The Intimacies Of Mass Killings

There is an added dimension of the gruesome, the visceral, in reading reports about mass killings where the immediacy and intimacy of the deaths involved becomes apparent. Tales of bombings of distant lands are remote, colorless, obscure, and abstracted; there is a distant plume of smoke, perhaps a spectacular pillar of flame, a mound of rubble; we are told dozens died, but we see no bodies. There are, in the end, only numbers. We cannot even imagine the violence unless we see the mangled and charred remains of the bodies of the dead. Bombs and missiles do their work relatively anonymously, thus ensuring vital cover and protection for their perpetrators and for those who would employ them in their political policies.

Matters change with shootings.  A gun connects the shooter, the killer, with his or her victim; it establishes an intimate bond between them. The killer can see the victims’ expressions of fear and resignation, hear their pleas for mercy, and finally, see bullets do their deadly work, their impact immediately visible and manifest. This final, fatal, scene can be easily imagined; it may come to haunt our waking and sleeping hours as we mentally place ourselves in a similar situation. Watching videos of the street outside the Bataclan Theater in Paris where ISIS’ killers struck last November, you can hear the sound of gunshots as the assassins went about their work; you can conjure up horrible visions of what lay beyond the closed doors of the entertainment venue turned slaughterhouse. You pray for quick bullets and easy death, for no extended bleedings to death, for no charades involving the begging for, and the denial of, mercy.

And there is the horror of what happened last night in Nice where a killer drove a truck for over a mile through a crowd of human beings–men, women, and children. Heavy vehicles driven at speed do terrible damage to a human body; they are heavy, they possess momentum, they destroy bone and tissue and vital organ function effortlessly. Moreover, the truck’s entry into the crowd would have created a stampede of sorts; many of victims would have been run over and crushed after they had been knocked down by someone else fleeing to get away from the vehicle of death. The shock and horror of what happened is, sadly, all too imaginable; the screams of the scared and the wounded would have rent the night; the horror of the crushed and mangled bodies would have been starkly visible; the killer would have felt the bumps of the bodies as he drove over them, seen the terror of those he drove towards.

In a terrible irony of sorts, the massacre last night took place during Bastille Day celebrations–a commemoration of the singular revolutionary event that set France on the long road to becoming a post-monarchical republic. Yesterday’s act was a counterrevolutionary act; it threatens to hand over France–and possibly even the US–to the forces of reaction, to those who will heed its dangerous call to escalate a war against the wrong enemies.

Hillary Clinton’s War Abroad Will Come Home Soon Enough

Hillary Clinton’s response to the Orlando massacre reminds many why they are nervous about a person who carelessly voted for the Iraq war becoming US president:

Whatever we learn about this killer [Omar Mateen], his motives in the days ahead, we know already the barbarity that we face from radical jihadists is profound. In the Middle East, ISIS is attempting a genocide of religious and ethnic minorities. They are slaughtering Muslims who refuse to accept their medieval ways. They are beheading civilians, including executing LGBT people. They are murdering Americans and Europeans, enslaving, torturing and raping women and girls. In speeches like this one, after Paris, Brussels and San Bernardino, I have laid out a plan to defeat ISIS and the other radical jihadist groups in the region and beyond.The attack in Orlando makes it even more clear, we cannot contain this threat. We must defeat it. And the good news is that the coalition effort in Syria and Iraq has made recent gains in the last months. So we should keep the pressure on ramping up the air campaign, accelerating support for our friends fighting to take and hold ground and pushing our partners in the region to do even more.

On Facebook, Corey Robin responds and draws a damning conclusion:

Forget about policy, just examine the rhetoric. The way Clinton escalates and turns it up to 11, moving us away from Orlando and a police investigation, away from any domestic considerations and social concerns, to the platform of civilizational warfare, to a cosmic evil that isn’t containable but must be destroyed and defeated, to internationalizing and militarizing the whole thing. This is the language of George W. Bush.

I’m afraid Robin is right. The little excerpt above is very similar in tone to the kinds of speeches George W. Bush made when he was infected by the spirit of 9/12–which seems to mean ‘national unity’ for some, but which in point of fact turned out to be a paranoid, vengeful, misdirected, wasteful, rage. It resulted in the war crime called ‘the Iraq war’ and if you really take causal analysis seriously, ISIS itself.

Perhaps the most crucial sentence in the excerpt is the opener. For there, Clinton makes quite clear that no matter what we learn about the actual motivations of the killer, her focus on ISIS will not waver. That is where the easier action lies; that calls for saber-rattling and bombing, all the better to unify a nation with (the one doing the bombing, not the one getting bombed, as Libyans and Iraqis will testify.) In the next four sentences, the rhetoric is ratcheted up with ‘genocide,’ ‘medieval,’ ‘slaughtering,’ ‘beheading,’ ‘executing,’ ‘torturing,’ ‘raping,’ and ‘enslaving.’ The following four sentences showcase  a segue into aggressive plans for action, which are curiously and ironically informed by a sense of futility: the threat of ISIS “cannot” be contained; it requires–implicitly–a fight to the death. (Which as we all know, often tend to take down more than just the protagonists in the battle.) And then, finally, to wrap up, there is the nod to a global battle–waged on distant lands, from air, naturally, the American way, while hopefully, ‘allies’ sacrifice their foot soldiers to the maws of war.

There is no mention of homophobia, guns, masculinity, cultures of violence; there is no mention of domestic pathology. There is a problem; and here is a bomb that will fix it. Somewhere else. Never here. But those bombs will find their way back here soon enough; in the persistence of states of war and the bolstering of the military-industrial complex, in depleted budgets for social programs and infrastructure and public education–wars cost money after all, in the militarization of police–as military weapons end up in police departments to be used against protesters in inner cities, in the criminalization of dissent,  in the crackdown on whistle blowers and the increasing pervasiveness of surveillance–because wars require national unity and secrecy.

Wars are not just waged abroad.

ISIS, America, ‘Failed States,’ And Gun Control

In the Orlando massacre, ISIS met, once again, the enemy it wanted: a society riven by a culture of violence, hyper-masculinity (and its inevitable attendant, homophobia), awash in guns, susceptible to fascist demagoguery, infected by a paranoid, self-destructive Islamophobia. That society’s lawmakers have passed over two hundred anti-LGBT bills in recent times; they also refuse to limit access to assault rifles that allow a lone gunman to shoot over hundred people in an enclosed space. Its political candidates exploit the socio-economic decline and corrosive anger resulting from rampant economic inequality to stoke fears of immigrants and foreigners and people of color; as if on cue, a fascist has become one of its presidential candidates this election season. ISIS could not have asked for anything more. It stands on distant heights, looking at the scenes arrayed before it, and it sees a polity ripe for exploitation. It wonders when this divided house will fall.

The power of ISIS in material terms is insignificant, for its rule is confined to a few pockets of territory in the Middle East; its progress in gaining square miles is merely fitful. Its soldiers and weaponry are as susceptible to munitions as anyone else’s. But ISIS rules America’s imagination, and that might be its most important conquest yet. ISIS would like nothing more than to see American saber-rattling and war mongering, coupled with a fierce desire to track down and persecute imaginary Fifth Columns; these are all are part of an explicit ISIS prescription for success in America.

It is the day after the Orlando massacre, and there is little to do in America other than sign petitions, make note of outrageous hot takes–like Donald Trump’s suggestion that Obama had something to do with the massacre–curse the NRA, and quibble about who or what should be blamed. America is at a loss. Such confusion–over political strategy and tactics, in response to a phenomenon that occurs with metronomic regularity–indicates a state ripe for the kind of infection the ISIS aims to spread; it is entirely opportunistic–for it first took root in post-war Iraq, Syria, and Libya.

A comparison of the world’s greatest superpower with the world’s ‘failed states’ might seem risible; but it is not so when it comes to the matter of mass shootings and gun control. For failed states are characterized by broken political discourse, by vacuums of power; such is arguably the state of affairs when it comes to these massacres in America. Political parties know not what to do; the populace is convinced of its helplessness. Guns and those who use them and sell them rule the roost–just like they do in ‘badlands’ the world over.  The culture of violence they enable, the disputes they help settle, the temper tantrums and inchoate prejudices they transform into homicidal rage, these continue to corrode the fabric of America’s polity.

Homophobia, guns, the violent resolution of disputes; these are part of the American cultural and political fabric. They enable ISIS too, just like its beheading videos do.

 

ISIS, US Policy, And Feeding The Bogeyman

In ‘The Unbearable Lightness of America’s War Against the Islamic StateStephen Walt supplies us the following pull-quote:

What is needed is not a single presidential speech, but rather a sustained, all-out effort by top U.S. officials to remind their fellow citizens how safe they actually are. One often hears that fear is inherently irrational and that such a campaign would never work, but how do we know until someone tries? By refusing to tell the truth about the actual (very low) level of risk, presidents and other officials cede the ground to threat-mongers and guarantee that the public will overreact to the rare but dramatic events that do occur.

We are used by now to those statistics that make note of how many deaths are caused by causes other than terrorism: drunk driving, falling off a ladder, snakebite etc. As Walt notes, “the odds that an American will be killed by a terrorist are about one in 4 million each year.” Numbers though, have always had little effect in assuaging irrational fears–as generations of scared flyers will attest. (Perhaps an even better example is parents anxious about their children being abducted, an extremely rare and improbable event. They really should be far more concerned about their children getting run over by a reckless driver while crossing a street.) So what will work?

The ‘sustained, all-out’ part of Walt’s prescription is crucial, of course. It is not enough to offer assurances of safety after a deadly incident of some kind; the overwhelming likelihood that the average American citizen will not meet a violent death at the hands of terrorists bears repetition ad nauseam (via a variety of modalities.) After all, if similar repetition can enhance the truth value of a lie, then why not that of a truth?

So why are such reassurances not made more often, more emphatically?

‘Top US officials’ are ‘threat-mongers.’ The latter are not just unhinged presidential candidates–Republican ones–looking to cash in on panicked voters. ‘Top US officials’ are not modest types unwilling to talk up their success in containing ‘terror threats’–rather, when they do slay a dragon or two, they make sure to tell us just how dangerous it was, and just how difficult it was to bring it down. Homeland Security folk, Pentagon top brass, the Secretary of Defense–these ‘top US officials’ are all too happy, when it suits them, to cycle through the rainbow of threat alerts, to speak knowingly of dangerous matters that cannot be disclosed, of lurking menace somewhere out there, waiting only for our guard to slip so that they may sneak across our threshold and slit our throats while we sleep. Budgets and jobs–as Walt notes–depend on such alarmist rhetoric. Well, two–if not the entire Republican candidate field–can play at that game.

The bogeyman of the external threat is not an easily contained genie. This one, having been fed and nurtured for so long, has brought forth its own benighted, coiffed spawn.

An ISIS Communique For Our Times

From: Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi

To: All Jihadi Brothers

In the Name of Allah, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful.

My warriors, after Paris, much work remains to be done. But we have many new recruits. They are infidels, but they have to come to our aid, they will do our work with us. They will ensure that the Caliphate will find new capitals, that it will spread from sea to shining sea. They will turn upon the Muslims in their midst, the devout, and the apostates, those Muslims who–for whatever reason–do not grow their beards, whose women do not cover their heads, whose children do not memorize the Koran, who do not pray five times a day, who study in schools where the Koran is not taught, who do not fast in the holy month, who pledge allegiance to infidel flags. They will turn back refugees from their shores; they will prosecute their own citizens. They will drive them back into our fold.  We shall welcome those who show contrition for their desertion; for the rest, apostasy means death.

Every attack we launch upon the infidel West shows its tenuous hold on its  precious civil liberties, their freedoms that we supposedly covet. One attack on the Great Satan was enough to make it torture, spy upon its citizens, kill many Muslim brothers, and entrap yet others through perverse law-enforcement schemes. A few more artfully placed and timed attacks and we will bring the residents of these dens of fornication and perversity to their knees. In this task, we will be aided, as we already are, by those who continue to disenfranchise their own citizens and commit to oblivion their own esteemed moral, legal, and political principles. They continue to kill our innocent brothers and sisters and their children from the sky; they continue to imprison Muslim brothers without trial, scorning their own precious legal parchments from which the words ‘due process’ have so easily been scrubbed.

Between the anvil of the New Crusaders and the hammer of our armies, the apostates, those who left Muslim lands and vainly sought a better life elsewhere–believing foolishly in the propaganda and lies of secular written constitutions with their pathetic Bill of Rights, and in mock-revolutionary declarations of liberty, equality, and fraternity–will be crushed. They will find no new homes; they will be turned back from the shores that were to welcome them. Those Muslims who imagined they could  live in peaceful co-existence with infidels will find that there will be no such peace for them. They will be blamed for our work; they will be punished for it. Among them, we will find yet more soldiers.

Truly it is by Allah’s Grace that those who imagine themselves the New Crusaders are instead our Jihadi brothers. Such is Allah’s Infinite Wisdom that our enemies become our soldiers.  They speak of waging war against us but first they will wage war against themselves. They are termites who nibble at their own foundations; we need only direct them from afar.

Allah is Great. Victory will be ours. Welcome the New Crusaders.

Waterboardin’ Brothers: The ISIS And The US

Over at The New York Times, Rukmini Callimachi writes on the inhumane treatment the ISIS meted out to those they held hostage (some of whom, like James Foley, were subsequently beheaded). Of particular interest to all Americans should be her descriptions of their torture techniques:

The story of what happened in the Islamic State’s underground network of prisons in Syria is one of excruciating suffering. Mr. Foley and his fellow hostages were routinely beaten and subjected to waterboarding….At one point, their jailers arrived with a collection of orange jumpsuits….they lined up the French hostages in their brightly colored uniforms, mimicking those worn by prisoners at the United States’ facility in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. They also began waterboarding a select few, just as C.I.A. interrogators had treated Muslim prisoners at so-called black sites during the George W. Bush administration….Within this subset, the person who suffered the cruelest treatment…was Mr. Foley. In addition to receiving prolonged beatings, he underwent mock executions and was repeatedly waterboarded. Meant to simulate drowning, the procedure can cause the victim to pass out. When one of the prisoners was hauled out, the others were relieved if he came back bloodied.“It was when there was no blood,” a former cellmate said, “that we knew he had suffered something even worse.” [italics added]

If ‘waterboarding‘ is now a distinguished member of the American lexicon it is not because the US, as defender of human rights and exporter of freedom, has undertaken a bold, morally inflected campaign to stamp out its usage. Rather it is because its use as an ‘enhanced interrogation technique,’ as an instrument of foreign policy, and the subsequent failure to punish those who indulged in it has become the starkest recent instance of American hypocrisy in a domain which can ill afford such displays.

A hypocrite easily provokes rage; a sanctimonious, blustering, bullying hypocrite provokes an effusion of bilious resentment, which cannot be suppressed for too long. It all too easily finds expression in violence.  This resentment need not be confined to the socially disenfranchised, the poor, the usual subjects of concerned theorizing; instead, even those considerably more fortunate in life may find themselves infected by its virulence. Perhaps we should be a little less surprised than we profess to be that such a motley crew finds itself attracted to the fulminations of the ISIS. Its activities promise them release from the febrile anger that surges through them–no matter how barbaric.

Let us then, gaze upon the evidence before us, of where we have been brought, of how far the mighty have sunk: a prominent arrow in the quiver of one of this world’s most depraved political entities is a torture technique it has borrowed from those who loudly proclaim their perennial standing as arbiters of the world moral order. The long road to moral perdition that began with the declaration of an illegal war against Iraq in 2003 is finding, now, its wholly expected terminus–a rendezvous and commingling and hail-brother-well-mets with those that were supposedly the antithesis to our thesis.

Iraq and the Pottery Barn Rule: Don’t Break It Any More Please

As turban-wearing hordes ride down on their stallions from the hills, their sharpened scimitars gleaming in the bright Mesopotamian sunshine, threatening to add to the steadily growing mound of heads separated from their now-twitching bodies, should the United States saddle up, lock and load, and ride out to meet them? Should  it crush its enemies, see them driven before its eyes (and possibly, hear the lamentation of their women)? Should it, having broken it, now buy it?

Ja oder nein?

Ich glaube nicht. In the Middle East, the US is not just the proverbial bull in a china shop, it is a heavily armed and irresponsible member of Bos Taurus.  The last time the US went into Iraq, it was for an illegal war that resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis; it set off a series of cosmic political earthquakes which sparked some of the most bitter and bloody internecine conflict seen in the region (and trust me, given that region’s history, that takes some doing.) The war criminals that conducted that war–George W. Bush, Tony Blair, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld–are now comfortably retired and unlikely to face charges in a court any time soon; the political pusillanimity of Barack Obama and many others has ensured their great escape. But their ghoulish minions and their associated sensibility would presumably like to run the highlights reel of the Iraq War in repeat mode, thus ensuring a particularly nightmarish version of the eternal recurrence for all concerned, whether they be Iraqis or Americans.

Genug ist genug. There are, quite possibly, some domains in which a judicious application of overwhelming American military force might work to bring about better political outcomes–though I have to admit, I’m having a hard time thinking of any off the top of my head. Still, even if the set of nations ripe for American military intervention is a non-empty one, its characteristic function would most certainly reject any member of the set {x: x is a Muslim country in the Middle East} as an element. The US did not seem to realize, back in 2003, that armed invasion and occupation of a Muslim nation was geo-political dynamite–the kind that blows off your fingers in the most favorable of eventualities. More often than not, it incapacitates you permanently, permanently foreclosing many future paths of action. As it has.

Whatever strategy the US adopts in its response to the ISIS, it should not be one that includes high explosives–whether dropped with laser-guided precision or merely steered into the arsenals of one of the combatants. These options will ensure–I find myself saying this with some mysterious foreknowledge–an even more catastrophic denouement than the one currently under way.

The United States is the mother of all superpowers; it should find ways to express that power through channels other than the military. We are often reminded of American ingenuity and innovation, its most distinctive features in a world populated by unimaginative copycats; now might be good time to dig into the stores and put some of those on display.

But no more shock and awe please.