We don’t like the word “war” anymore. It’s so violent! It sounds so 20th century, so Web 1.0, so old-school. “Intervention” sounds like what you do with your alcoholic brother who’s gone off the rails and just won’t listen anymore, with all the condescension and superiority implied therein. Intervention is what you do with your suicidal friend, your buddy who just can’t face the divorce and the mortgage and the custody battle anymore. Intervention is what we do with foreign countries.
Oh yes, we kill just as many people with an intervention as we did with a war. Probably more, since we learned to stop counting bodies in Vietnam. We respun and reframed things so that the only bodies we cared about were the American ones and then we removed them to offices in Las Vegas instead of the front lines, made sure that the few boots left on the ground mostly faced getting severed rather than actually killed. It’s antiseptic and anesthetic, killing from long-range, the long bomb, only the occasional rogue news outlet willing to display the wailing mother to disrupt our peaceful tranquility. All those “schools” and “hospitals” just needed some good old-fashioned “intervention” after all – I mean, it’s the fault of them for having militants in and around, right? Just like it’s the fault of the infant child of the “militant” official. For surely we wouldn’t blame anyone for killing Malia Obama, wouldn’t call that terrorism. Her father’s a militant, after all.
People are really afraid of this new ISxx… ISIS, ISIL, IS, whatever it is. The comparisons have flown fast and furious to Nazis, to bin Laden, to the face of the “true evil” we’re so convinced exists outside of the American mirror. I caused a bit of a stir for a couple folks yesterday by posting this on the Blue Pyramid’s Facebook page:
American police departments have still killed a lot more unarmed innocent Americans than ISIS. #justsaying
People didn’t appreciate that I could compare the scared scared police departments in American cities gunning down unarmed teenagers to the “true evil” that was ISIS after they provocatively beheaded an American journalist. (Thought experiment: how would we treat someone in New York City taking notes and calling themselves an “ISIS journalist”? No, we wouldn’t publicly behead him, true… we prefer to do our torture and maiming far from the prying eyes of the world in Guantanamo Bay. But I do think America is sometimes naive about the double-standards we take for granted as the self-proclaimed “good guys”. Please note that I am not failing to condemn the beheading – it’s atrocious, of course – but saying we’re “so much better” or unworthy of condemnation is short-sighted and silly.)
But the fact is that Americans can’t measure threats very well. We’re all terrified of getting on planes that are something like a hundred times safer than the cars we cling to for every minor errand. We buy guns to protect us from robbers while those guns are vastly more likely to harm us than any intruder. We fear terrorism but love our local police officer. Our sense of danger is manipulated and crafted by the distortion of how we’re taught to fear things, which has nothing to do with true probability and reality.
But let’s set aside relative threat levels and my horrific implication that local police departments are more likely to gun down an unarmed American than a far-flung terrorist group. It’s deliberately provocative, I suppose, though I thought of more staunch things I could say and was considering at the time. Let’s assume, for the moment, that ISIS is the true face of evil incarnate on planet Earth.
Whose fault is that?
I mean, really, who made it possible for ISIS to gain a following in Iraq and Syria, to gain traction, to be able to recruit angry disaffected youth to their movement, to make people able to conduct such brutality (I mean, how easy can they make it for you, the biased American – they wear black and wave black flags!)?
Could it be… US?
When the United States embedded itself and its journalists in the war in Iraq 11 years ago, there were naysayers, just a handful, who warned of the consequences of this “intervention”. Who said that one of the greatest threats to the United States’ security came from those who had not yet even been born, not yet even cohered an ideology or a belief-set about the world, but who would grow up amongst the ruins of their country and the invasion that took whatever semblance of hope they might have had and replaced it with, at worst, rubble and dead relatives and, at best, corporate slavery to an invading state. That this next generation, like post-Versailles Germany, might just be a breeding ground for resentment, anger, and ferocity. That maybe, just maybe, killing your way out of the problem creates hundreds more people willing to kill and die to replace them because losing a relative to violent death is the most dramatically transformative, angering experience one can have in this life. And that no matter how big the drumbeat for war, how much tonnage of sheer destruction the US would drop, you just can’t kill everyone who disagrees with you, especially with this exponential increase that each death creates in the hatred felt.
So now we’re back on the brink, on more precipices, for there are always constantly renewing decisions. We have a media lining up to tell people that the devotees of ISIS eat their babies for breakfast and want to personally skewer the most sensitive parts of every man, woman, and child in the United States of America. Maybe they do, I don’t know. The amount of devastation and loss felt in the Middle East of the past decade sure would make most of us feel pretty apocalyptic and desperate and unreasonable and hateful. But everyone’s getting in line to say how demonically horrific these humans are and that the only solution is to kill them, kill them all, until they buckle and kneel and just recognize already that American corporate kleptocracy is the greatest system anyone will ever devise because it has such sheer force behind it.
Really? Are we really going to do this again?
Maybe at some point we have to just sit down and say that this kind of might-makes-right insanity, this devotion to violence as a solution is not only exactly what we claim to be fighting through the “War on Terror”, but is also something we would never tolerate from an unruly second-grader. Yes, that unruly second-grader truly believes that Bobby deserved to be pummeled on the playground. But pummeling Bobby doesn’t make Bobby like you! Even if you pummeled Bobby to death, there would be even more people who don’t like you after that. This is honestly the level on which the self-proclaimed “greatest country ever on the face of the Earth” is acting. Truly.
If you don’t believe me about this, there’s an object lesson happening just a few hundred miles away from ISIS in what most people considered to be the most sacred territory on Earth. Can we make this any clearer for you? Look how well just killing all the militarized people who disagree with you is working for Israel and Palestine. Look! Look. They have accomplished all their goals and made themselves safe by just killing all their enemies. It’s a great model for us to follow. Kill and kill and kill and no one will be left to oppose you.
I know it seems scary to just, I don’t know, not kill people for a while. This is what the police officers in Ferguson thought too. Our culture is steeped in violence and preaches daily, outside of grade schools at least, that violence is the answer to our problems, the way to solve things forever. If you don’t kill those people, they might hurt someone! Heavens to betsy! Let’s pre-emptively kill them all.
But I’ll turn again to David Foster Wallace’s prophetic essay because it’s so useful:
“Are you up for a thought experiment? What if we chose to regard the 2,973 innocents killed in the atrocities of 9/11 not as victims but as democratic martyrs, ‘sacrifices on the altar of freedom’? In other words, what if we decided that a certain baseline vulnerability to terrorism is part of the price of the American idea? And, thus, that ours is a generation of Americans called to make great sacrifices in order to preserve our democratic way of life—sacrifices not just of our soldiers and money but of our personal safety and comfort?”
-David Foster Wallace, Just Asking, 1 November 2007
But vulnerability is the concept we fear the most. Admitting a weakness. Turning the other cheek. Letting someone else commit the violence. This notion is what is missing in everything in America today, in its bravado, its desperate clinging to a sense of superiority and exceptionalism. (We are so allergic to this concept that there are red squiggly “that’s not a word” lines under “exceptionalism” in my browser.) We cannot even comprehend a world in which we accepted periodic violence from those who would do us harm in exchange for living a life that does not ask everyone to constantly kill their way out of problems.
But that is the only world where we have a future. Because if you think ISIS is evil, just wait till you see what pops up after we’ve tried to slaughter all the ISIS people. And on and on and on. I know we’ve dressed it up and made it sound nice and tolerable and civilized with words like “intervention”. But it’s just butchering people because they disagree with you. That’s all it is. And somehow, with this species, that’s just not all that persuasive. Somehow killing someone’s whole family and then asking the lone survivor “Now do you agree with me?” yields poor results.
These lessons are far more remedial than those we should need to learn right now. But someone, somewhere, should be learning, or attempting to. Right? Power may corrupt, but it doesn’t destroy all reason and lead us to a path of unending destruction forever, does it?