“We have met the enemy, and they is us.u201D
~ Pogo Possum, aka Walt Kelly
There was a time when the American character could be represented as u201Crealisticu201D and u201Cpragmatic.u201D This was altogether fitting for a nation of people preoccupied with industriousness, inventiveness, and other traits associated with the pursuit of material well-being. But in recent years, such qualities have begun to erode. The u201Crealityu201D of men and women living together in society is presented on television with people in a pseudo-primitive locale eating worms to survive. “Pragmatismu201D — grounded in the awareness of causal explanations for behavior — has given way to u201Copportunism,u201D in which luck and inexplicable forces combine to produce events in the world. The erstwhile u201Cpracticalu201D American has become u201Cdelusional.u201D
Nowhere is this more evident than in the post-9/11 frenzy that has infected the minds of most Americans. People who were once able to figure out that Uncle Willie’s emphysema was probably brought on by his habit of smoking three packs of cigarettes each day, are unable to find causal connections between hijacked-airliner attacks on skyscrapers and the foreign policies of the United States government. Indeed, most Americans have been so taken up with the pursuit of material wealth, that they have had no interest in knowing of the deeds being done in their name throughout the world.
Events of that mid-September morn nearly four years ago were like a rock thrown through one’s picture-window, the view of a carefully landscaped world now shattered. Would those whose lives had been obsessed with increasing the equity in their homes be amenable to realistic, causal explanations for these terrible acts, or would they insist upon answers that posed no disquiet upon their minds? Were they prepared to acknowledge the interconnectedness of practices they had heretofore been content to leave to u201Cexpertsu201D or, like Uncle Willie, would they be inclined to look for the source of their ailments in the wicked motives of others, be they cigarette manufacturers or the victims of American foreign policies?
Statists, desirous of shielding their clandestine activities from members of their own public, began spinning the most fantastic tales to explain the 9/11 atrocities. The nation’s story-teller-in-chief — who, at the time of the WTC attacks, was rehearsing for a larger audience by reading stories to schoolchildren in Florida — was quick to satisfy minds eager for cheap and easy answers. We were told that the deadly events of that day were brought on by crazed Muslims, who resented America’s materialistic culture and its insistence upon treating women as human beings! What better way to avoid thinking about the interconnected causes of our difficulties than to imagine them the products of disordered minds.
Americans were formally introduced to the u201Csuicide bomber,u201D a man or woman whose willingness to die for their cause was all the evidence one needed for the religious fanaticism that was said to motivate their actions. We feign shock at the suicide-bomber phenomenon, choosing to distance ourselves from support of the practice when utilized for ends we value. Do we not speak of u201Ca principle worth dying for,u201D the same sentiment upon which the jihadist acts? We do not talk of u201Ca principle worth living for.u201D Is this because such words are not sufficiently expressive of our commitment to a cause? Nor do the words u201Ca principle worth killing foru201D cross our lips. We are willing — in some cases, eager — to kill others, but killing imposes costs on others, while dying internalizes costs to ourselves.
It is the willingness to die that energizes all active participants in wars. I recall, during World War II, how Japanese kamikaze pilots were looked upon in the same way as today’s suicide-bomber: crazed fanatics for their cause. And yet, American war movies were filled with similar acts by American servicemen: the soldier who threw himself on a grenade to save his buddies; and the Navy or Air Corps pilots who intentionally crashed their planes into enemy aircraft carriers or supply trains. The Congressional Medal of Honor, or the Silver Star, or the Navy Cross are held out to servicemen as posthumous awards for suicidal acts that inflicted great damage upon the enemy.
The war system is humanity’s improvement upon the lemmings’ suicidal marches into the sea. The major distinction between the two is that, what lemmings do by instinct, we humans accomplish through thought that mobilizes our dark sides. We divide ourselves into mutually-exclusive herds, and in the process delude ourselves that u201Couru201D purposes and actions are nobler than u201Ctheirs.u201D Such a retreat from reality makes it easy for us to distinguish u201Cour brave troopsu201D from u201Ctheir evil suicide bombers.u201D
Such is the underlying logic of the war game. Our thinking becomes institutionalized; mutual-exclusion generates the conflict that leads to mutual-destruction, all to the gain of state systems whose well-being, as Randolph Bourne reminded us, is found in manipulating people into playing this game. Having separated ourselves from others, we fail to grasp the symbiotic nature of war. As the u201Cgoodu201D guys, we believe we are morally entitled to attack the u201Cbadu201D guys, who are obliged to accept our attack as just punishment for various u201Cwrongsu201D that we have defined!
We should have remembered from our childhood how attacking another causes him to retaliate against us, using whatever weapons he has at his disposal, including himself. But state officials override the truth known to every playground warrior, and convince us that our victim’s retaliation is an act of u201Caggression,u201D to which we must respond. Our subsequent attack produces yet another violent reaction from our enemy, to which we make another forceful response, and so on in an endless recurrence of death and destruction.
Our wartime suffering is causally connected with the suffering we inflict upon others. If we are to understand the nature of our blood-stained world, we must abandon our self-righteous definitions of u201Cgoodu201D and u201Cevilu201D and see our problems in terms of their interconnectedness. Only fools will accept the u201Cthey hate us for our freedom and our valuesu201D rationale for this war. The reality is that others hate us for the wrongs our government has inflicted upon them; and we hate those who retaliate against us for such wrongs.
Seen in the light of interdependency, everyone who supports the war system takes on the character of a u201Csuicide-bomber.u201D Such people are often prepared to die — and to send their children to die — to perpetuate the u201Cnecessityu201D and u201Cgloryu201D of this self-destructive ritual. So, too, are those that the state defines for us as our u201Cenemies,u201D and who are prepared to give their lives for such madness.
The suicide-bomber is but the full extension of what is implicit in politics: institutionalized violence. In order to expand their reach over the lives and property of people, political systems must continually find new enemies as fear-objects. Frightful enemies coalesce the fear-ridden into obedient and manageable herds. War, then, is the necessary vehicle by which the state mobilizes itself for the infusion of the human energy upon which it depends. Like a vampire, the state nourishes itself on the blood of others.
Politics, in other words, is a mutual suicide system, the truth of which can be found in the 200,000,000 corpses offered in sacrifice to the state in the 20th century. The man or woman who straps explosives to his or her body in order to kill or maim faceless u201Cothers,u201D is but another weapon available to those warring participants who, unlike their opposition, do not have tanks, bombers, missiles, or other sophisticated tools with which to carry out their butchery.
The suicide-bomber — like other individualized warriors — is an omen of at least two trends upon which intelligent men and women ought to focus their attention. The first has to do with the increasing decentralization of social behavior. 9/11 confirmed what H.G. Wells tried to tell us over a century ago in The War of the Worlds, when microbes — rather than the powerful weaponry of the state — provided the most effective defense against invaders.
Secondly, the suicide-bomber should serve as a warning for all of us to be concerned about victims of wrongs who have nothing to lose even by the most desperate means of retaliation. Perhaps it is time for thoughtful people to cease dealing with the rest of the world with the assumption that they are to be the recipients of our arrogant authority.
We must also become aware of the extent to which we have become participants in our own destruction. Those who praise government soldiers for making u201Cthe ultimate sacrifice,u201D are invoking the suicidal impulse no less than the families of dead jihadists. Those who counsel their children to invest their lives in this mad, dehumanizing project, as well as egalitarians who encourage the mothers of small children to leave home for the battlefield, share the consequences of this mutual suicide pact.
To champion the war system — with whatever weapons or tactics employed — is to embrace the suicidal mindset. Soldiers and insurgents alike operate from the premise that their lives exist so that they may be serviceable to the systems for which they fight and for which they are prepared to die.
If you would like to meet a suicide-bomber, try looking in a mirror. You may discover a reflection of the anger you now direct toward those who tape bombs to their bodies rather than flags to their cars.
Butler Shaffer [send him e-mail] teaches at the Southwestern University School of Law.