Michael Rosen wonders what is normal in the language of war and peace
There I was in post-war mode, scrolling through the channels and watching the coalition (why did they stop using the word 'Allies'?) finishing the whole thing off.
The running theme seems to have transformed, for journalists and politicians alike, from 'regime change' to 'restoring order'. On my TV, correspondent after correspondent has been telling us how this or that part of Iraq was 'returning to normal'.
This seems to me to be a highly problematic assertion. What's this 'restoring/returning' business? By any account, 'order' and 'normal' under Saddam Hussein was state-run tyranny, so if anything was being returned to or restored, you'd have to assume it wasn't that. I began to think that in reality these are wishful words, appearing long before anything resembling order had started to happen. No water, no aid and soldiers everywhere. But clearly, if you show a soldier walking down a busy street and caption it with 'restoring order', this looks kinda cuddly. It's saying he's doing a good job before any journalist or commentator has dared say he isn't. That is seriously previous.
But it also pre-judges the whole matter of what will be the new 'order', the new 'normal'. There isn't a ruler in the history of the world who doesn't claim that he is someone who brings about order and normality. People might be starving, the prisons full, death squads roaming the streets, torture enshrined in police HQs but politicians and generals will say that they are restoring order, they're busy normalising.
The curious thing about the news media using these phrases in this particular circumstance is that they have been at great pains to point out to us the exact criminal nature of Saddam's Iraq. Yes, it would have been nice if they had made similar efforts to show us, say, the genocide of the East Timorese, carried out with western arms. But no matter, this was the tyranny they noticed this time. So, none of them is saying that the Saddam order is the one that the coalition is taking the Iraqis back to. Even so, the speed with which the Nazis' police were restored in post-war Germany, the Soviet police in the Russian Federation and now Saddam's henchmen could slot back in, gives a certain piquancy to the idea of things 'getting back to normal'.
I think what is really being evoked with these slick phrases is a mythic order and a mythic normality. It's the myth of order and normality that you and I are supposed to have in our heads. This isn't a political blueprint a bill of rights you carry around in your frontal lobe. It's more visceral than that. Conjure up for an instant, some moment or period in your life where you felt unthreatened, safe and relaxed. As these moments spring to mind, let them meld together in your imagination. That's 'order' and'normality' media-style.
In itself, this would be no bad thing. The problem is that we can be fairly certain that no such prospect is at hand. On a recent BBC1 Question Time Geoff Hoon and Jerry Rubin (one of Bill Clinton's boys) clearly couldn't fathom why the Arabs in the audience seemed to distrust Western intentions in the Middle East. Several people tried to make clear that the West had supported and sustained a whole raft of regimes across the area and the various kinds of 'order' and 'normality' these regimes possessed were, in short, beastly. Why, they were asking, would coalition-run Iraq be any different? Believe us, said Hoon and Rubin. In other words, have faith.