In the last couple of years the US military and government has engaged in warfare with combatants who are either completely hidden or standing insanely in the open to be gunned down. These enemies are either suspiciously secretive or fanatically ready to die. Thus they earn the name terrorists. Terrorists may be defined for this government as enemies with whom one may can not talk. Hence communication takes place through a dialogue of killing. The hidden enemy takes the same position. In their eyes, mere language will not bring any positive changes from Washington. Thus pronouncements and demands are only accompanied by human sacrifices. Nicholas Berg and Paul Johnson are the most famed, beheaded by the amorphous enemy in Iraq and Saudi Arabia.
Unfortunately, for those seeking to propagate a clearer picture of the turmoil in those two countries, these two names and the messages of hatred and defiance they were forced to carry tend to blot out distinctions and histories which are practically invisible to the media anyway. Bush no longer needs to argue that Hussein and Al-Qaeda were allied. He no longer needs to explain away more “legitimate” resistance by the majority of fighters who do not behead Americans. Given these two cases of monstrous evil, the killings of Americans with names, Americans whose names become spread across the world with their deaths, one in each country, he no longer needs to persuade conservatives that the whole region is in the grips of one power: not nationalism, not anti-imperialist rage, not politics, not even a politicized Islam, but a pure evil which speaks in messages of blood.
Following the shining example of Israeli democracy, faced with enemies so weak only symbolic violence worked, the Bush government finds itself resorting to sending its own messages of blood. Military violence is subverted to largely symbolic ends. People die by our rockets and bombs in order to “send a message.” The message says that though we are good, we can be as evil as needed to exterminate you. We are Americans, goes the message, Americans strong and brave, people with “values” who will stay the course until the job is done. The people who die are not named, or even described. The destruction of houses in Fallujah on June 21 killed 18 people. All mainstream media dutifully mouthed military spokesman Mark Kimmitt, himself a wooden caricature of military rigidity, who called it a “Zarqawi safehouse.” Kimmitt’s words apparently need no independent confirmation. Nor was there any question asked regarding the identities of the people killed. Something in me doubts that all 18 were evil madmen planning suicide bombings. It is possible none were fighters or killers. But they remained nameless anyhow, nameless under the tombstone of Kimmitt’s unproven assertion, their deaths affixed to the number 18, the media equivalent of an unmarked grave. But no doubt Zarqawi received the Pentagon’s message of blood.
One wonders: did 18 have to die for Zarqawi to believe in the ruthlessness of American power? Isn’t it probable that he knew that already? Did the message require postage of 18 dead and 500 pints of blood? No doubt Zarqawi is well aware of its ruthlessness. What would be the purpose, then, of sending a message with such gory postage? If the aim of the message is to assuage the sense of powerlessness and wounded pride of the sender – in this case, the US government – is it possible that within their billion dollar fortresses the generals share with the terrorists a sense of the futility of any communication not backed by the slaughter of humans? Does the US rely just as much on human sacrifice as the enemy? And does the message sent – of potency and resolve and cruelty – ultimately come out the other side with an entirely different meaning? One of failure, frustration, nihilistic weakness? Powerlessness?
This morning on the CNN news of the beheading of yet another human sacrifice, the Korean Kim Sun-Il. He has become the latest person forced to act as messenger, loudspeaker, and paper for our enemy’s political message. His body was turned symbolically into a blank piece of paper on which the killers wrote these words: this is done by your hand. Your soldiers come to our land not to help Iraq, but purely in the interest of America. Polls show 80% of Koreans oppose sending troops to Iraq, yet even the left-leaning government of President Roh does not dare exercise its right to democratic sovereignty too openly against that champion of democracy, Bush. His government acts anit-democratically in a calculated way. They guess that sending troops to Iraq sends a message of proper submission to the US government. This tribute – again, paid in the form of the blood of 3,000 men ready to kill and be killed – will gain South Korea Americas’ reluctant permission to continue an independent policy of ending the cold war with North Korea. If any of those 3,000 men die, it will be Korea’s own message of submission to its old master that, despite recent moves toward independence, they remain loyal. Ironically, this soldier’s death – the soldier yet to be chosen by the bullet, yet to be named – is a necessary barter for that very independence. Human sacrifice, or the willingness to engage in it, is a standard form of message even among allied but unequal nations. Simply accepting Zarqawi’s message written in kin’s blood and dropping it disregarded on the floor is a sign of fealty to the old master.
Last fall, when US forces were increasingly entangled in fighting with rebels – Reagan would have called them “freedom fighters” had the invader been Russian – the question repeatedly arose in the press: who are these shadowy men? Rumsfeld’s forceful diction, which had effectively contained the resistance rhetorically by referring to them as Baathist “dead enders,” was no longer able to hide the messy reality. Media reports were full of military jargon which was also not enough to hide the fact of total ignorance and powerlessness. [quote from copied msnbc article about killing ‘two personnel’]. Operation Iron Thunder (find msnbc story nov/dec on c-130 planes shelling factory in baghdad suburb) was executed for the purpose of sending a message that would otherwise not be possible in this unfamiliar environment. American power kept these enemies out of sight. American power requires targets in order to operate. Targets require information, which was lacking. Torture of prison inmates was only beginning to give results. American killing power was thus deployed to send a message of potential violence. The message was this: we have wiped out this old factory, this neighborhood. If we find out who you are, this will be you. Those wrong targets were destroyed as stand-ins for the real targets. Any people killed “accidentally” only add to the mystique and power of the message.
In the United States (and Israel), our killing is distinguished from their killing by intentionality. Helicopters which rocket an alleged safehouse of such and such militant or metal workshop in Gaza City inevitably kill and wound people not related to the people or activities targeted. Yet in the public mind those people killed – nameless, of course, though every bit as innocent as Daniel Pearl or other sacrifices feted as worthy victims – are not killed quite as mercilessly as “our” dead. The argument might go like this: the helicopter pilot wanted to kill evil men. Evil men live and move around non-evil civilians. I target the evil man, based on fairly good but not perfect intelligence. I do not intend in my heart to kill the woman carrying a sack of cucumbers home from market. I do not mean to tear her abdomen open with metal, or leave her lying on the street, cucumbers scattered about in a dressing of blood. I do not intend to let her 9 year old son be frozen by the scene of his mother dying. I may know something like this will happen, but because I do not plan for that specific woman to die, her death is acceptable to my superiors and the “democratic” public at large. I am just a simple helicopter gunner. I kill people to send messages. Who dies is not my fault but that of the rocket. I do not intend to look at who dies after the I press the trigger.
But lack of specific intention to kill does not bring the woman back to life. She si every bit as dead, torn apart by rockets, as Nicholas Berg decapitated with a knife. She was killed from a distance by a man who did not “mean” to do it even though he knew “someone” would die by firing into an urban neighborhood. We can conclude that the act of random killing, from a distance, if it is done as an “inevitable” result of targeting “evil” people, is more acceptable than singling out a civilian for death at close range. The key here is that killing from a distance absolves the killer from responsibility for who dies. Greater technology absolves us morally. So we can conclude that an insurgent firing a rocket at Paul Bremer and killing people nearby is less guilty? Sorry, the trick only works for our side.
But messages are not always received in the way the sender intends. If the innocents slaughtered by American rockets in Fallujah were not intended to be part of the “message” of “resolve” the US sent, this fact may satisfy the US public. They are mere typos, unintended death: just manslaughter, nothing more. But Iraqis may take those civilian dead – the P.S. at the end of the US message – as the message’s key part. It reveals the real nature of America as barbarically convinced of its own rightness even while killing. Because this part of the American message of blood is hushed up in the US press, it is precisely this which receives greater play in Arab press. We all know the parts of communication deliberately suppressed have something important to say.
What the US message says is this: our message to you is more important than thelife of the person or people who die in the delivery. Nothing matters more to our power than sending effective messages. If our enemy does not know we are real men, “getting the job done,” then those billions of taxpayer dollars have gone to waste. When the killing of “innocent lives” (to use Bush’s curious phrase) gets out of hand enough that US media are going “off message” and showing hints of reality, only then is there regret and a change of course, if temporary. The real vulnerability of the US is not military, then, but moral. Its policy is built on invasion, which is built on killing, but if its “message” of freedom and democracy is overwhelmed by divergent readings, then the political aim is in danger. No one in the White House or Congress really regrets the hundreds of civilians dead in Fallujah, murdered by US hands as surely as Bin Laden murdered thousands on 9-11. The only regret of these politicians is narcissistic: that the blood spilled has spattered on the fine dress uniform of American righteousness. The regret is purely narcissistic. Foreign deaths have ruined our delicate self-esteem; the mirror in which we preen shows cracks.
Dead men may tell no tales, but corpses do have stories. Their stories are interpreted and told by others, by brown-skinned audiences who may not know English or belong to a US-allied local elite. Yet these Iraqi poor read the US message more skillfully, ferreting out its unintended meanings, than the US elite. The message has no content, no words or meanings. It is no more than a howl, a shriek meant to frighten into submission. The howl is the howl of frustrated American power, and from the receiving end the message is loud, violent, and far from clear. Master is powerful. Master is angry. Master is losing control, and must kill people to reassert it. Master is easily provoked. Master is angry because his stories do not have the old believability.