Arthur Miller: "I think the job of the artist … is to remind people of what they have chosen to forget."
For the past few months, at the same time that I've been painting Americans Who Tell the Truth portraits, I've been working on a series of little portraits that I call "collaterals." They exist as a kind of dark star to the Truth Tellers. The name refers to collateral damage, the term given to civilian individuals killed in a military action who were not "intentionally" targeted. These paintings are fictions. One rarely sees the face or knows the identity of a collateral. It's a virtual and abstract category in which the victim is never a real person, a kind of discarded ghost. Such is the magic of language and of denial. When you come to think of it, there is probably no more obscenely immoral term than the one that dismisses the importance of other people as collateral damage when their deaths become incidental to the achievement of some military/economic objective. As collateral, the individuals bear the same value as sawdust to a carpenter.
The obvious assumption is that our goals and our lives have more significance than theirs, and, further, that we therefore have the right to murder them with no consequence. Because there is no penalty, it must be a right. But what kind of right is it? An inalienable right? A human right? A legal right? Moral right? No, it's really a right of entitlement. Similar to the right we exercise when we build a road through a forest and then run over the raccoon that crosses it. They, the civilians, the raccoons, are the necessary fatalities for our notion of progress.
So, the collaterals have been obligated, in effect, to become martyrs for the indiscriminate power that killed them for its own higher cause, martyrs not for their own beliefs, their own volition, but ours. It is as though, by the very fact of their deaths, they are subsumed into a sub-legal category of existence, the category of martyrdom by default. And, as sub-legals, their killers are obligated not to feel remorse. On TV we see their surviving kin weep and wail and shout revenge, but we think they will get over it when they realize their loved ones have been sacrificed for their own good.
It should be self-evident that anyone who professes to believe in any of the democratic ideals of this country, such as respect for the essential equality and rights of all individuals, could not possibly utter the words "collateral damage" without shame or cynicism. Interestingly, during the Vietnam War, Henry Kissinger and Robert McNamara used the term "integers" to describe civilian deaths that they preferred relocated to the abstraction of numbers rather than the reality of flesh. At least, though, the term "integer" implies the act of counting. Collaterals are not counted. Their numbers are denied and suppressed along with their identities, their places in their communities, families, their sexes, ages, jobs, who loved them and whom they loved, what stories they told, their favorite foods, how they laughed and cried, what achievements they aspired to, what hopes, what dreams. The fact that the current U.S. administration keeps no count of the Iraqis murdered as collateral damage destroys any claim they may have to bringing democracy and freedom to that country. What would lead anyone to believe that a country which doesn't count the innocent dead would actually respect the votes of the living?
Civilians killed incidental to the progress of war are collateral; those killed purposefully are victims of terrorism. Sometimes it's very hard to tell the difference. Governments do one and call it the other, but get the desired effect. In other words, if an attack on a civilian population is called "Shock and Awe," isn't it really terrorism, even if you later call the dead collaterals.
The notion of collateral damage has larger ramifications than just that of civilians run over in the way of military/economic objectives. Western civilization is based on a linear idea of progress that requires the euphemistic "development of resources." Blowing the tops off mountains, grinding up the great forests, depleting the seas of fish, creating a mass extinction by habitat destruction, poisoning the earth, air and water, injecting a toxic brew of chemicals into the body of every living creature in the world, this is the collateral damage of a culture of consumption and increasing profit.
So, in the paintings I made up the faces. Some anguished. Some simply bearing witness to the immense amoral disregard in the face of which they are powerless. They are the blur created by the momentum of our rush to get where we are going. But they must be brought into focus. For, in that focus is not only the truth about the nature of the killer's behavior, but also the key to survival on a sustainable earth. Hypocrisy about the value of other lives is no longer something about which an otherwise decent person may be negligent or cynical; that hypocrisy is tantamount to suicide. By placing economic expansion, resource depletion, and increased consumption before the wisdom of sustainability, which is the wisdom of the earth, we become our own collateral damage.
This is what Malcolm X meant after the assassination President Kennedy when he said that the chickens had come home to roost. That is, if we live by power and violence, by disrespect for other people's lives, it will come back to haunt us. The snake will bite its own tail. No one wanted to hear it then, and they don't now.
But collateral damage is the same whether it's a term for Iraqi children or our own drinking water, Mayans in Guatemala or the plague of breast cancer, Africans dying in the hold of a slave ship or global warming. It's really a term for a mentality, a conscience, a system profoundly out of balance. Perhaps it would be a good idea to show the picture on world-wide television each night of one mother or one little girl or one little boy or one father targeted for the next day's collateral damage, and let the world agonize, as it is did about Terry Schiavo, whether this life should be taken.
June 21, 2005