The Consuming Evil of Violence


In case CounterPunch readers missed the latest US commission of atrocities, the April 7th air strike in Afghanistan that killed seventeen (including twelve children), as reported in the New York Times this past week, a photo of the graves of several of the children on a sandy hillside as part of the article, I offer these thoughts on the Obama presidency which directly speak to that event as well as countless others.

As a nation we are reeling in response to the horrible bombing at the Boston Marathon, just as we felt after the Newtown shootings.  Rightly so, for Americans still have a heart, an irreducible compassion, when our own people are affected…and yet, under continued pressure, as exampled by the policies of the US government now into decades (say, beginning with Vietnam), even that sense of moral decency is in danger of fading.  We see it in the public opinion polls measuring sentiment concerning the policy and practice of armed drones for purposes of targeted assassination, a program greatly magnified and fitted into a geopolitical framework far more vicious and lethal done under Obama than Bush 2, in which the American public is less ready to approve of this when American citizens are killed than, by a wide margin, the murdered are not American.  Ethnocentrism in its ugliest form has taken over, a chilling consequence—long in the making, from 19th century Know-Nothing anti-immigration sentiment to post-World War II Cold War hostile feelings—of, and intensified by, the counterterrorism defining the current political climate.

Gun violence is merely symptomatic, not causative by any means, of the foundational alienation and cynicism produced by the American variant of advanced capitalism (not to this point, indicative of other nation’s capitalist systems of similar maturity), and therefore a peculiar uniqueness of the US case based on its own historical-institutional configuration which precluded socialism and alternative political and economic modes of organization.  How else produce a Bush II, or much worse, because deceptively costumed in liberal finery, Barack Obama, the perfect caricature of the statesman, friend of the poor and minorities, peace advocate, treacherous beyond imagination once his domestic and foreign policies are examined?

And yet, we still believe; nothing appears to shake our confidence, such as a dot in the landscape, those murdered children in Afghanistan—or the hundreds of murdered children caused by our drone attacks in Pakistan, Yemen, Somali, wherever Obama, Brennan, and their National Security Team meeting on Terror Tuesdays decide to terrorize and kill next.

In the name of patriotism, Protection of the Homeland, our noble warriors, democracy itself, to which America claims a special guardianship, we see a military budget and corresponding show of global force not simply unprecedented in world history, but also destroying the very fabric of American values and social norms, a corruption of mind and society leading to a structural cleavage of wealth and power seen nowhere thus far outside of dystopian fiction: authoritarian, still (but for how long?) with velvet glove.

Do I exaggerate?

Foreign policy is a total disaster, if not world menace, confirmed by real and potential interventions, but now with a new emphasis, the secret weapon of covert operations, secret because shrouded that way, unaccountable, below the radar screen of international legality, and concretely, bringing together in paramilitary mode the expanded powers of CIA joined to Special Ops, and even private mercenaries and, as in Afghanistan, CIA-trained (as part of the blandly worded “security structure”) local militias.  Mobile strike forces—nevertheless backed by traditional heavy main-force constituents of power: land, sea, air, from Stealth bombers to supercarriers, all discreetly supported by, of course, America’s vast nuclear arsenal.

Obama has done nothing to reverse this trend, but obviously to extend and heighten it, partly under the cover of counterterrorism, but more, the conscious desire to shore up a, in world terms of multipolar centers of power, declining global hegemonic position, and in the process redefine American military objectives through the (in)famous pivot of US attention and the deployment of forces to what might rightly be characterized as the Pacific theater of war.

Inseparable from the enhanced militaristic posture, is the diplomatic.  Here the State Department might just as well be fused with the Pentagon, Kerry and Hagel, already in their brief tenure, skipping and hopping around the world, seeking and giving assurances to cement more firmly alliances with “friends and allies,” dependable partners in current and future interventions designed to maintain an American-defined globalized system.  That cost money, in some cases, bag money, in others, support for regimes and policies antithetical both to world peace and the internal democratic content of the willing partner.

Trouble spots, as perceived by the US, are poked to ensure that situations are kept volatile, from North Korea to Iran to Venezuela, for how else keep the American people on tenterhooks, eager to approve war crimes abroad, surveillance, Espionage-Act prosecutions, defense spending at home, and farther afield, encourage Japan and the Philippines, above all, Israel, to stay on edge, confrontational, fully in  alignment with what the US defines as the pattern of engagement?  Not only has the Obama-Brennan doctrine of permanent war, embodied in the drone program and paramilitary operations, been put into effect, but so has its companion setting, an endeavor to place the world on a war-footing.  Otherwise, all those military bases, stationed troops, modernized nuclear weapons, huge embassies, foreign assistance and diplomatic strategems and pressures would appear groundless and transparently aggressive (which they are).

Militarism is not a healthy sign for a domestic, or for that matter, democratic, social framework.  Here it would be helpful to apply the idea of legitimated violence to America itself, with Obama its practitioner par excellence.  As other CP writers have noted, the thrust of current policy is directed to class warfare against the poor, as in the recent articles by Hudson and Lindorff—violence through legal means which fosters declining living standards (e.g., the chained-CPI) among seniors, the disabled, the poor generally, simultaneous with favoring extreme wealth, through sophisticated taxation policies, including the lesser rate on capital gains, as well as deregulation, making for exhorbitant banking profits, corporate subsidies and write-offs, lessened safety standards, weakened labor rights, legal provisions protective of vested interests, the business-friendly dimensions of the Obama administration sufficiently extensive to fill the thickest phone directory.  Again, legitimated violence, not only because done under the law (how else are the laws written?), but also because filling in the content of the main trends in American capitalism at least since the Civil War—and by violence I emphatically mean the deliberate practice of deprivation against those insufficiently able to resist or fight back.  Degradation, false consciousness on the receiving end, invidious distinctions in the national vocabularly to enforce the sense of inferiority, these are all the helpmates of civil violence, spoken of, taken for granted as, the demiurge of normality.

From legitimated violence practiced against ourselves as a nation, it is not a big jump to violence per se, whether Newtown or the Boston Marathon, because of the rotted quality of the air we breathe:  self-proclaimed “gun rights” as license for extreme individualism (mirroring the feeling of getting away with all that the traffic will bear, coupled with  contempt for the law and the assertion of impunity whenever it conflicts with personal desires) sharing place with top-down authorization of targeted assassination and the myriad evidences of merciless conduct in foreign adventures.  This does not explain the acts of murder and violence in the cases named—individual culpability is the keystone of a moral-legal order—but it does help to understand broader social forces which assist in producing twisted minds and in even creating the structural ambience for such mental twisting to occur.  What we’ve recently seen, and the countless instances of gun violence in America, would not, I believe, be possible in an equalitarian social order respectful of human dignity and pacific international relations, including the express disavowal of hegemonic intent; the stimulus would be lacking, as would the built-in aggressiveness of a people used to differentiating itself by race, social class, ideological justifications for their actions—presently, light years away from the polity as we know and live it.

Norman Pollack is the author of “The Populist Response to Industrial America” (Harvard) and “The Just Polity” (Illinois), Guggenheim Fellow, and professor of history emeritus, Michigan State University.

Norman Pollack has written on Populism. His interests are social theory and the structural analysis of capitalism and fascism. He can be reached at pollackn@msu.edu.

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