Why Do So Many Want To Kill and Torture?

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Few of us can easily surrender our belief that society must somehow make sense. The thought that the state has lost its mind and is punishing so many innocent people is intolerable. And so the evidence has to be internally denied.
~ Arthur Miller

The 200l attack on the World Trade Center was a watershed event for the soul of Americans. Prior to that time, there would have been a significant questioning of the state employing its collective powers to injure or kill persons who had caused no harm to others. This is not to say that most Americans had a pacific spirit, or were unwilling to engage in warfare against others. The United States has long been a war-loving nation, particularly from the period of the Civil War when Americans reveled in a four-year-long holiday for butchers.

But Americans have long insisted that their government’s participation in the amassing of tens of millions of corpses be grounded in some so-called "rational" purpose; that there be some moral "justification" for the well-orchestrated carnage for which the United States would become the primary supplier of weaponry. If the state had to concoct events that provided the offense for which armed retaliation was then demanded, that became acceptable, as long as the details of the scheme could be kept suppressed, such as by labeling truth-tellers "paranoid conspiracy theorists." As long as they could cling to their state-induced delusions that collective violence served some pragmatic or moral ends, most Americans have been content to allow the state a free reign.

In such ways have most of us sanctioned wars as necessary for protection against those forces who want to "take over the world" and subjugate and despoil us. During my lifetime, Adolf Hitler, "international communism," and now some amorphous entity known as "terrorism," have served the purpose of empowering "our" state to do the very things these outside specters are supposed to have in mind (i.e., subjugation and despoliation). Though we have long been taken in by such chicanery, we have insisted that the deception satisfy our beliefs that the state is protecting us from some genuine threat.

Likewise, most Americans rationalize capital punishment as a means of "deterring" criminal acts, thus safeguarding us from those who would victimize others. Without the illusion of deterrence, most of us would see the government’s formalized killing of "criminals" as little more than blood-thirsty revenge, and we would be less willing to accept the practice.

But September 11, 2001, changed all of that. Most Americans — cheerled by politicians, members of the media, and other sociopaths — succeeded in turning most of the country into a multi-million-member lynch mob. For more than six years now, most of our neighbors have been content to play out their roles as participants in a worldwide performance of The Ox-Bow Incident. Such erstwhile values as individual liberty, due process of law, evidence, public trials, habeas corpus, and the like, have been denigrated, their defenders accused of pro-terrorist dispositions.

What has become of the heretofore-insistence that state violence be justified by rational, pragmatic, and moral standards? That, too, has become totally irrelevant to most Americans. Why? What has triggered this nation’s free-fall into collective indecency?

The events of 9/11 were far more traumatic to most Americans than simply the loss of some three thousand lives and the defining edifices of the New York City skyline. That day shattered a number of popular illusions about the "security" people had been conditioned to expect from the nation-state. We had been taxed well into the hundreds of billions of dollars, and regulated to many of the finer details of our lives, for which we had developed the expectation that our lives — and way of life — would be protected from acts of foreign aggression. Of course, most of us didn’t care to question how — and for what purposes — these billions of dollars were being spent, just as most ordinary Germans, in the 1930s, had little interest in knowing why so many of their neighbors were disappearing. We had far more important matters upon which to focus our attentions: the lifestyles of Hollywood celebrities, whether the Chicago Cubs would ever win a pennant, and just what went on in the Oval Office during the Clinton years.

When nineteen men, armed only with box-cutter knives, were able to commandeer airliners and attack the World Trade Center, the solidity of "protection" we had been conditioned to expect from the state turned to warm jelly. The personal privacy and tax dollars we had surrendered to the state in the name of "intelligence gathering," proved as worthless to us in foretelling the events of that day as they had in anticipating the collapse of the Soviet Union. Unconscious voices began to whisper to us that we had been duped; that we had spent much of our life savings in the purchase of a lemon; that, like country bumpkins in the big city with the egg money, we had been fleeced by slickers.

But such inner voices had to be silenced. We had invested our entire sense of being — our very identities — with the nation-state. If our nation had failed to meet our expectations, this would reflect badly on our personal sense of who we are. Furthermore, if the attacks of that terrible day were — as more perceptive minds are aware — the unintended consequences (or "blowback") of terrible wrongs committed by the government with which we have identified ourselves, we must personally bear some of the responsibility.

Each of us has a "dark-side" to our personality, qualities that our conscious mind prefers not to acknowledge. Whether we act in response to such "dark-side" forces or not, each of us has the capacity for dishonesty, violence, laziness, lying, irresponsibility, racism, and a whole host of other undesired attributes. Mature people acknowledge this fact and, in so doing, reduce the likelihood of acting upon them. Others, however, prefer to "project" such characteristics onto others ("scapegoats") and then take retributive action against them in the delusion that they are doing something about such behavior. Politics mobilizes these "dark-side" energies into the kind of mass-minded behavior that America has become since 9/11.

Like a lynch mob, reason, moral principles, and factual analysis, find little expression in political mobocracy. When there has been a failure of expectations regarding our attachments to external entities, our "dark-side" forces seek out others upon which to inflict blame. Our economy is in great difficulty; our schools have failed our children; our tax burdens are some thirty times greater than they were in the Kennedy administration; our "defense" system does not protect, but embroils us in wars with more and more people throughout the world; our lives are increasingly policed, spied upon, surveilled, and regulated to ends that serve the interests of others; even our homes can be taken from us and given to corporate interests that desire them. The totality of such phenomena make us aware that the system we have regarded as indispensable to our well-being has failed us; that our world simply does not work well for us.

Is it surprising, then, that most Americans seem willing to scuttle the best characteristics of a civilized society in favor of taking their collective rage out on whoever gets in their way? The evidence is quite clear: neither the Iraqi government nor the Iraqi people had anything whatsoever to do with the events of 9/11, and yet this fact hasn’t diminished the insistence, by most Americans, that the U.S. military remain in that country to kill more innocent Iraqis. Lurking behind the phrase "support the troops" is the real sentiment: "support the slaughter."

Anyone who has done serious study of the use of torture knows that it is a most unreliable way of getting meaningful information. That such methods also violate basic standards of human decency makes torture both morally and pragmatically unacceptable to sane people. There was a time when Americans would have become incensed were it known that their government was engaged in the systematic torture of people. Today, however, most Americans — along with most of their elected representatives in Washington — refuse to repudiate the practice, demanding only that such atrocities be renamed to make them sound less offensive.

Likewise, capital punishment fails to satisfy the purposes of deterrence that have long been the stated rationale of this practice. Nonetheless, the grisly exercise of this ultimate assertion of state power over life continues to be defended by most Americans.

When America continues to war against a nation that has done us no harm — a war that has cost upwards of a million dead already — and embraces the torture of human beings, and insists upon capital punishment, the question must be asked: why? What purposes are served by such irrational, immoral, and fundamentally indecent acts? What forces have transformed heretofore civilized people into a herd of barbarians?

The answer lies deep within our psyches, wherein reside the "dark-side" forces that can be so easily mobilized to the most destructive of purposes. Americans continue to suffer from a failure of expectations regarding their collective identities. Nineteen men were able to circumvent the system Americans had navely believed would protect them, and carried out a horrific crime. The perpetrators, however, were killed in the attack and cannot be punished. The anger that comes from the state’s failure to perform as promised does not subside, and must be directed at someone. Like a man who has just lost his job, gets drunk, and then goes home to beat up his family, most Americans seem willing to express their rage at any convenient target.

The idea that "we" might be the victims of an attack — instead of the expectation that "we" be the perpetrators of attacks — has struck at the very heart of who and what most Americans believe themselves to be. Faced with the discomfort of such a traumatic awakening, most have been content to make the reptilian response of "see — act" and endorse any kind of violence against anyone who gets in their way and can be made to absorb their projected anger. Ron Paul — the only presidential candidate willing to end this immoral and irrational butchery — receives around 10% of the votes in the primaries. His principal opponent, John McCain, appears to be running away with the party’s nomination, on a platform endorsing the continuation of this war for "one hundred" or even "ten thousand years." What clearer measure of the extent to which most Americans demand the indiscriminate killing of others! It is the continuation of this mindset that, more than any other single factor, will hasten the total collapse of this civilization.

Butler Shaffer [send him e-mail] teaches at the Southwestern University School of Law. He is the author of Calculated Chaos: Institutional Threats to Peace and Human Survival.

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