Saturday, November 14, 2015
Paris and the pain of being human
I've seen war from the inside. I've been under fire, and I've fired on others. I've been wounded - one of my wife's early experiences after we married was to pick a piece of shrapnel out of my back as it finally worked its way out of my body - and I've inflicted my share of wounds. I've picked up the dead, and the pieces of the dead.
Those aren't the worst aspects of violent conflict. To me, the worst is what it does to the human psyche. You become dehumanized. Your enemies are no longer people - they're objects, things, targets. You aren't shooting at John, whose mother is ill, and who's missing his girlfriend terribly, and who wants to marry her as soon as he can get home to do so. You're shooting at that enemy over there, the one who'll surely 'do unto you' unless you 'do unto him' first. He's not a human being. He's a 'gook'. He's 'the enemy'. He's a thing rather than a person. It's easier to shoot a thing than it is a person. So, right now, our boys are 'in the sandbox' shooting 'ragheads'. Their boys - those in Paris yesterday - were 'in the land of the infidels'. Those in this country on 9/11/2001 were 'in the land of the Great Satan'. They were - and still are - killing 'kaffirs', unbelievers . . . not human beings.
You no longer think of civilians as such. They're in enemy territory, or known to be sympathetic to the enemy: therefore, they're 'things', suspects, never to be trusted, never to be treated objectively or with anything other than the forced, mandatory legal definition of 'decency' imposed by your superiors . . . and even that becomes flexible when those superiors aren't around to monitor what you're doing. You need something - a chicken or pig, perhaps, to make your rations more palatable? A blanket to keep you warm at night? A pot to cook your food? Money, to buy the beer that helps you relax? You take it. If asked, "it fell off a truck" or "we found it" or "they gave it to us". All lies, of course, and everyone knows it . . . but no-one cares. All you need is a short-term-believable, hard-to-disprove fig-leaf. By the time anyone asks questions, you'll be long gone.
That's not the worst of it. Some people - thanks be to God (and I mean that very sincerely), never me - will take other things. They'll take women. They'll take children. She's only five? Who cares? She's a this, or a that, or the other. She's 'one of them'. She's never a human being in her own right. To admit that would be to admit that you're being inhuman . . . and that you can't do. Ever. You're never culpable. He/she/they were/are guilty. They 'asked for it'. They 'had it coming'.
All those attitudes were on display in the terror attacks in Paris last night. The perpetrators committed their crimes because they didn't regard their victims as being human. They were guilty by virtue of not being Muslims, or (in some cases) being Muslims who lived in too close an association with non-Muslims, thereby making themselves targets as well. The victims were 'guilty' of being infidels, and paid the price for their 'crime'. That's the way it is, for the attackers. We're justified in what we're doing, because God as we understand him has authorized and encouraged us to do it.
The terrorists haven't thought about it, I'm sure, but they're going to produce a similar and even greater tragedy for their own people than they've inflicted on France. The reaction from ordinary people like you and I won't be to truly think about the tragedy, to realize that the perpetrators were a very small minority of those who shared their faith, extremists who deserve the ultimate penalty as soon as it can be administered. No. The ordinary man and woman on the streets of France is going to wake up today hating all Muslims. He or she will blame them all for the actions of a few, and will react to all of them as if they were all equally guilty.
One can't blame people for such attitudes. When one simply can't tell whether or not an individual Muslim is also a terrorist fundamentalist, the only safety lies in treating all of them as if they presented that danger. That's what the French people are going to do now. That's what ordinary people all across Europe are going to do now, irrespective of whatever their politicians tell them. Their politicians are protected in secure premises by armed guards. They aren't. Their survival is of more immediate concern; so they're doing to do whatever they have to do to improve the odds in their favor. If that means ostracizing Muslims, ghettoizing them, even using preemptive violence against them to force them off the streets . . . they're going to do it.
I've written before about how blaming all Muslims for the actions of a few is disingenuous and inexcusable. I still believe that . . . but events have overtaken rationality. People are going to start relating to 'Muslims' rather than to 'human beings', just as the extremists label all non-Muslims as 'kaffirs' or 'kufars' - unbelievers - rather than as human beings. For the average man in a European street, a Muslim will no longer be a 'person'. He's simply a Muslim, a label, a 'thing'. He's no longer French, or American, or British, no matter what his passport says. He's an 'other'. He's 'one of them' . . . and because of that, he's no longer 'one of us'. He's automatically defined - no, let's rather say (because it's easier to blame him) that he's defined himself - as a potential threat, merely by the religion he espouses. He may have been born into it, and raised in a family and society and culture so saturated with it as to make it literally impossible, inconceivable, for him to be anything else . . . but that doesn't matter. It's his choice to be Muslim, therefore he must take the consequences. We're going to treat him with the same suspicion and exaggerated caution that we would a live, possibly armed hand-grenade. He's asked for it, so we're going to give it to him.
That's the bitter fruit that extremism always produces. It's done so throughout history. There are innumerable examples of how enemies have become 'things'. It's Crusaders versus Saracens, Cavaliers versus Roundheads, Yankees versus Rebels, doughboys versus Krauts . . . us versus them, for varying values of 'us' and 'them'.
It's been that way since ancient times. We want that land? Then we're going to invade it, and take it over, and kill or drive out anyone who isn't 'us' (unless they're good-looking, in which case we'll forcibly incorporate them so they can bear our children, or unless they can work until they die, in which case we'll enslave them). Later, we'll claim in our histories and our sacred books that God (by whatever label we know him, her, it or them) told us to do so. That way, we can't be blamed for what our ancestors did. They were acting under orders from God! Look - it says so, right here in our divinely inspired and inerrant book! How dare you question that section? Are you a heretic? You must be one of them - the enemies of our faith! To the stake with you! For what, you ask? For daring to question the truth!
It was that way for our fathers, too. Morality is left out of consideration almost entirely on every side. Is a city standing in the way of victory for Germany and/or her allies? Then let our Air Force bomb it into submission! And thus we had Guernica, and Warsaw, and Rotterdam. One side began the cycle . . . so the other side continued it. Was it wrong for Nazi Germany to bomb British cities, killing thousands of innocent civilians in the name of 'total war'? Yes, of course it was, as Britain loudly proclaimed at the time - yet Britain went on to do the same thing, in vastly greater measure, bringing utter devastation to an entire nation. Later, America joined the effort. Those who questioned the morality of the bombing campaign were scorned, derided, even imprisoned. Are we morally wrong to do this? How dare you ask that? They did it first! We're just "doing unto them" what they did to us! How dare you question our rightness? Are you some sort of enemy sympathizer - even a Fifth Columnist, perhaps? How dare you undermine our war effort?
And so, even after the worst and most destructive weapon ever devised by humanity was used, President Truman could still threaten: "If they do not now accept our terms they may expect a rain of ruin from the air, the like of which has never been seen on this earth." How could that ruin possibly be greater, or worse, than the ruin already inflicted? The fire-bombings of Japanese cities killed far more people and devastated a far greater area than the atomic bombings. The latter were just 'icing on the cake', the 'cherry on top'.
It's been the same in the War on Terror. The attacks of 9/11 merited - required - a response. I have no problem with that at all. However, the response was not carefully planned, or thought out, or targeted. It's proved to be almost completely ineffective in curbing fundamentalist Islamic terrorism, which was the enemy responsible for those attacks. Instead, tens of thousands of American lives have been lost, or ruined due to crippling injury; entire nations and regions have been destabilized; the forces of Islamic fundamentalism have been galvanized into renewed efforts that have taken on new faces and forms and engendered even more dangerous terrorists; and tens of thousands of innocent civilian lives have been lost, and the lives of literally millions of civilians have been disrupted and uprooted, without any lasting solution having been forthcoming.
The War on Terror could not and did not prevent Paris 2015. It cannot and will not deter similar attacks in future.
And in the end, the bodies lying in the ruins, and the blood dripping onto our streets, and the weeping of those who've lost loved ones . . . they'll all be the same. History is full of them. When it comes to the crunch, there are no labels that can disguise human anguish. People will suffer in every land, in every community, in every faith . . . and they'll turn to what they believe in to make sense of their suffering . . . and most of them will raise up the next generation to hate those whom they identify as the cause of their suffering . . . and the cycle will go on, for ever and ever, until the world ends.
We cannot 'kill them all and let God sort them out' (and let it never be forgotten that those obscene, inhuman instructions were reportedly issued, not by a Muslim fundamentalist, but by an Abbot and Papal Legate of the Catholic Church). There are too many of 'them' to kill them all, just as 'they' can never kill all of 'us'. We cannot kill our way out of terrorism. We cannot kill our way out of the dilemma of being human, with all the tragedy that entails.
May God have mercy on us all.