Notes on the Atrocities
Like a 100-watt radio station, broadcasting to the dozens...

Sunday, May 02, 2004  

After 60 Minutes aired photographs of US soldiers torturing Iraqis, a curious thing happened. Every American I've heard comment on it (Bush, McCain, Myers, etc.) has said the tortures "don't represent the US."

It's a strangely guilty response. My first reaction was Good God, how are the victims? I then considered the catastrophe this represented for the other soldiers, and how Iraqis must have felt to see yet another humiliation broadcast around the globe. But whether it "represents the US?" Bizarre.

But thinking a bit more, I started to see how it makes sense. Americans, and certainly our current leadership, see themselves as innately good. It's an old bit of the Calvinist logic--God rewards those who are righteous, so you can tell who are righteous by looking at who has been rewarded. The US is morally superior--we know this a priori, without reference, just by virtue of looking at the abundance of McDonald's and Gap stores.

Believing in our innate goodness is an essential fault of the neocon agenda, and it cuts two ways. Of course, there's nothing morally superior about Americans. Put them in a situation of extreme distress of an extended period of time and a certain percentage will lose it and commit atrocities. Behaving thusly does not reveal a hidden fault in righteousness of America--unless, I guess, you actually believed we were superior. That's the first cut, and I believe it's responsible for the "doesn't represent us" reaction.

It cuts the other way because the neocons have always regarded Iraqis as essentially flawed. It's not their extreme, extended duress that causes people like Muqtada al-Sadr to behave badly, it's an essential flaw in their culture (or perhaps their religion). Thus the solution is to violently force our culture upon them, vanquishing the essential faults and creating moral beings in our image.

When eight soldiers commit atrocities, however, the whole shebang is in doubt. What happened to our essential goodness?

Humans are conditioned by their experience. Iraqis living under Saddam for 30 years cannot be expected to start behaving like Americans who've spent the last 60 in suburban cul-de-sacs. Bush missed this. He (or more likely his neocon puppeteers) thought that forcibly replacing a government would be sufficient. Based on the fantastical June 30 date, he apparently still does. He (or they) missed the reality that instability has many parents. That changing governments means changing lives. Even with all the ample evidence from present experience and the vast riches of history, they managed to miss this.

Maybe it will take something more personal, like atrocities committed by their own soldiers, to alert them to the significance of human experience on human behavior. And then, if we're really, really lucky, they'll look for answers in changing those conditions.

posted by Jeff | 11:03 AM |
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