Brutality that Boomerangs
(Originally published by Saree Makdisi in The Los Angeles Times, 29 July 2005)
I am angered and sickened by the bombings here in London on July 7, but I am equally angered by the unthinking reactions in the United States and Britain to those disgusting attacks.
The usual self-congratulatory contrast between "our" civilization and "their" barbarism has set the stage for a cycle of moralistic inquiries into the motivations of suicide bombers and the supposed duty of "good" Muslims to restrain "bad" ones.
Few have noticed that suicide bombing is merely a tactic used by those who lack other means of delivering explosives. Fewer still seem to notice that what happened in London is what occurs every time a U.S. or British warplane unloads its bombs on an Iraqi village.
But, you may say, our forces don't deliberately target civilians. Perhaps not. But they have consistently shown themselves to be indifferent to the civilian casualties produced by their operations.
"Collateral damage" is the inevitable result of choosing to go to war. By making the choice to go to war in Iraq, we made the choice to kill tens of thousands of civilians.
It does not matter to bereaved parents whether their child was killed deliberately, as the result of a utilitarian calculation of "the greater good," or of the callous indifference of officials from a distant power.
American and British media have devoted hours to wondering what would drive a seemingly normal young Muslim to destroy himself and others. No one has paused to ask what would cause a seemingly normal young Christian or Jew to strap himself into a warplane and drop bombs on a village, knowing full well his bombs will inevitably kill civilians (and, of course, soldiers).
Because "our" way of killing is dressed up in smart uniforms and shiny weapons and cloaked in the language of grand causes, we place it on a different moral plane than "theirs."
I read an article about a Marine sniper who was given a medal at a California ceremony for having shot dead 32 Iraqis during the battle for Fallouja last year-- young men who were defending their city from an invading army. A nod to their deaths was made by the sniper and a chaplain, but these are the sentiments that struck me:
"He didn't kill 32 people," said a sergeant major. "He saved numerous lives.... That's how Marines look at it." And his mother said, "It's difficult. You send off your little boy and he comes back a man who has protected everyone." Clearly, "our" lives are all that matter and "their" lives literally don't count.
And are we really expected to believe that such brutal indifference to other people's lives has nothing to do with what happened in London three weeks ago?
"It is by distortedly exalting some men, that others are distortedly debased," the Anglo American revolutionary Thomas Paine warned two centuries ago. As a result, he added, "a vast mass of humankind are degradedly thrown into the background of the human picture." His point was that if people are treated inhumanly, they will cease to act humanly.
Our governments dismiss out of hand any connection between the London bombings and the war in Iraq. Such attacks, they say, predate 2003. But Iraq was first invaded in 1991, not 2003. Then a decade of sanctions against that country killed a million Iraqis, including 500,000 children. Over the same period, unwavering support for Israel has resulted in the deaths of thousands of innocent Palestinians and the total paralysis of an entire people. Tens of thousands have been slaughtered by U.S. and British forces in Afghanistan and Iraq since 2001.
At no point has peaceful protest, persuasion, demonstration, negotiation or remonstration made so much as a dent in the single-minded U.S. and British policy. If all legitimate forms of dissent go unheeded, illegitimate forms will be turned to instead. Some will resort to violence, which does not producethe desired result but may, by way of unthinking reaction, give vent to the inhumanity with which they have been treated for so long. Paine was right:
People who are treated brutally will finally turn into brutes.
This is not a war between "civilization" and "barbarism" but a war between one form of zealotry and another, one form of ignorance and another, one form of barbarism and another. More of the same, underwritten by ignorance, will not yield solutions.
The time has come to be human, and — motivated by sympathy, actuated by reason — to think and act as human beings, not unthinking brutes.