Saturday, April 10, 2010

killing at a distance

The coverage of the Collateral Murder video I saw on television made it seem as though the entire video consisted solely of the first part -- the shooting of the group of men walking down the street -- and this footage was washed away either by saying that a camera was mistaken for an RPG (ie, everything that happened was explained in terms of "mistakes", with interviewers going along with this assumption by asking questions like "how can such mistakes be limited?"), or with the concept of the "bad-apple." (Of course the military has said that there were no mistakes or bad-apples, just standard operating procedure.) I'm guessing the rest of the video (the shooting of the rescuers/van; hellfire missiles shot into a random building) was largely ignored because it didn't conform easily to any of these explanations. (I say largely only because I didn't go out of my way to watch all of the coverage of the video; it's possible the other aspects of the video were completely ignored by CNN, FOX, NBC, CBS, etc.) Everything discussed was within the framework of accepted wisdom, and the bigger, broader, more important questions were never asked. In fact, great pains were taken to make sure they weren't even brought up. The news told us that the release of the video was an important story because the mistaken death of two Reuters reporters was a major concern. The assumption being made is that the death of everyone else in the video was not.

Naturally, no real real questioning is ever done within the framework of the status quo. How could it be? Asking the right questions would indict our entire culture and lead us to places that would urge us to change major aspects of our lives and what we hold to be true.

Below, in an excerpt from The Culture of Make Believe, Derrick Jensen asks some of these questions and shows where they can lead.

* * *

"The journey of our culture has been one of increasing abstraction from direct personal experience, manifesting in every aspect of our lives, from our pornography (and, more broadly, our intimate relationships) to our economics -- which, time after tedious time, values abstractions such as ideology or money (what's a dollar worth, really?) over living beings -- to our violence. Recall that, among the Plains Indians, the closer one got to one's enemy in battle, the more one was socially esteemed. Contrast that with modern warfare, in which the act of pushing a button, the mere movement of a finger, could destroy life on the planet. If I strangle someone, I must feel with my hands the other's life struggling not to end. If I stab someone, I must feel his or her blood, must watch it pulse or gurgle out, the last display of the rhythm of that person's heart, that person's life. Even shooting someone, I still must see the person whose life I am going to end.

But you could ask, what about the blacks who've been tortured and killed by lynch mobs? Did the mob not take great pleasure in causing the pain to this person? In a sense, no, because, even in the act of torture, they were not recognizing the uniqueness of their victim: He (or she) was killed for being of a class, as evidenced by all the lynchings of the "wrong person." What, then, of people, denied all individuality, killed, not for themselves, who are killed not merely at a psychic distance, but by a rainstorm of bombs -- or poisons -- sent to them from the other side of the planet?

Stanley Diamond commented that "Modern mass society creates the modern mass soldier, as a reflection of itself. The effort is made to train him as a deadly bureaucratic machine; in fact he may even shortly become obsolete to be replaced by machines...

Predator drone

He kills, whether by bombing at a distance or face to face -- but he kills, it should be re-emphasized, at a psychic distance. 'We might as well be bombing New York,' said an Air Force officer in Vietnam. This distance is compounded, of course, by ethnocentrism which the United States as an imperial power instills into its citizens. But the modern mass soldier [and I would add citizen] does not have to hate the specific enemy, which is an inverted way of saying that he does not necessarily recognize the humanity of the specific enemy... Killing a 'gook' or a Jew, remains killing at a distance, although physical proximity demands more of the psyche than bombing from the air; the total dissociation of the former is converted into the direct subjective distortion of the latter. The point remains that the people killed were insufficiently alive in the consciousness of the killers -- and this mirrors the actors' inadequate sense of their own humanity. What we were facing at My Lai, then, is not an incident, not even a policy, but the tragic course of civilization."

* * *

Later, Jensen continues: "I wrote earlier that narcissistic individuals must ultimately be disappointed, and must then always displace onto others the blame for their disappointment. This is often, but not always, true. There is at least one condition -- and, to be sure, this happens all the time -- under which those who are narcissistic will accept blame, and in fact will act with all speed and diligence to correct their mistake.

The mistake, of course, is weakness, also known as empathy, compassion, communication, love, relationship, or humanity. More generally, the mistake that can be acknowledged and rectified is that of a failure to objectify. More generally still, the mistake can be known as a failure to be narcissistic enough, the failure consisting of acknowledging the other's uniqueness and existence as a subject. In practice, this weakness finds its way into the world as a lack of will sufficient to annihilate one's enemies.

Failure to eradicate their enemies was, to go back to the cradle of our civilization, a huge problem among the Israelites. God warned them time and time again not to make covenants with those He delivered unto them: those they were supposed to exterminate and whose land they were to take. The deal was pretty clear, and it's just as clearly a deal we still adhere to: Give up your humanity and dissolve all interconnection with others, and you will receive power beyond your most insane dreams. Here's God's part of the bargain (and if you're an atheist or otherwise a humanist, just substitute for God the Market, Science, Technology, Capitalism, Free Enterprise, Democracy, the United States, Progress, Civilization, or whatever other abstraction you want, and the bargain still holds): "I will do marvels, such as have not been done in all the earth, nor in any nation... Behold, I drive out before thee the Amorite, and the Canaanite, and the Hittite, and the Perizzite, and the Hivite, and the Jebusite." Our God having long since dispatched these peoples, we can make the list more current by substituting Khoikhoi, Arawak, Pequot, I'wa, or Aborigine. In order to benefit from these marvels, the Chosen People had to promise never to "make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land whither thou goest, lest it be for a snare in the midst of thee: But ye shall destroy their altars, break their images, and cut down their groves." The Isrealites had to cut down the groves, just as today we have to deforest the planet, because otherwise it would be too tempting to enter into a relationship with other gods, other humans, or the land where we live. And it simply won't do to form those other relationships, because "the LORD, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God," and to enter into relationships with another is, as the book of Exodus so indelicately puts it, "whoring." To make sure the Chosen People deeply internalized this message, it was drilled into them. We read, again and again, "I will deliver the inhabitants of the land into your hand; and thou shalt drive them out before thee. Thou shalt make no covenant with them, nor with their gods." The reason? Always the same: If these others live, it might be too tempting to gain their ways. "They shall not dwell in thy land, lest they make thee sin against me." The message is repeated in Deuteronomy, Joshua, indeed, the entire Old Testament. The message is acted out to this day.

The message is an extension of the lesson of Noah, the lesson of Lestor Luborsky, with his electrodes attached to the eyeballs, letting us know where we dare not look, of R.D. Laing, with his three rules of a dysfunctional family or society. Don't. Don't look. Don't listen. Don't love. Don't let the other be. Don't. The best way to guarantee you won't be in a relationship with something is to not see it. The best way to make certain you won't see something is to destroy it. And, completing this awful circle, it is easiest to destroy something you refuse to see. This, in a nutshell, is the key to our civilization's ability to work its will on the world and on other cultures: Our power (individually and socially) derives from our steadfast refusal to enter into meaningful and mutual relationships.

Saleh Matasher Tomal (he made a living hiring out
the mini-van. It was the family’s source of income)

This refusal -- this key to power -- was carried forward and used by slavers, Columbus, Pilgrims, the Founding Fathers, Hitler. It is put forward today by politicians who send soldiers to kill at a distance, and by soldiers who do the killing. It is pushed by CEOs and others who wish reap the benefits of our economic system, and by purveyors of porn who tell us it's okay to represent women as objects to be "fucked in every hole" (or, judging by my Alta Vista search and the prevalence of statistics, to be raped) but fail to mention any form of relationship at all. It is okay, we are told incessantly (for incessant repetition is necessary to make this painful and eventually numbing lesson stick) to utilize resources, whether the resources are trees, fish, gold, diamonds, land, labor, warm, wet vaginas, or oil. But one must never enter into relationship with this other who owns or is a resource. To do so would be to break the covenant with your God, whose name is Jealous, whose name is Power, because your power comes directly from your unwillingness (or, perhaps, in time, inability) to maintain relationship: It is much easier to exploit someone you do not consider a living being -- a You, as Buber would have put it -- much less a friend, a lover, a member of your family."


Hectocotylus said...

I'd be curious to hear from anyone who saw this covered on television to find out if your experience was also that the other parts of the video were ignored. (I know my mom watched it on TV and had no idea what I was talking about when I mentioned the van.)

Paupertas said...

I did watch some coverage on CNN that showed about 3 minutes of the video, and stopped right as the one individual was peering around the corner with the camera. They froze the video and discussed how they would not show the actual shooting. No mention of the van at all.

As mentioned before, the only reason anyone even knows about this (and most people I spoke with have not even heard about it) is because of the Reuters reporters. Otherwise, this is simply 12 minutes out of a 7 year war, and with all the scandals and atrocities that have come of this conflict, I'd be frightened to see all the other "battles" with "insurgents" that have taken place.

I also find it interesting that nobody seems to point out that only a few guys were carrying anything at all, but the helicopter gunner mentions "five guys with AK-47 weapons." Also, when the van pulls up, the men are not picking up any weapons or dead bodies like the helicopter gunner reports, they are assisting a man who is injured on the street. This is all simply dismissed as "split second decisions" and "fog of war."

Hectocotylus said...

Thanks for the response!

Julian Assange was on the Colbert Report last night to discuss the Collateral Murder video, and once again everything in the video except for the shooting of the first group of men (which contained the Reuters reporters) was ignored. Colbert seemed genuinely annoyed with Assange and fluctuated between his usual silly, satirical remarks and more serious and logical ones.

Colbert: "Let's talk about this footage that has gotten you so much attention recently. This is footage of an Apache helicopter attack in 2007. The army described this as a group that gave resistance at the time, that doesn't seem to be happening. But there are armed men in the group, they did find a rocket propelled grenade among the group, the Reuters photographers who were regrettably killed, were not identified... You have edited this tape, and you have given it a title called 'collateral murder.' That's not leaking, that's a pure editorial."

What's being left out is the fact that 'collateral damage' is also a term of propaganda used to make war sound technical and paint over the reality of the human suffering involved. Another strange assumption being made, and one that's certainly endorsed by our culture, is the idea that killing innocent people can sometimes not be murder. Colbert is offended by the fact that Assange is calling the killing of civilians murder(!) only because it happens under the heading of 'war'. Of course, if the tables were reversed and a foreign army shot up American citizens as they came to the aid of other wounded Americans, we wouldn't think twice to call it murder.

Pierian Rose said...

First of all, I enjoyed your thoughtful post on the subject and I apologize in advance for my poor English and schizoid organization of the following comment.

Upon reading your post, I thought of how the (")Allies(") after the conquest/liberation of Germany during WW2 forced locals to enter the Death Camps to see for themselves what had happened. This is sometimes showed in the Anglo-world with some restrained moral relish: good, which is open, was triumphant over evil, that which is hidden and dark.

What they seem to never show, however, when discussing the "monsters" was how New York based IBM were the ones manufacturing the computers needed to organize the incredibly complex Death Camps. Not only did American citizens sell the machines needed to commit mass murder, but they also sent in mechanics to the camps to maintain them during the war. Why were the American citizens not brought to see the camps too? IBM must have gone through American diplomatic channels, after all, to send their mechanics and other staff to wine and dine with their client, the SS.

This was a form of killing at a distance. One so dreadful that the "aftermyth of war" is so strong that this story has almost entirely escaped our collective consciousness.

With IBM as unrecognized accomplices to the holocaust, one can then see the tradition of killing at a distance and its aftermyth in terms of a ritualized tradition. One that is, as if in a gyre of redundancy, explained away in different ways by different organizations within American culture: the actual soldier on the ground, the reporters, the corresponding guest panelists, psychiatrists, ect... in a similar way to the extremely ritualized behavior of courtiers under the Roi Soleil. No matter what happens, no matter how terrible, the events will be made widely consumable through the process: nothing can escape its explanatory grasps. Instead of allowing war to be tragic, it is turned into tragedy in the Greek sense, that is no matter how much pain is displayed, it will give the audience pleasure at then end of it.

On the level of the actual soldier, one can see that he goes about blaming the victim, and in doing so he is committing an act of control. You see this often when people talk of a rape victim for "being stupid" (being out late, wearing "revealing clothing" ect..), suggesting that if they were not "stupid" it would not have happened to them, and because the person who is talking like this considers themselves as "not stupid", then it also won't happen to the speaker.

This plays in to what Nietzsche might have called the necessary lies for human happiness.

Hectocotylus said...

Excellent and insightful comment. I started writing several different responses but they all just reiterated everything you said.

The first part of your comment reminded me of an employee of Chevron-Texaco in the documentary CRUDE who lays blame for the sickness of many Ecuadorians on the Ecuadorians themselves, saying that they are suffering from skin lesions and cancers because they "bathe and defecate in the same water." I wonder what the CEO (and other employees) of IBM might have said after visiting the death camps...

I really like the phrase "aftermyth of war." I tried to find out more about it and came up with a Beyond the Fringe comedy sketch. Do you know if this is where it originated?

Pierian Rose said...

I have yet to watch CRUDE but I think I will have to soon.

To the best of my knowledge, the phrase "aftermyth of war" comes from the Beyond the Fringe sketch which is problably the reason why academicians are so reluctant in using the golden term. Scholarly journals are, after all, serious business to the dozen people who actually read them and the persistent (Persian) Immortals of undergraduates looking for a, bibliography.