Barbarians at the Gates?

10-27-06, 6:20 p.m.

A frequent theme in conservative rhetoric is the barbarism of Islamist terror groups. The National Review’s Deroy Murdock recited a litany of stabbings, mutilations, and decapitations, titling his essay after a quote by an Al Qaeda member: 'The Americans love Pepsi-cola, we love death.” Utah Senator Orrin Hatch reacted to the decapitation of an American contractor by describing it as an act that “underscores the brutality and utter lack of morality of the enemy.” Conservative writer David Horowitz's online publication Frontpage Magazine prominently features banner ads with an image of a World War II-era soldier accompanied by a modern caption: “He’s over there so they won’t cut your head off over here.” The appeal of this argument lies not in the actual danger represented by the phantom menace of Al-Qaeda but in the irrational horror inspired by their actions. The absolute fear generated by these beheadings provides broad public support for similarly barbaric actions such as legalized torture. It also provides fuel for demonization of Islam in the popular media. But what makes actions like televised decapitations so horrifying to us? Life went on in the Cold War despite the fact that the Soviet Union had the power to end the world. Why do the disgusting actions of a small group of fanatics cause us to shake and tremble? The answer unfortunately lies in our own method of waging war.

America kills out of indifference to human life, not hatred. As Carol Cohn notes in her essay “Sex and Death and the Rational World of Defense Intellectuals,” its well-educated defense think-tankers can calmly and cheerfully discuss the annihilation of hundreds of thousands “without any sense of horror, urgency, or moral outrage.” Even when something as direct and barbarous as torture is employed it is cloaked under the euphemism of “alternative interrogation procedures.” Warfare is conducted by pushing buttons that release smart bombs dropped from 10,000 feet, unmanned drones, and cruise missiles. And at least one futuristic weapons system promises to autonomously eliminate other weapons systems without any humans at the controls. When enemy populations are not targets for American bombs they are further dehumanized by the national media. CNN and Time silence the voices of the Arab people with images of angry, flag-burning demonstrators, reducing a complex and vibrant people to an irrational mob. Even seemingly innocuous phrases like 'The Arab Street' make the Arabs out to be a feature of a landscape rather than individuals.

Mainstream public dissatisfaction over the Iraq war is not rooted in the civilian casualties incurred but the bureaucratic mismanagement of the occupation. Hence the firestorm of criticism directed at the “incompetence” of Donald Rumsfeld, as if the deaths of over hundreds of thousands of Iraqis would be justified if the war had been carried out more efficiently.

America’s separation from its victims is designed to preserve public support for wars fought for abstract, macro-political goals like creating obedient client states, securing access to riches and maintaining hegemony. Hence, wars of choice must be sold as commodities, because we need to experience them as consumer products in order to avoid feeling guilty about the massive human cost behind their morally dubious aims. Like any other popular product, war must be cheap and convenient. No dead children, no coffins at Arlington, no wailing widows. Just as one buys a pair of Nikes without giving much thought to their origin in Third World sweatshops, one must buy into military intervention. A compliant media ensures that the public views the enemy through the eyes of the pilot delivering the lethal payload, not the civilian whose house it falls on. Allen Feldman notes that during the first Gulf War, “Civilian television observation was continuous with the military optics of the fighter pilot and bombardier. … [Who] killed at a distance with the sensory impunity and omniscient vision of the living-room spectator.” Yet while disquieting images slip under the radar in the United States, they sear themselves into public memory abroad.

And up until quite recently, the product called “Iraq War II” was flying off the shelves. The Bush administration devoted much more of its effort to spinning the Iraq War than planning how to fight it, borrowing heavily from the conventions of Hollywood action movies. With Fox News banners announcing “America’s New War,” Colin Powell’s cheap re-creation of Adlai Stevenson’s Cuban Missile Crisis speech at the UN, the Jessica Lynch story, Bush’s “Top Gun”-aping “Mission Accomplished” speech and the reality-TV dynamic of the “embedded” reporters, the Iraq War will go down as one of the most overtly “cinematic” conflicts in United States history.

But while American violence is abstract, Al Qaeda violence is direct and personal—consciously cutting off the head of a living, breathing human being on television is an action whose ferocity cannot be cloaked by euphemism. Why? Because the terrorist is fighting out of deep political and religious convictions. They do not seek to hide their aggression or smother it in doublespeak—they openly and proudly display it. Because of the wider religious overtones attached to their anti-Western ideology, the terrorists believe in violence as holy and redemptive.

But if we have constructed the process of conflict as something akin to buying a Coca-Cola, the terrorist ruins it for us because he refuses to stick a quarter into the machine. Because he is so fixated on what he believes is the righteousness of his actions, he actually gives us real violence, tearing a cow apart with his bare hands while we are trying to enjoy our hamburgers. Because of his devotion to violence, he gives us an authentic destruction that the government and media try so hard to bury. To an American population accustomed to war as a precise exercise, these images are horrifying beyond belief.

The terrorist's violence also triggers a prudish reaction: a chorus of commentators label the violence as improper and barbarous, implying that the American violence is somehow exalted and “civilized.” When put into the context of the Bush administration’s use of extra-judicial detainment, surveillance, torture, and assassination, one wonders how anyone can miss the obvious contradiction in employing barbarism to save “civilization” from so-called barbarians.

Perhaps there is an unconscious realization of this brutal truth in the conservative call for alarm at the barbarians at the gate. Although barbarians did eventually swarm the gates of Rome, it was not foreign invasion that truly destroyed the Empire. It was devoured from within by corruption and depravity.

--Adam Elkus is a freelance writer living in Pacific Palisades, California. His articles have appeared on a number of websites and in numerous publications.