President's Speech - Robert Fisk

‚ÄčDr John Waterbury's speech
introducing Robert Fisk 
June 24, 2006

Robert Fisk's weighty tome, The Great War for Civilisation, contains over 1300 pages of his reporting on violence and conflict in the greater Middle East is filled with irony, anger and anguish for the common man and woman. Perhaps he is more angered by the powers of the west in their repeated, bungled attempts to bring 'civilisation' to this region, but all the protagonists over time have claimed the high ground while they played and continue to play their sordid games on the low ground. You can plunge into this book almost anywhere and relive events that will make you wince because, in the final analysis, we all, and I mean all, will feel our own complicity in the destructive course of events through which we have all lived.

In his in-depth reporting, Fisk dwells on the details, often gory, sometimes uplifting. For all Lebanese his book on the Qana massacre, Pity the Nation, is a national classic and treasure. Here and elsewhere he uses the details to ask the haunting, generic questions:

"So when does a bloodbath become an atrocity? When does an atrocity become a massacre? How big does a massacre have to be before it qualifies as a genocide? How many dead before a genocide becomes a holocaust? Old questions become new questions at each killing field." As I read those lines my mind raced to Halabja and Darfour, to Jenin and Haditha. The thin veneer of civilization is so easily stripped away even as the organizers of the violence invoke some higher order of morality, God-given or otherwise. The stripping away of that veneer has, of course, fascinated and enraged many others besides Fisk, but he brings a consistency and sophistication to his observations that few others can rival.

The good news is that Fisk is still brimming with energy and wit so that we will enjoy, if that is the right term, his penetrating analyses and his compassionate eye. The bad news is that he will not run out of new material for his stories any time soon.