Monday, May 21, 2007

The Unbearable Burden of Morals

Last week the New York Post ran a story on local reaction to a story coming out of Washington: the apparent denial by Pentagon brass of permission to wipe out a group of Afghan men praying in a cemetery (“9/11 Kin Deliver Kick in the Brass” 9/14/06 by Stephanie Gaskell). The grainy, eerie image of men – all labeled “Taliban” – in a square kneeling in prayer – had been leaked to the national media, generating the kind of fake “controversy” meant always to shame domestic opponents as weak, deluded quibblers with the War On Terrorism, and to increase the idea of participation in national life as cheering on remote control killing.

The Post, in seeking out male survivors of 9/11, was essentially milking a wounded population’s sense of loss for propaganda purposes, a false populism that marks much of their reporting. What I found interesting was the odd conflict that emerged within some of the statements. What I found within these voices was a simultaneous assertion of superiority over terrorists, even while denouncing the very thing that symbolizes that difference: morality.

There was a sense of rage at the moral scruples themselves. There was a longing and a will to be the terrorists – to wipe out people at will, on command, and be able to enjoy it. The problem that remains, for some, is how to do so and still maintain one’s sense of difference or superiority. This is a logical problem, but the dream of becoming the terrorist lurks within the illogical, half-thought-out fragments of speech of “patriots.” Scruples against murder come to represent an obstacle to the desired state of exterminatory coolness and pleasure. “The terrorists would not have held back,” Jackson [a firefighter] fumed. . .’these guys are terrorist cowards. They hide behind women, they hide in schools. But we’re not. We’re the United States of America.’”

Jackson observes that were the situation reversed, the terrorists would not have “held back.” “we,” however, did: a lack of action he decries, implying the demand that the US model itself more after the terrorists. This demand is not explicit, however, nor can it be. It comes out as a complaint: “Isn’t it amazing, how we’ll do the right thing every time? We won’t hit anybody in their church. . .” But we should, goes the quiet voice behind these lines.

“Look at all those people in the trade center who were killed,” concluded Jackson. The Post very kindly followed up this still-veiled complaining against any “holding back” of moral scruples, “completing” and making explicit the implied wish with this quote:

“Smoke ‘em,” said James Oddo (R-SI), the city council’s minority leader, “If you can find them, kill them.” Thus it is that in the fateful year 2006 we find common among self-anointed “patriots” the not-so-secret desire to join the terrorists in their nihilistic game, pinpointing targets from a distance and blowing them away, the guilty with the innocent blown to kingdom come. Some people, like Firefighter Jackson above, keep this wish a veiled complaint, a frustration that nags at him. Others are entirely and pugnaciously blind to the possibility that “we” might ever commit brutality. These people are impervious to moral or any other self-reflection, resistant to any notion of humility, sure in their indignation that the US is immune to failings, and hence our acts of brutality are only the justified acts of the exterminator against sub-human creatures.

How long will these voices chip away at the more hesitant ones? And from there to the frankly skeptical or critical? For the real danger to the nation comes when the frustrated middle ground, people like Jackson who have some inkling of their own secret wish, give way like eroding sand into the moral morass of a patriotism most beautifully exhibited in a love of spectacles of war and massacre. When that occurs, the truly committed critics, whose voices rarely make it without distortion into Big Media (except as piƱatas for right-wing commentators), will be left ever more isolated. Never helpless – no, we will never be that – and never weak. But more and more without political strength. The anti-terrorist war has never been more than a gambit for domestic hegemony. I personally fear no terrorist so much as I fear a fascistic “re-interpretation” of the Constitution by the Commander-In-Chief. I fear loss of morals far more than loss of life.

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