How Perverted Have We Become?

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Michael: My father is no different from any powerful man, any man with power, like a president or senator.

Kay Adams: Do you know how naïve you sound, Michael? Presidents and senators don't have men killed.

Michael: Oh, who's being naïve, Kay?

~ The Godfather (1972)

When I was in high school, one of my teachers showed the film The Ox-Bow Incident. For those unfamiliar with the movie, it is a western that takes place in 19th century Nevada. Three strangers are captured by townsfolk — who had formed a posse — and accused of having murdered a local cattleman and stolen his cattle. The three are in possession of the cattle, but claim they had bought them from the owner. As the sale took place out on the range, no bill of sale accompanied the transaction. In due course, most members of the posse conclude these men were guilty of the crime, and decide to hang them, which they summarily do. Shortly thereafter, the posse meets up with the sheriff who informs them that the cattleman had been wounded, but not murdered, and that the wrongdoers who had shot him had been caught.

I recall no lengthy discussion of this film once it ended. Its message was as evident to each of us as it was to theater audiences; its meaning stood on its own. Unlike so much of the public response to the killing of Osama bin Laden, there was no post-lynching praise of the posse for having performed a community service; no bestowal of "hero" status upon the perpetrators.

Like most Americans — and, perhaps, people in general — I have no defense to make of bin Laden. Outside of his own circle of operatives, the only person I can recall who had good words to say about this man was Ronald Reagan. It was during his presidency that the U.S. government helped to create and fund Al Qaeda — with bin Laden in a leadership role — to help drive the Soviet Union out of Afghanistan. For those of you who derive your sense of history from motion pictures, you might want to watch Charlie Wilson's War. Having been established to serve American Cold War interests, when Al Qaeda's success in evicting the Soviets was no longer useful to such purposes, it pursued other foreign invaders (i.e., its creators)! Once again Boobus Americanus is confronted with Newton's "third law of motion" which, in matters political, is known to thoughtful minds as "blowback."

My criticism of bin Laden's killing has less to do with what was done to him, than with the morally depraved character of so many Americans who, once again, react to the crimes of its leaders by waving flags and chanting "USA, USA!" My children and grandchildren will have to live in — and, hopefully, not have to escape from — this country whose fate is so utterly a matter of indifference to most of their neighbors. Thanks to the influence that politics, government schools, and the mainstream media have had in anesthetizing minds to the pain of clear, self-directed thinking, the kinds of principles that used to define the essence of American society, have become labeled "extremist ideology" or "crackpot" thinking. After all, what do such notions as "constitutional restraints," the "rule of law," "due process," "individual liberty," "privacy," "fair trials for the accused," the rejection of "torture," and other related ideas, have to do with such "real world" matters as details of the royal wedding, or the question "who will be the next American Idol?"

This is what America has become: a nation of people who accept what the Nuremberg trials declared to be the most serious of war crimes, namely, the starting of wars; people who regard "liberty" as the condition that derives from obedience to authority; for whom "justice" means nothing more than the redistribution of violence; and who are willing to accept heroes on the cheap. The official story of how bin Laden was killed has changed so many times that it remains uncertain what actually occurred. What can be distilled, at this point, is that Navy SEALs were brought to bin Laden's residence by helicopter; he was unarmed and put up no resistance; and, having been captured, was then shot and killed, and his body dumped into the sea.

It borders on the psychotic for Americans to cheer, as "heroes," men who, not defending themselves from gunfire, and having captured a now helpless old man, would then commit such a cold-blooded atrocity. Why was he not taken into custody, and allowed to stand trial for his alleged deeds? Was it preordained that, no matter the circumstances, bin Laden was not to survive his capture; that, as Noam Chomsky and others have observed, the United States did not have concrete evidence of bin Laden's responsibility for the crimes of 9/11? Was there, perhaps, the greater fear that if bin Laden — a creature of American foreign policy — were to be subjected to a public trial, the underside of such policies might be revealed; that such evidence — coupled with the revelations coming from Julian Assange and his Wikileaks organization — might prove embarrassing?

If American troops are to play the role of "hit men" for the political establishment — gunning down those who might inconvenience the purposes of statist godfathers — what are we to think of our neighbors who see such behavior as a matter of national greatness? It is now the common wisdom among the political talking-heads — whose opinions are all too common — that Obama's criminal act greatly boosts his reelection chances. Has the market for moral principles so bottomed out in this country? Is it in the dregs of human character that future historians will find the essence of 21st century America?

Nearly six years ago, British policemen tackled a young Brazilian man in a subway station on his way to work. After getting him down, he was shot five times in the head and died, for which FOX News' witless commentator, John Gibson, praised the police, adding "five in the noggin is fine." It was later revealed that the victim of this murder was innocent of any wrongdoing. In a rational world, it would be the purpose of a public trial to determine whether a suspect was guilty of a criminal offense. In whatever form a lynch-mob appears, the society that condones — or worse yet glorifies — such practices destroys itself.

Hero-worship is far too overdone in this country, and is often confused with fame. Nonetheless, those who seek heroic behavior can find it if one is discriminating in where to look for it. One can sometimes find it within the military, although such persons are often treated as pariahs. One example can be found in the U.S. Army helicopter pilot, Hugh Thompson, who came upon the systematic murdering of Vietnamese civilians at My Lai, led by Lt. Calley. When Thompson figured out what was occurring, he turned his helicopter toward the American soldiers and ordered his crew members to open fire on them should they persist in their slaughter. For his heroic act of decency, Thompson spent much of his remaining years being treated more as a villain. Boobus has been too conditioned in his support of the state to be willing to make independent judgments, particularly about anything that lays too great burden upon his mind. A more recent example of military heroism is seen in Private Bradley Manning, who has been accused of providing WikiLeaks' Julian Assange with the restricted material that Wikileaks later released. For a nation that professes to operate on democratic principles, Manning and Assange are providing the public with an essential service: a documented awareness of what its government has been doing. If anyone wants to build a monument to any of these genuine heroes, please let me know where I can send my donation!

Butler Shaffer [send him e-mail] teaches at the Southwestern University School of Law. He is the author of the newly-released In Restraint of Trade: The Business Campaign Against Competition, 1918–1938 and of Calculated Chaos: Institutional Threats to Peace and Human Survival. His latest book is Boundaries of Order.

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