeans agreed with the Portuguese. They acted as if the difference between how many were killed by the Indigenous people and how many by the colonists was unimportant. They acted as if who invaded whose home was unimportant, and as if who was subjugating whom was not important either. The only thing that mattered was: “They are attacking us, they have killed some of us, and we have the right to defend ourselves.”

And again there were some who opposed this narrative, but who failed to see it for the warring incantation it was and who spent their time trying to ‘correct’ the colonisers, as if they were truth-seekers.

During the European conquest of North America the same thing happened with Native Americans. And the same thing happened with the British in Asia, the French in North Africa, the Germans in southern Africa, the Italians in Libya, and the Belgians in the Congo, and the Dutch in Indonesia, and, and.

They all conquered, massacred, appropriated land and when resisted they said, “they’re attacking us, they have killed some of us and we have the right to defend ourselves.” For those who are invaded and colonised can defend themselves only as best as they could. Only those who have invaded and institutionalised their laws can have ‘the right to defend themselves’.

I’ve left out quite a few examples but I won’t leave out what happened on the land from where I am writing. For, guess what happened here? The British came and conquered. And likewise, colonial massacres, dispossession and subjugation followed. So did a whole legal apparatus designed to legalise the theft of land and the right of the thieves. And again, Indigenous resistance was followed by more massacres styled as ‘retaliation’. And for those who asked, ‘Why more massacres?’ The Australian settlers explained that those Indigenous people were a serious murderous lot; “they are attacking us, they have killed some of us and we have the right to defend ourselves.”

And sure enough, most white Europeans agreed. They acted as if the difference between how many were killed by the Indigenous people and how many the Australian settlers killed was unimportant. They acted as if the only thing that mattered was the right to ‘retaliate’: "they are attacking us and they have killed some of us and we have the right to defend ourselves."

They conquered, massacred, appropriated land. Then they said, 'they’re attacking us... and we have the right to defend ourselves'

And again, I think it is worth repeating, there were some, opposed to this narrative, who failed to see in this formula the warring incantation it was and who spent their time trying to ‘correct’ the colonisers as if they were truth-seekers. And they are still trying to correct them today.

One can speak of a whole history of ‘defensive colonialism’: a colonialism imagined by the colonists as a form of defence that extends all the way to the more recent invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan. In the US, in Australia and in other places, the descendants of white European colonial culture are still exercising their ‘right to defend themselves’ against the people they have colonised and enslaved through legal practices of mass incarceration.

And so, here we are today dealing with the Zionist invasion and conquering of Palestine and defensive claims are flying. The Zionists’ deployment of the discourse of ‘defensive colonialism’ has been upped a notch: they even call their colonising army the ‘Israeli Defence Forces’. So, it is hardly surprising that we are inundated with Zionist claims of ‘they are attacking us and they have killed some of us and we have the right to defend ourselves’.

And who is acting as if the difference between how many were killed by the Indigenous people and how many by the colonists is unimportant? Who is acting as if who invaded whose home is unimportant, and as if who is subjugating whom is not important either? And who is acting as if the only thing that matters is: “They are attacking us, they have killed some of us, and we have the right to defend ourselves”? And who is nodding in agreement?

Funnily enough: all those beneficiaries of the same white European colonialism who have hammered us with “they are attacking us, they have killed some of us, and we have the right to defend ourselves” for centuries.

And unfortunately, despite this long history there are still those who think that what is important is to show the colonialists the ‘facts’ and demonstrate that what they are saying does not conform to the truth, failing to see in this formula the warring colonial incantation it is.

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