The horrific pictures of the beheading of American reporter James Foley, the images of executions of alleged collaborators in Gaza and the bullet-ridden bodies left behind in Iraq by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant are the end of a story, not the beginning. They are the result of years, at times decades, of the random violence, brutal repression and collective humiliation the United States has inflicted on others.
Our terror is delivered to the wretched of the earth with industrial weapons. It is, to us, invisible. We do not stand over the decapitated and eviscerated bodies left behind on city and village streets by our missiles, drones and fighter jets. We do not listen to the wails and shrieks of parents embracing the shattered bodies of their children. We do not see the survivors of air attacks bury their mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters. We are not conscious of the long night of collective humiliation, repression and powerlessness that characterizes existence in Israel’s occupied territories, Iraq and Afghanistan. We do not see the boiling anger that war and injustice turn into a caldron of hate over time. We are not aware of the very natural lust for revenge against those who carry out or symbolize this oppression. We see only the final pyrotechnics of terror, the shocking moment when the rage erupts into an inchoate fury and the murder of innocents. And, willfully ignorant, we do not understand our own complicity. We self-righteously condemn the killers as subhuman savages who deserve more of the violence that created them. This is a recipe for endless terror.
Chaim Engel, who took part in the uprising at the Nazis’ Sobibor death camp in Poland, described what happened when he obtained a knife and confronted a German in an office. The act he carried out was no less brutal than the beheading of Foley or the executions in Gaza. Isolated from the reality he and the other inmates endured at the camp, his act was savage. Set against the backdrop of the extermination camp it was understandable.
“It’s not a decision,” Engel said. “You just react, instinctively you react to that, and I figured, ‘Let us to do, and go and do it.’ And I went. I went with the man in the office, and we killed this German. With every jab, I said, ‘That is for my father, for my mother, for all these people, all the Jews you killed.’ ”
Any good cop, like any good reporter, knows that every criminal has a story. No one, except for perhaps a few psychopaths, wakes up wanting to cut off another person’s head. Murder and other violent crimes almost always grow out of years of abuse of some kind suffered by the perpetrator. Even the most “civilized” among us are not immune to dehumanization.
The enemies on the modern battlefield seem elusive because death is usually delivered by industrial weapons such as aerial drones or fighter jets that are impersonal, or by insurgent forces that leave behind roadside bombs or booby traps or carry out hit-and-run ambushes. This elusiveness is the curse of modern warfare. The inability of Sunni fighters in Iraq to strike back at jets and drones has resulted in their striking a captured journalist and Shiite and Kurdish civilians.
U.S. soldiers and Marines in the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, and Israeli soldiers in assaults on Gaza, have been among those who committed senseless acts of murder. They routinely have gunned down unarmed civilians to revenge killings of members of their units. This is a reaction I saw in several wars. It is not rational. Those murdered were not responsible, even indirectly, for the deaths of their killers’ comrades, just as Foley and the Shiites and Kurds executed in Iraq were not responsible for the deaths of Sunni militants hit by the U.S. Air Force.
J. Glenn Gray, who fought in World War II, wrote about the peculiar nature of vengeance in “The Warriors: Reflections on Men in Battle”:
When the soldier has lost a comrade to this enemy or possibly had his family destroyed by them through bombings or through political atrocities, so frequently the case in World War II, his anger and resentment deepen into hatred. Then the war for him takes on the character of a vendetta. Until he has himself destroyed as many of the enemy as possible, his lust for vengeance can hardly be appeased. I have known soldiers who were avid to exterminate every last one of the enemy, so fierce was their hatred. Such soldiers took great delight in hearing or reading of mass destruction through bombings. Anyone who has known or been a soldier of this kind is aware of how hatred penetrates every fiber of his being. His reason for living is to seek revenge; not an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, but a tenfold retaliation.
Those killed are not, to the killers, human beings but representations of what they fear and hate. The veneer of the victim’s humanity, they believe, is only a mask for an evil force. The drive for vengeance, for “tenfold retaliation,” among those who are deformed by violence cannot be satiated without rivers of blood—even innocent blood. And Americans do as much of this type of revenge killing as those we fight. Our instruments of war allow us to kill from a distance. We therefore often lack any real consciousness of killing. But this does not make us any less depraved.
Christopher Browning in his book “Ordinary Men” tells of a German reserve police battalion that was recruited to carry out mass executions of Jews in World War II. Browning’s book echoed the findings of the psychologist Stanley Milgram, who concluded that “men are led to kill with little difficulty.” Browning, like Milgram, illustrates how easily we become killers. This is a painful truth. It is difficult to accept. It forces us to look into the eyes of Foley’s executioners and see not monsters but ourselves.
“Few of us ever know how far fear and violence can transform us into creatures at bay, ready with tooth and claw,” Gray wrote. “If the war taught me anything at all, it convinced me that people are not what they seem or even think themselves to be.”
I am teaching inmates at a supermax prison this summer. We are reading William Shakespeare’s “King Lear.” Every student in my classroom was charged with murder, and, though the American judicial system imprisons its share of innocents, it is a safe bet that many if not most in my class have killed. At the same time, once you hear the stories of their lives, the terrifying domestic abuse, the crushing poverty, the cruelty of the streets, including police use of deadly force against unarmed people, the societal and parental abandonment, the frustration at not being able to live a life of dignity or find a job, the humiliation of being poorly educated—some went into prison illiterate—you begin to understand the power of the institutional racism and oppression that made them angry and finally dangerous.
Marguerite Duras in her book “The War” describes how she and other members of the French Resistance kidnapped and tortured a 50-year-old Frenchman they suspected of collaborating with the Germans. The group allows two of its members who were beaten in Montluc prison at Lyon to strip the alleged informer and repeatedly beat him as onlookers shout: “Bastard. Traitor. Scum.” Blood and mucus soon run from his nose. His eye is damaged. He moans, “Ow, ow, oh, oh. …” He crumples in a heap on the floor. Duras wrote that he had “become someone without anything in common with other men. And with every minute the difference grows bigger and more established.” She goes on: “Every blow rings out in the silent room. They’re hitting at all the traitors, at the women who left, at all those who didn’t like what they saw from behind the shutters.” She departs before finding out if he is executed. She and her small resistance band had become Nazis. They acted no differently than Hamas did when it executed more than 15 suspected collaborators last week in Gaza
Our failure to understand the psychological mechanisms involved means that the brutality we inflict, and that is inflicted upon us, will continue in a deadly and self-defeating cycle in the Middle East as well as within poor urban areas of the United States. To break this cycle we have to examine ourselves and halt the indiscriminant violence that sustains our occupations. But examining ourselves instead of choosing the easy route of nationalist self-exaltation is hard and painful. These killings will stop only when we accept that the killers who should terrify us most are ourselves.