Washington, DC, in the 1980s was called the “murder capital of the world,” but that designation now belongs to Baghdad, where the number of people killed since the end of the war is approaching 42,000. The US had hoped to reduce the numbers of troops in the capital, but the incredible violence of the city has instead prompted the usual response in the age of Bush: more troops, more rules, and more martial law — and there isn’t a person not on the payroll of the occupation willing to predict that this will settle folks down.
Much is due to wanton immorality by the occupying power, and due to what the media like to call “sectarian violence,” that is Sunni vs. Shiite (neither of which wants to be ruled by the other). There is also what the media call “insurgent” violence, which is directed against the ruling party, its bureaucrat minions, and its muscle provided by the occupying troops. But in reality, these cannot be so sharply distinguished, since the sectarian violence is fueled by the attempt to create a one-party state.
And yet so much of the violence in Iraq is unrelated to either politics or the occupation. It grows out of the moral chaos of Iraq today, the cause of which merits some closer investigation.
First, however, consider the following case study from a few weeks ago. It concerns two armored vans with eight drivers and guards who were transporting cash from one bank to another in Baghdad. As has become routine, the vans met up with a military checkpoint made up by Iraqi Army trucks, headed by an official-looking Humvee. Of course the van stopped, lest they be shot.
Men in the convoy asked the van drivers to get out of their van, and they willingly complied, since this is the standard way people are treated in Baghdad, where there is no freedom of movement. Then the van drivers received a surprise. The military troops, or whoever they were, handcuffed all eight of the men and threw them into the back of the van where they languished in 120 degree heat. The cash from the van was stolen by the people in the Iraqi military convoy, which drove away.
Who were the robbers? No one knows for sure. There is an equal chance that they were private robbers on the make, underground political rebels, or actual Iraqi troops who saw a main chance and took it. Nor will anyone ever find out who they were. Since that event, far more serious crimes have occurred, and there is no reliable court of law. Indeed, such thefts are so common that insurance companies refuse coverage for cash transport. Banks take their own risks.
What we have here is rampant crime combined with the absence of justice. In civics class we are routinely taught that government officials are the ones we trust with keeping the law. But deep analysis reveals the more fundamental truth that the only difference between the government and the people, in any system, is that the government lives by a different set of rules. There is nothing inherent in the nature of government that causes its employees to be more or less lawless than anyone else. Indeed, the power that government exercises over others would be considered criminal if any citizens attempted to behave as a government does every day.
There is a name for a country where there is no security, freedom, or justice, and where criminality is woven into the fabric of everyday life: moral nihilism. Not only is it not clear who the good guys and the bad guys are. It is no longer clear that there is any pervasive belief that there are such things as good guys and bad guys. The moral categories that make civilized life possible have disintegrated. The self-proclaimed liberators turn out to be oppressors. The ruling elite that claims to represent the Iraqi people are being kept in power by the mortal enemy of the Iraqi people. Those who are charged with protecting the people are as likely as anyone else to be responsible for looting and killing the people.
What brings about such a situation? We learned after the fall of socialism in Eastern Europe and Russia that socialism had been all too effective in creating a new socialist man. The lack of respect for contract, property, and life itself became evident in the reform process. The cultural foundations that might have led to a stable and secure freedom were just not present.
Why is this? Because violence blessed as an official civic policy is a demonic teacher of populations. In any society, the problem with crime extends beyond the immediate victims. Pervasive violence whittles away the cultural and moral foundations of society.
In your own town, a bloody killing or arson or egregious theft is not only a problem for those harmed. It subtly but certainly conveys a message that immoral and evil behavior is a living reality that can be contemplated and carried out with great effect. This is one reason society must punish crime with severity: no society can afford to permit the lowest elements to serve as an imitative example to others. As criminality increases, cultural commitment to moral norms decreases, both as a cause and an effect.
War has been called a form of crime on a mass scale, and a particularly egregious form because it comes with the endorsement of elites. For centuries before the modern age, awareness of war’s lawlessness led to a consensus that the conduct of war should be restrained by rules: fighting should be restricted to those in the employ of the states’ military sectors, damage should be proportional, violence should not be wanton, negotiated settlements should be sought at all times.
But in the modern age, all that changed. Civilians became targets. Cities were not spared. Proportionality is not a consideration. Settlements are out of the question; all wars must end in unconditional surrender by one side or the other. As a result, modern wars are far more violent and blood-soaked than medieval ones, and they are far more likely to impact the whole of culture, dragging society’s moral sense into the gutter, so that the sense of right and wrong, good and evil, dissolve and are replaced by a pervasive nihilism.
Thus must the US ask itself: how did this “wave of violence” begin? Who or what taught the Iraqi people that crime pays, that violence is a tolerable mode of behavior, that rules of social engagement are bunk, that human life has no inherent value? It began with ten years of cruel trade sanctions designed to drive the whole population into sickness and grinding poverty, and then culminated in the “shock and awe” war that rained mass destruction on their cities and large population centers. It was war that unleashed Hell.
Think back to the days after the bombs stopped falling on a newly “liberated” Baghdad. What did we first see? It began with mass looting of everything in sight. This was the first sign that Iraq had entered into a distorted cultural zone in which rules did not matter anymore. The unthinkable had already happened. What matters anymore? As time has gone on, the violence on all sides has only increased, and it is invariably met by more wartime tactics by the occupying armies. There is no law; there is only power. And so the response by the people has been to ignore law and take power into their own hands.
If the Devil had a teacher, its name would be war. War promotes the view that only suckers fall for moral precepts, that human life is neither here nor there, that private property is nothing more than what you can grab and keep. This is what makes the claim so absurd that the US invaded in order to bring about freedom, democracy, and the rule of law. The war taught the advantages of all the opposite values. The Iraqis have been fine students of the moral nihilism unleashed by the US’s war on Iraq.