On ‘Backing Down’ From A ‘Streetfight’

Yesterday afternoon, as I walked across a pedestrian crossing on Brooklyn’s 4th Avenue, I found a large SUV, turning right, barreling down at me; he braked hard, even as I yelled out “I’ve got the ‘Walk’ sign, dude!” He yelled back, “We both got the light!” I yelled back, “I’ve got right of way!” He yelled back, ‘Fuck off!’ I yelled back, “Go fuck yourself!” Clearly, this was a fruitful and productive exchange of views on how to best negotiate street crossings. As I turned on the sidewalk, I noticed he’d pulled over to the side of the street, and was waiting for me to walk by his car. The driver was not alone; he had a belligerent female companion in the passenger seat who had also been screaming obscenities at me. I continued walking on the sidewalk, past the parked car on my left, keeping my eyes straight, walking on to my gym class. As I did so, I could hear their jeering; clearly, I had not risen to the challenge. My bravado was bigger than my bite; I had ‘backed down.’

Fair enough; I did. I smarted for a while afterwards, but it was the correct decision. I was outnumbered; even if I could have engaged in the undignified business of throwing punches or grappling with a belligerent stranger–who looked to be roughly my size, but about ten years younger–on a city sidewalk, I would have left myself open to being clocked upside the head with some hard object by my opponent’s companion. I could have, for instance, taken a bottle to the head or something similar. Given her visible demeanor, this sort of ‘participation’ in the fight was not unlikely at all. Street fights are always dirty; this one would have been no different. Given the emotions on display just earlier, this would have been a dirty business through and through. No one would have intervened; no one intervenes in street fights in New York City. Or anywhere else for that matter. I did not want the police involved; I did not want to suffer physical injury, a high price to pay for trying to remind a driver that he did not have right of way on a pedestrian crossing when the light turns green. Quite possibly, because the parameters of such fights are so poorly defined, I could have suffered an injury disproportionate to the original provocation. For as long as I’ve lived in Brooklyn, I’ve been haunted by the memory of the bodega store owner who tried to stop a teenager from shoplifting and was stabbed with a screwdriver in the head; the resultant injury caused permanent brain damage.

Quite simply, there was no upside to my responding to this provocation, to continuing this conflict. I swallowed hard, fuming, and walked on straight to my gym, where I worked out and flattered myself by performing a reasonably hard gymnastic move several times during my workout. Then, sweaty and satisfied, I returned home in time to say goodnight to my daughter before she went to bed. Her father hadn’t been ‘manly’ enough earlier; but this was good enough for me.

Brian Williams Is Right: War Is Beautiful, And We Are Fascinated By It

Brian Williams has offended many with his invocation of the ‘beauty’ of the weapons fired into Syria on Thursday. But he is right: war and its weapons are beautiful, and we are surrounded by them; we succumb all to easily to their embrace, to the clarion call of war, precisely because we find them beautiful. As I noted in a post about the phenomenon of Israelis pulling up lawn chairs to watch the bombardment of Gaza in 2014:

We love seeing things go boom and pow. And when non-combatant can’t watch the real thing, they watch movies, or read books, or take part in reenactments.  When ‘shock and awe’ went live in March 2003, I do not doubt television ratings went through the roof just like many Iraqi limbs did. If the US were to–for whatever reason–start bombing a neighboring country visible from the US (perhaps Russia, visible from Alaska?), I don’t doubt there would be crowds of eager spectators, perched on vantage viewing points on the border.

Those who cheer their armies and air forces and navies on to war, who are happy to let politicians pull the trigger for them and send others’ sons and daughters and husbands and wives and fathers and mothers to war, they would happily tune their channel to the military version of CNN…and watch live war action, twenty-four hours a day. If they could, they would watch the action in slow motion replay….They would sit down with popcorn and cheer on their heroes. And boo the villains.

War makes for excellent visual material. There are lots of very beautiful explosions–the various chemicals used in bombs produce flames and smoke of many different colors; the rising of smoke conjures up mental visions of nature’s clouds and mist and fog; bombed-out landscapes have their own twisted and haunting beauty to them; viewed from a distance, even the bodies of the dead can have a grotesque, eerie quality to them.

Or, in a post on John Forbes’ ‘Love Poem’:

we were spectators and consumers of [the Iraq war]; we watched its images as entertainment, divorced from the brute reality of what the tangible realizations of those armaments on the ground were; we were given a ‘video game’ and we remained content with it. The lovelorn narrator of this poem has come to find in this spectacle consolations not available elsewhere in more amorous pastures; in this regard, he differs only mildly from all those who find in the fantasies of war a compensatory substitution for the failures, absences, and losses of daily life….War’s images are beautiful and evocative; so are its sounds–think of the awe-inspiring aural and auditory spectacle the lighting of a jet’s afterburner provides, for instance. These sights and sounds beguile us; they take us away from the aching gaps in our lives. We grew up  on a diet of war comics and war heroes; now, as adults, the play continues. Elsewhere, its realities still hidden from us. We amuse ourselves by memorizing, in awed tones of voice, the impressive technical specifications of the gleaming armaments that do so much damage to flesh and bone, to life and limb, to hope and aspiration; we look forward to these toys being used for more than just play.

Or, in wondering about the political consistency of Christopher Hitchens’ views:

[W]hy would a ‘fervent’ opponent of state-sanctioned murder be an ‘avid’ supporter or war, another form, one might say, of state-sanctioned murder?

The answer may…be found in the kind of fascination war exerted over Hitchens. He did not think of it as merely an instrument of politics, one wielded to bring about very specific political objectives. Rather, it held him in a kind of aesthetically inflected thrall: he found it beautiful, stirring, exciting.  Many, like Hitchens, are entranced by the beautiful images that war furnishes for our imagination; evidence for this claim can be found in the large number of coffee-table books that purport to be illustrated histories of war. These images need not be just those of exploding munitions and ruined buildings; war utilizes weaponry and men, and photographic and artistic depictions of these, utilized and engaged in combat (or waiting to be) are among our most iconic representations. Gleaming aircraft, sleek, water-plowing  battleships, smoothly recoiling guns, men (and now women) in svelte uniforms, buttoned up, hard and unforgiving. It’s hard to resist the appeal of these. War provides many visual horrors, of course, but these are all too often swamped by the aforementioned cavalcade.  (I’m leaving aside for now, the enduring place that war holds in our imagination as a zone for the establishment of masculine credentials and brotherhood.)

There is a caveat, of course:

From a distance. That’s the rub. War is always good from a distance. You can’t see the fine detail of the mangled limbs, the oozing entrails. And you can’t smell it. But pan out just far enough and it all looks good. Even pretty. The kind of stuff you’d want to watch in company. After a good meal.

When Brian Williams offered his views on the sight of cruise missiles being fired into a dark night he was articulating a sensibility which lies deep in the nation’s spirit–“the rocket’s red glare, the bombs bursting in air”; he was merely articulating what many others felt. I say ‘we’ above again and again, because I do not think we can simply condemn Williams and leave ourselves out of the picture.

Uncomfortable Conversations: Children And The Bad News

On Friday morning, I finally faced the kind of problem I had heard many other parents make note of: how do you talk about the horrifying in the presence of children? On Thursday night, I had gone to sleep after reading the news reports on the murders in Nice, and on waking up, wanted to discuss them with my wife (who had gone to bed earlier than I had, tired and worn out after a long day’s work and then, an exhausting putting-to-bed session with our daughter.) But mornings are occupied with preparing our daughter to get ready for ‘camp’; and I did not want to initiate conversation about Nice with my wife with my daughter listening.

There was, after all, no way to sanitize the descriptions of what had just happened in Nice. I would have to say something like “someone ran over people in France in a truck, killing men, women, and children.” My daughter has given enough indications, recently, of understanding what ‘killing’ means–bizarrely enough, children’s story books involving animals and hunters have introduced her to this concept. She has also been introduced to notion of someone ‘dying’–via a pair of recent conversations about safety on the roads and the death of a beloved pet belonging to my brother’s family. She probably would not be able to figure out the full horror of the killings in Nice from my quick description of it to my wife, but I was still nervous that enough would get through to confuse her severely just before she left for the day.

Besides, I did not want to just stop at informing my wife of the news: I want to fulminate, to agonize, to express shock and anxiety at what seemed to be yet another installment in an insanity slowly building to a world-wide crescendo–and none of that was going to be ‘suitable’ for my child. Over and above the cuss words, my daughter would hear the fear and worry in our voices–and perhaps even sense it in our bodies from the expressions on our faces and our body language–and be driven to anxiousness and insecurity herself. And so I waited till she was gone, artfully avoiding a moment of confrontation that will not be postponed too long.

There is little I can do to protect my daughter–my most precious ‘possession’–from the world she is preparing to enter. I agonized over the decision to have a child in the first place, an unsurprising reaction to the prospect of bringing up innocents in a world apparently going to hell in a handbasket. Days like yesterday introduce a severe cognitive dissonance then: what have I done? Perhaps the only consolation I can offer myself is that last week I took my daughter up to the Atlantic coast in Maine, where she saw sights  that will hopefully retain their vividness as she grows up, providing an acute counterpoint of natural beauty to the ugly man-made horrors  that will continue to force themselves into her consciousness. At those moments of remembrance of the pleasures of childhood, I hope she will forgive me for exposing her to all else this world holds in store for her.

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.

Have Gun, Will Settle Dispute: The Dangerous, Alluring Temptation

I’ve seen fights, disputes, grow, fester, erupt into bouts of violence: disagreements become irrevocable, boundaries are crossed, and then, tempers flare. Punches and slaps are thrown, sometimes half-heartedly, sometimes in a desperate flurry, sometimes shirt collars are grabbed as the ‘fight’ turns into an ungainly grappling session with headholds and chokeholds that aim to incapacitate. When the smoke clears, the protagonists emerge bruised and battered with a bleeding nose or lip–the former is more visually striking, liable to cause alarm, as red stains make their way down jaws and shirt fronts. On rare occasions, the fights have turned especially ugly: once, a young man picked up a rock and hit another on the face with it, splitting open a gash that instantly turned crimson, on yet another, a small piece of wood was pressed into service for the same purpose with the same effect. Drunken fights–like those I have witnessed on umpteen occasions at baseball games–are always infected with a touch of the comic; the fighters fight to stay on their feet even as their impaired co-ordination prevents them from landing a meaningful punch or avoiding the blows that come their way (the infamous ‘why don’t you step on outside’ brawl at bars often showcases such encounters.)

I’ve never seen a fight, yet, turn deadly. No one got stabbed with a screwdriver or a knife and bled to death. The folks I saw fighting didn’t own or carry guns. But if they had, they might have pressed them into service, seeing in them a speedy resolution of a nagging irritation that had turned unbearable. Which is what a lot of folks all over the US seem to do–as the Parents Against Gun Violence page on Facebook reports, the following are some of the reasons Americans pressed guns into service in the month of May this year:

 

As you can see, the formula is pretty simple, and can be boiled down to a few essentials: see fellow citizen, enter into dispute with fellow citizen, reach point of irresolvable difference, settle dispute with gun. Sometimes alcohol, that most popular of all legal drugs, is also implicated, but it needn’t be; sometimes it is men doing the shooting, but not every single time; sometimes children get into the act. Traffic conflicts, workplace hirings and firings, prickly neighbors, property wrangling, domestic arguments–these can all be expeditiously settled with a firearm. (Road rage in the city and on highways has a long and dishonorable history of featuring guns in its eruptions.) Perhaps a handgun is used, perhaps a shotgun, perhaps an assault rifle. It does not matter; they all shoot bullets, they all shut a yapping mouth, they still a flailing body. They make the irritating person who won’t shut up go away.

Homicidal rage, the kind that results in violence, is always dangerous. It is made especially so when it can be coupled with a firearm. A gun promises a dramatic and satisfying denouement, a fantasy of forceful resolution, an imposition of our will on a stubborn and difficult world. It will always provide a dangerous and alluring temptation.

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.