Honoring the Dead

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The release of photographs of flag-draped coffins containing the bodies of American soldiers has upset the Bush administration. With as hypocritical a sense of false piety to come from a White House well-versed in fabrication, the Bush leaguers declared that such photos were “insensitive” to the feelings of grieving families. What arrant nonsense! What the Bush supporters fear is that, like the Vietnam War, television pictures of increasing numbers of coffins from Iraq will provide the American public a visual sense of the human costs of this neoconservative derangement.

War supporters speak of the importance of repressing such photos in order to “honor the dead.” But this crowd is as disinterested in “honoring” soldiers as it is in having the events of 9/11 fully revealed. If they truly wish to honor the young men and women who have been duped into believing that “be all you can be” means getting blown to pieces in state-concocted conflicts, they would bring them home alive, not in body-bags!

In this war — as in others — I am less interested in honoring the dead than in preventing the dead. But the state and I have different agendas. To the politicians and bureaucrats, human beings have never been anything more than fungible resources to exploit on behalf of their narrow ambitions. You may recall the videotaped coverage of a funeral attended by then-President Clinton. He was walking from the ceremony and joking with another man when he suddenly became aware of the television camera. The expression on his face quickly turned to one of solemnity.

When the government speaks of increasing the number of troops in Iraq, and directs its media lapdogs to begin discussing a return to military conscription, you get an idea of just how little they regard the life of your son or daughter. Like Johnson, Nixon, Reagan, Clinton, and other wartime presidents, George Bush can go to Arlington cemetery and feign as much respect for the dead as his acting coaches can squeeze from his primal insincerity. The actions of these men belie their sanctimonious words and empty posturing.

The state is not always averse to reminding people of the victims of wars. Once a war has been concluded, and people no longer have to struggle with ongoing battle deaths, the political system is eager to celebrate earlier casualties. Through Memorial Day and July 4th speeches, politicians exhort the living to find meaning in the deaths of earlier generations of soldiers, a tactic designed to prepare us to accept the propriety of future wars. Medals are also awarded, monuments are constructed, while endless films create heroic images of men in war. The attitude the state wants us to embrace was expressed in the Vietnam era bumper-sticker: “war is good business: invest your son.”

As long as wars are treated as abstractions, the state can use them to reinforce the sense of collective violence and sacrifice upon which political systems depend. It is when the war dead are personified, and their numbers continue to mount, that decent people become uneasy with the butchery. A Vietnam War Memorial depicting past victims of warfare is safe for the warmongers, just as the televised coverage of dead soldiers coming home from Vietnam was detrimental to war efforts. The Bush administration learned the lesson: pictures of flag-draped coffins of present victims diminish public enthusiasm for their continuing sacrifice. This is the only reason the state insists on hiding these human costs.

It is but another lie upon which government is based to assert that concealing these photos from public view is necessary in order to protect grieving families. None of the coffins were identified as the remains of any particular soldier. Furthermore, the state has never shown an unwillingness to exploit the deaths of police officers when killed “in the line of duty.” Daily television news coverage will show scenes of an officer’s death, his bullet-riddled car, as well as close-ups of the grieving family at his funeral. Where is the “sensitivity” to the suffering of family members when the state chooses to exploit the dead for its purposes?

Nor have the politicians been lax in capitalizing on the deaths of nearly three thousand victims of the World Trade Center attack to advance state interests. In his campaign materials, George Bush has used photos of New York City firemen carrying flag-draped coffins of their comrades killed on 9/11. Do those who release photos showing the public the human consequences of war stand on a lower ethical plane than the man who has precipitated these deaths, and who uses photos of dead firemen to advance his political ambitions? Like the burning of the Reichstag, or the attack on Pearl Harbor, or the sinking of the Lusitania, or the blowing up of the battleship “Maine,” the state has always been eager to take advantage of the death and suffering of others in order to foment its wars. If, on occasion, the state has been complicit in causing such attacks in order to foster a war frenzy, then so be it.

When children are abused, kidnapped, or murdered, the state eagerly exploits their victimization by expanding its police-state powers in the name of the child. Many of us have learned that when the state seeks to aggrandize its authority over us, it is often done in the name of “protecting the children.” How much legislation has been proposed and/or enacted in the name of a young victim of a crime? If ten-year-old Penelope Zilch is sexually assaulted and murdered by a man later shown to have frequented adult bookstores, you can be assured that the statists will hurriedly draft proposed legislation requiring all people who enter such businesses to be photographed and fingerprinted. The legislation will thereafter be known as “Penny’s Law,” with the parents becoming frequent visitors to television programs to relive the pain of their child’s death in order to help promote the state’s interest in greater power. Anyone who opposes such legislation will be labeled a defender of those who murder children, a supporter of pornography, or, worse still, a person who is insensitive to the suffering of the grief-stricken family.

The state exploits the deaths of young people in other ways for its political gain. A cable news channel did a fifth anniversary news report of the killings at Columbine High School in Colorado. A father of one of the victims was interviewed, and he spoke of his efforts to get tougher gun control laws enacted as a remembrance to his son. He commented that his son had told him, a few days before being killed, that he had found a “loophole” in the Brady bill.

I feel great sadness for the families of any children that have been killed, whether in accidents, wars, or at the hands of murderers. I make no light of their loss, and I can understand their motivation to memorialize their children in some meaningful way. But do such people truly believe that their children died because of a “loophole” in a federal statute? Is the lesson to be drawn from such killings that our world suffers only from inept legislative draftsmanship, and that we can best honor their deaths by campaigning for more tightly-written statutes?

Why do we pour our energies into honoring the practice of victimization? Out of a sense of love and respect for those killed, why do we not condemn the thinking and forces that brought about the deaths of loved ones? When people offer the prayer that these dead “shall not have died in vain,” the painful reality is that their deaths were futile, and that they will not be the last to die in order to gratify the aggressive appetites of others. If we truly desire to honor the memories of those killed, can we begin dismantling — in both our minds and parks — the monuments we have erected to the sanctification of institutionalized death and mayhem?

It is considered insensitive and politically incorrect to raise such questions, of course, just as it is regarded as unpatriotic to question the causes of 9/11 or the ulterior motives of the Bush administration in Afghanistan and Iraq. The state, being grounded in a network of lies and contradictions held together by force, is always threatened by truth. This is why truth, as has often been said, is the first casualty of war, a victim whose loss must be honored by any decent society. But as we have seen in these post-9/11 months, truth-telling is not a priority for a nation whooped up in a mania for war.

Those who published pictures of coffins returning to America have probably experienced the same sense of loneliness felt by the boy who reported the nakedness of the emperor. In the meantime, you and I are admonished to distance ourselves from such “insensitive” people; to dismiss the evidence they have revealed to our eyes; and to reject the truth of their message in the name of “honoring the dead.” The dead deserve better than this!

Butler Shaffer [send him e-mail] teaches at the Southwestern University School of Law.

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