BEWARE: Incidents, Pretexts and Traps

January 6, 2017 | Revolution Newspaper |


Children napalmed in Vietnam war
Residents run from their South Vietnam village after napalm was dropped on it. The U.S. dropped 373,000 tons of napalm—jellied gasoline that burns at over 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit—on the Vietnamese people, burning their flesh to the bone and causing agonizing pain and almost certain death.

Highway of death, Iraq
Highway of Death: On the night of February 26–27, 1991, thousands of Iraqi soldiers and civilians were retreating to Baghdad, after a ceasefire was announced, when President George Bush ordered his forces to slaughter the retreating Iraqi (Photo: Tech Sgt. Joe Coleman)

March 20, 2003, U.S. bombing of Bagdad, Iraq.
March 20, 2003, U.S. bombing of Bagdad, Iraq. (AP photo)

Children killed in 2006 by U.S. airstrikes in Iraq.
Many of the civilian deaths in Iraq were women and children. These children were killed in 2006 by U.S. airstrikes. (AP photo)

Kristallnacht–a night of massive violence, destruction, terror and death aimed at Jews in Germany. Hundreds of Jewish people were killed, tens of thousands of Jewish men were arrested and incarcerated in Nazi concentration camps.

Fascists—as well as “ordinary” imperialists—use, and when they see it as necessary, create incidents to justify monstrous acts. If people are not going to be used, played, manipulated into compliance or even active complicity with great crimes and fascism, this needs to be understood, and acted on.

Here, we look at several such examples, in order to identify a pattern of incidents, pretexts, and traps, and to learn from those patterns in the context of the rise of an American fascist poised to enter the White House.

America’s Record of Pretexts and Crimes

First of all, it is an established fact that U.S. administrations have repeatedly used incidents, invented or real, to carry out terrible war crimes and crimes against humanity. “Normal” U.S. administrations, of both parties, have done this. A few examples:

  • “Remember the Maine.” The U.S. battleship Maine blew up on February 15, 1898 in Havana harbor—when Cuba was still one of Spain’s colonies. There was never any evidence that Spanish forces were involved in this explosion, but this did not stop the pro-war forces in the U.S. ruling class from publishing front-page drawings “showing” how the Spanish forces had attached mines to the bottom of the ship. Shouting “Remember the Maine!” the U.S. government rushed into a war to snatch an empire from Spain, seizing Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines.
  • The “Gulf of Tonkin Incident.” On August 4, 1964, the U.S. claimed—falsely and without any real evidence—that North Vietnam had launched two unprovoked attacks on the U.S. fleet in the Gulf of Tonkin. In fact, the CIA was attacking North Vietnamese coastal installations, so any confrontation that happened would have been provoked by the U.S., and the second “incident” never took place. In fact no attack of any kind took place. Nobody in the mainstream media seriously challenged the story at the time, much less asked what a fleet of U.S. warships was doing half-way around the world. But in “response” to these invented “incidents,” the U.S. Congress passed the “Gulf of Tonkin Resolution” which authorized the massive deployment of U.S. troops into southern Vietnam. It was the start of extreme escalation of warfare that led to the deaths of millions of people in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos.
  • “The Kuwait Incubators.” In 1990, as the U.S. was gearing up for the first Gulf War, George Bush (I)’s invasion of Iraq, the news was inundated with false “testimony” of a 15-year-old Kuwaiti, claiming she witnessed Iraqi soldiers yanking babies out of incubators at a hospital in Iraqi-occupied Kuwait. This came at a time when there were large demonstrations around the country against the U.S. war moves, and strong opposition to war against Iraq. President George Bush (I) retold the story in a speech in January 1991, shortly before he launched the bombings on Iraq. This lie served to justify a war that killed 200,000 Iraqis.
  • September 11, 2001. On September 11, 2001, a terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in New York City and other places killed over 3,000 innocent civilians. Al Qaeda, a fundamentalist Islamic jihadist group, took credit for the attack. There is no doubt this was a real crime, and fundamentalist Islamic Jihadists were responsible. The attack was used to rush through the PATRIOT Act that seriously curtailed civil liberties in the U.S. Government spying took on whole new levels, including the systematic surveillance of nearly all phone calls and internet activity of nearly every person in the U.S. Thousands of people were detained on the basis of their national origin or religion, without criminal charges or civil liberties. Muslim children were harassed and bullied in schools. People appearing to be Muslim, or taken to be Muslims or immigrants from parts of the world with no connection to the 9/11 attackers were beaten and terrorized. The U.S. also invaded and occupied Afghanistan in 2001. The result: hundreds of thousands of civilian deaths. And the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan exponentially ratcheted up the global clash between reactionary fundamentalist Islamic jihadist forces and Western imperialism.
  • Non-Existent “Weapons of Mass Destruction.” In 2001 the U.S. government launched a massive propaganda campaign to justify war against Iraq. Vice President Cheney pushed the CIA to produce false reports that Iraq had chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and ties to Al Qaeda. And that this posed a “grave and growing danger” to the Middle East and to the United States itself. The WMD lie was sustained and promoted by all mainstream U.S. media, with the New York Times playing a particularly central role. Justified by the WMD lie, the U.S. launched a blitzkrieg-like invasion of Iraq. Thousands of Iraqi civilians were killed and wounded in the invasion, and the U.S. occupation that followed has been even worse. Iraq Body Count has documented between 168,239 and 187,378 civilian deaths from violence, and total violent deaths including combatants at 251,000 from 2003 through September 2016.

Incidents and Pretexts... in the Hands of Fascists

The incidents just listed, horrible as they were, took place under the normal operating procedures of this system. This is the history of the United States. But at a moment when we face an attempt to install a fascist regime in the United States, it is critical to confront how fascism takes systematic lying and seizing on incidents—real or not—to carry out crimes against humanity on a whole other level. Let’s look at how incidents were invoked to carry out and justify the historic crime of the Nazi Holocaust, that murdered six million Jews along with communists, Roma people, LGBT people, people with disabilities, and dissidents.

One of the most infamous of such incidents leading up to the Holocaust was the 1933 Reichstag fire. In February 1933, Adolph Hitler was convinced there was a need to move much faster, much more violently, and much more ruthlessly to push civil liberties and rule of law aside in order to terrorize and crush forces in society he saw as an obstacle to his agenda.


Hitler seized on the burning down of the Reichstag—the building housing Germany’s legislature—to do that. In the aftermath of this fire, several communists were arrested and put on trial. One was convicted, the others acquitted. But just one day after the fire, before the trial began, Hitler prevailed on Germany’s President Hindenburg to sign a decree that essentially wiped out constitutional protection of individual and civil liberties. And in the immediate aftermath of the fire, Hitler was given what was, up to that point, a whole new level of access to the German mass media to instigate mob terror. He declared, “Fellow Germans, my measures will not be crippled by any judicial thinking… don’t have to worry about justice; my mission is only to destroy and exterminate, nothing more!... Certainly, I shall use the power of the State and the police to the utmost, my dear Communists, so don’t draw any false conclusions; but the struggle to the death, in which my fist will grasp your necks, I shall lead with those down there—the Brownshirts.” (The Brownshirts were Nazi thugs comparable to the KKK in the U.S.). All the communists elected to Germany’s legislature were rounded up immediately, and thousands became some of the first ones interned in Nazi concentration camps—crushing Hitler’s most defiant opposition and paving the way to the death camps.

On November 7, 1938, a seventeen-year-old German Jewish refugee in France, Herschel Grynszpan, shot and mortally wounded a German diplomat in Paris. Grynszpan’s father had been among ten thousand Jews deported to Poland in boxcars shortly before this. Hitler seized on this as the pretext for Kristallnacht—a night of massive violence, destruction, terror and death aimed at Jews in Germany. Hundreds of Jewish people were killed, tens of thousands of Jewish men were arrested and incarcerated in Nazi concentration camps. Jewish homes, hospitals, and schools were ransacked. Over 1,000 synagogues were burned. Some 7,000 Jewish businesses were destroyed or damaged. In response to worldwide outrage, Hitler blamed “the Jewish world conspiracy” for making Germany look bad.

Critical Patterns to Learn From

The use of pretexts—real or invented—to justify war and repression is part and parcel of the normal workings of capitalism-imperialism. But, again, this takes on a whole other, and critically ominous dimension with the ascendance of fascism, and fascist rulers. Remember: Hitler invoked the Reichstag fire to impose fascism.

These are lessons we all must learn from, and then struggle with other people to learn from. The stakes right now are very high, and the dangers very great. There will be incidents, real and created; these will be turned into pretexts to silence all protest and to give the government huge repressive powers. Do not let them spring the trap; keep your eyes on the real issues, and fight with others do to the same.

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