Monday, May 21, 2007

Nicholas Berg and the Political Uses of Brutality

My friend tells me he has not gotten around to watching the video of Nicholas Berg’s beheading by terrorists in Iraq. Yes, those are his words: “I meant to watch it but just never got around to it.” He said it casually, as in, “I meant to take out the garbage but didn’t get around to it.” I tried to push him a little, to get him to tell me more about this enigma of wanting to watch a man killed on camera, but I was too shaken. He is my friend. We go way back. I helped him do his paper route one summer decades ago. And it is no big deal to him to propose watching Berg’s execution.

At least it was not his idea. But is it any comfort to me that this otherwise decent man was so easily taken in by this mad idea? Is it any comfort that he is not a gore voyeur googling “beheading” for fun, but acting calculatedly? The fact of real death on camera is, for a certain group on the Right, not something only to be abhorred – but something to be used.

Oddly enough, the perusal of the poor man’s death by dismemberment is supposed to fortify the self-righteous conviction that they are Evil and so our Hate must never let up. Hate to them is a precious fuel constantly to be renewed. We dabble our fingers in the blood of an innocent victim and taste it – and taking this sacrament of blood, reaffirm our support for wiping out barbarians. This kind of action is reminiscent of the hate propaganda on both sides that stoked the religious wars of 17th century Europe. In dwelling on the vividly portrayed crimes of the other side, both protestant and catholic cultivated rage, politically useful rage, while at the same time conveniently reminding themselves of their own purity. A killing fervor was masked in righteousness. Such tactics are more recently reminiscent of methods criticized in the Arab media: the repeated broadcasting of images of Arab death and suffering. It was argued that the US side could not get a “level playing field” in the debate over the war. Could it be that these Rightists, previously so righteous toward Arab media, have decided it best to learn the tactics of the Evil-Doers and sit down at the computer, steel oneself for a horrible image, and stand up again fortified against any doubt, any thought, any feeling beyond the desert of rage.

Yes, they can tell themselves: these men are Evil, and as President Bush has identified himself as a fighter of Evil (and by implication he himself embodies Righteousness), he is to be supported in any act of war. No matter that Berg would not have died had Bush not assaulted Iraq. No matter that in this war fought in the name of the Iraqi and American peoples a good 20,000 and more Iraqis and more than a thousand Americans have died who, a year ago, were living and breathing. The point of watching Berg’s death is not to reflect on any of this. The point is to inject the visceral serum of propaganda into one’s bloodstream, to sit back, and let any doubts or thoughts be blotted out from one’s mind. Berg, who was killed well after the war began, comes to be seen under the influence of this potent serum as a cause, in retrospect, of this very war. Certainly it would have been better for these priests of war if Berg had been killed just before the invasion began. This certainly would have fed into their argument that all Evil emanates from Iraq.

As it is, Iraq has turned into a cauldron of death and demolition where innocent Americans are slaughtered only since Bush’s decision to attack (which dates back to before September 11). But in the world of self-righteous propaganda, logical details like sequence in time or causality do not matter much. All that matters is the moment of emotional epiphany when one shakes oneself loose from the computer’s grainy image, stands up and says, “I believe! Thank God we are over there to teach these animals a lesson.” The lesson, of course, is that we kill more efficiently than they do, without videotaping. Our God, to paraphrase General Boykin, is bigger than their god. Berg’s death, far from being tragic, becomes perfectly useful and usable to this segment of the Right. Instead of the death being seen as a damning critique of the war, a result of the war, as I see it – becomes a cause of the war that preceded it! What potent serums these political magicians brew.

When I read the profile of Berg in Newsweek shortly after his death I found a person described whom I could relate to. Like me, Berg scorned the idea that national or cultural boundaries ought to constrain him. He breathed big, and he breathed in the world. His naivety about the righteousness of the United States, however, which seemed to inform his actions, border on a naïve lunacy. He acted as if believing with all his might that he and his nation were Good might inoculate him, charm-like, against harm. He acted as if individual intention matter more than real conditions of power and conflict between nations – as if any potential killer fighting America would see the goodness in his eyes and put up his gun. That Berg had a good heart I have no doubt. His mistake was in believing the US government was as good as his own heart. His mistake was in, on the one hand, personally scorning national boundaries and histories, while on the other hand wrapping himself in the mission of the US government. One cannot be seen as a global person while waving the flag of the globe’s most powerful country.

The men who slaughtered him committed an act which half slaughtered his family. The American Right, rather than burying the video of the crime in the oblivion it deserves, seeks to use it in the service of a man, GW Bush, who has never faced a day of danger in his life. For them, respect for the dead and civilized behavior means nothing next to that powerful high of feeling Righteous, or feeling outraged, of clicking one’s mouse in support of a war so meaningless the greatest sacrifice one can make is to watch a gory video.

Perhaps these people fetishize the video of Berg’s death because it allows them to vicariously participate in a violence so far away from their mundane lives. Perhaps watching Berg’s death allows them to forget for a moment that they themselves are not heroes, not sacrificing anything whatsoever for a war they claim to “support.” Perhaps viewing this crime allows them to feel for a moment that they really are agents of virtue in an Evil, Lord of the Rings-like world. If this is so, then it is only the naivety of Berg, and none of his good heart, that reaches these men.

But by willingly participating as audience in a brutal drama enacted by terrorists, these Americans show a hubristic self-confidence. They think that one can participate in brutality and remain good. They think that one can indulge in terrorist gore and not only not be drawn closer to the logic of the terrorists, but to actually become more holy. The terrorists thought that they could use violence as a theatre to promote their political aims. The proposal of the Rightists to use the terrorist video politically proves that some Americans, far from not wanting to desecrate the memory of the dead, are only too happy to oblige the terrorists and slip into their game of Self-Righteousness and Outrage, and hatred, and more killing. And my friend honestly believes he is a follower of Jesus Christ! I wonder which part of Jesus’ life or teachings would support such an action.

Over in Baghdad, moderate Iraqis argue vainly that Christianity is actually a religion of peace. One must not take the actions of a bloodthirsty fringe as proof that the whole religion is warped, they plead. But the pleas fall on deaf ears. How can more than one half of Americans – mainly Christians – support our slaughter, while these apologists for war still claim that Christianity is a religion of peace. So thinks a Baghdadi office worker, standing stunned by yet another explosion, his eyes full of the bloody victims on the street, yet more innocent victims from Bush’s virtuous war. That these victims are Iraqis ensures that watching videos of their corpses will not make it on to the “To Do” list of American conservatives.

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