During overseas research for my forthcoming book on Israel/Palestine, I spent time with Fisk in his home-town of Beirut in February (the days before the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister, Rafik Hariri.) He was generous with his time and insightful when discussing the Middle East. He was kind enough to mention me in an October 2003 column when I defended Palestinian moderate Hanan Ashrawi against Zionist attacks.
His latest book, The Great War for Civilisation: The Conquest of the Middle East, is released in Australia in early November (though is already available on Amazon.) The reason for his first Australian visit was to deliver the Edward Said Memorial Lecture at Adelaide University. As Fisk told me this morning, the last time he saw Said before his death in 2003, Said told him: "I'm not going to die because they all want me to die." Said, not unlike Fisk, chose to tell the truth about the Palestinians and Israelis and the usual suspects - Jews, Arabs, Zionists, Americans, English and many Westerners - tried to silence his dissent. They all failed, of course, and the world is now starting to realise the great injustice of the Israel/Palestine conflict.
Fisk's talk today at Sydney University spanned the ages and discussed, in his animated and often humorous way, why we're all destined to repeat history if we don't learn from it. From the Great War to the Second World War and any number of Western interventions in Middle East - all, he reminded us, under the guise of "spreading freedom and democracy" - the Arab people have been given a raw deal by their own leaders and their Western backers. The current Iraq quagmire is no different. A war based on ideology alone is destined to fail. "Iraq is lost", Fisk said. "Much of the country is controlled by the insurgency."
The Independent reporter has experienced the Northern Ireland troubles, the Lebanese civil war, the Iran/Iraq war, Israeli brutality in Lebanon, Palestinian suicide bombing, the brake-up of Yugoslavia, three meetings with Bin Laden, the rise of Islamism in Algeria and the current Iraqi quagmire. His speech touched on the ways in which many people in the Middle East want freedom and democracy, but "also freedom from us." He believes in the UN, despite all its faults. He argues passionately for journalism to not be servile to government spin and lies and fears a growing generation of citizens in the Arab world are learning to hate America and its "values" on an unprecedented scale.
During the question and answer session - around 800 people turned up to see Fisk - he was asked consistently about Iraq and the insurgency. He believed the Americans will leave eventually, but only after they can claim "victory." He was asked whether he supported the Iraqi resistance and he said "no." He tried to explain the brutality of Saddam during the long years of his rule. And then came the killer punch (and I quote here as accurately as possible):
"Supporters of this war say that "we" and the Iraqis should be grateful we're rid of Saddam. But what are they really saying? That abuses at Abu Ghraib, killings of prisoners in Afghanistan and Iraq and Guantanamo Bay are not great, but much better than life under Saddam? Has our moral compass lost that much direction?"
Fisk is a true voice of reason and has been therefore generally ignored during his visit here. The pro-war lackeys at Murdoch and Packer are too busy reprinting Mark Steyn to recognise great journalism when it hits them. Of course, this is the same crowd of people who still defend the Vietnam War as a "noble" mistake.
Fisk humanises war and the effects of decisions in Canberra, London or Washington. When tens of thousands of innocents are murdered in the name of "freedom", we should sit up and take notice.