Thinking back to the scandals of the Clinton years, when all of America was supposedly shocked and horrified at the thought of the president and the intern, the 1990s seem to be the Age of Innocence.
The Oval Office was relatively unstained as compared with the torture-sex scenes from a Bush administration-run prison in Iraq, documented in pictures and movies being viewed in an imperial temple by US elected officials in the imperial capital.
It is actually hard to think of a precedent for this: perhaps the Roman Empire under Caligula, whose rule combined claims of godliness with militarism, imperial marauding, political paranoia, fiscal profligacy, and extreme decadence.
We should add mass death to the list. We are right to wince and then condemn pictures of naked prisoners in dog collars; not even Paul Wolfowitz was willing to defend such practices in testimony. And yet those private groups that bother to count civilian dead point to figures that exceed 10,000 in this war alone. These figures rise by 5, 10, 20, and more per day.
These aren’t deaths by injection but by machinegun bullets shot, and smart bombs dropped, by US soldiers and paid for by US taxpayers, and the US doesn’t even bother to mention them much less count them. Torture is awful; but should it really be necessary to point out that the mass death of innocents is worse?
Why do the former strike our moral conscience while the latter seems like a bloodless number that could rise or fall a hundred or a thousand without consequence? Perhaps because these mass deaths have produced no lasting images that compare to those from Abu Ghraib.
Or maybe it is what Hollywood directors have always known. Audiences are shaken less by the image of a city being blown up than by a dinner fork slowly penetrating the cheek of a single individual. Our subjective reactions do not, however, change the objective reality.
Who are these people being imprisoned and killed? The Red Cross estimated that 9 out of 10 people being held at the prison were guilty of nothing but being in the wrong place at the wrong time — driving while Iraqi. But just as striking is the supposed charge against that 10th person, imprisoned for resisting an invading foreign regime that has imposed brutal martial-law for longer than a year. This same regime had been the reason for crippling trade sanctions in the previous 10 years that the UN and other organizations say account for more than a million deaths.
With all this brutality, killing, and destruction (done in the name of freedom and democracy!), the attention being given to officially tolerated torture is disproportionate, to be sure, but not unwarranted. Thanks to the prison pictures, a much-needed element has been introduced into the calculus of US foreign policy: humanitarianism. In wartime, the human element does tend to get lost.
If you have seen the video clip of the US soldiers gunning down innocents from an Apache helicopter, shooting people on the ground while looking through viewfinders of the sort you see at the video arcade, you gain insight into how the Bush administration has approached foreign relations with disregard for the right to life, and how it has produced a culture of depravity and moral degradation within the US government.
But average Iraqis have many other images hitting them on a daily basis. In Karbala, just yesterday, for example, US tanks rolled around one of Islam’s holiest cemeteries in one of Islam’s holiest cities, firing at anything that moved. Here is a place that is home to the shrine to Mohammad’s cousin Ali Ibn Abi Talib, and Shiite teaching is that people buried here immediately enter paradise.
Anyone who believes that such activities constitute “anti-terrorist” measures is a blooming idiot. In fact, such activities, and this war in general, could not have been better designed to create and inspire global terrorism. If the US government needed an enemy to replace and outdistance Communism, it is certainly doing its best to create one.
The champions of the Iraq War are in transition phase, already assuming that history will hold them accountable for an ongoing fiasco and therefore trying to put the best spin on it. The way to think about their efforts is by analogy to the early supporters of the Bolsheviks, during the period of war communism.
The revolution had gone badly, as evidenced by starvation, misery, death, and no obvious way out apart from backing away from core doctrine. This is what Lenin ultimately did, but in the meantime, the backers of the Bolsheviks had to provide an explanation for why history’s great leap forward was straight into the abyss. The trick is to do it without giving up the core ideological conviction. So too with the warmongers who must concede the failure without surrendering their attachment to the warfare state.
The supporters of the Iraq War were no less fanatical than the Bolsheviks in their conviction that power could accomplish miracles at the push of a button. People like David Brooks are now saying that the embrace of power was a mistake. “We were blinded by idealism,” he explains in a manner reminiscent of every apologist for a fanatical despot in the history of the world. Idealism! When your “idealism” results in military dictatorship, mass jailings and killings, rivers of blood, and the seething anger of half the world, you need to do more than confess that you might have underestimated the “response our power would have on the people we sought to liberate.”
Let us state the lesson in ways that might penetrate the brains of these scribblers. When a person’s “idealism” is contingent on issuing a dictate that people must obey or be killed, and on the assumption that human beings will do what they are told to do so long as the knife is at their throat, and on the further assumption that the people paying with their money and lives will believe every lie you tell, it is time to rethink your ideals. Otherwise they will end in mass suffering and devastation.
The core problem in Iraq right now is not some rogue corporals engaged in sadomasochistic torture; the problem is the “idealists” who think nothing of attempting to reconstruct an entire region of the world using bombs and bloodshed.
War is idealism in the same way that Communism and Nazism were idealism: the fanatical dream of people who insisted that the world conform to their vicious imaginings, and just so happened to get hold of the power of the state and used it to make their “ideals” happen. They are the people who give us killing fields. War too is a god that has failed.
People say that the problem is too complicated, that the mess is too extensive to be repaired. That’s not true. The US could pull out today. It could stop its imperial policies. It could end the insane levels of military spending. It could seek peace with the world. The Bush administration still has time to apologize to the world. The US could seek friendship and reconciliation and trade, and genuinely mean it and stick to it. We could become again the country that the founders wanted us to be. Now that’s an ideal.