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What the Gruesome Images Say

There is an Internet site that displays extraordinarily gruesome photographs taken by American soldiers in Iraq. Apparently, the owner of the site exchanges access to pornography for soldiers sending him their war pictures.
Digital cameras and the Internet are now providing a real glimpse of war to an American public that still daydreams about fresh-faced boys and girls marching off to do brave deeds on behalf of democracy.

The Pentagon has become concerned about the site, and rightly so. It is a public relations disaster, especially in the Arab world where such pictures must burn deeply. Karen Hughes peddling American Sunday School stories in the Middle East can hardly compete with the visceral impact of this stuff. It is not just the images themselves which evoke disgust, but the implicit idea that Americans take such pictures and regard them as legitimate currency for pornography.

One Pentagon official was quoted saying something about the people engaged in the trade breaking all kinds of military regulations. I’m impressed with ethics like that: it is fine to disembowel people or burn them to crisps, but it is a serious breach to publish photos of your handiwork.

When I was a little boy growing up in the south side of Chicago, I saw many unpleasant things. Somehow, I understood at a young age that there are people who enjoy destruction and horror and inflicting pain. Likely all the legends of ghouls, vampires, and other staples of horror literature derive over centuries from genuine human experience.

They seem to constitute a minority of human beings, otherwise humanity’s penchant for destruction would outweigh its impulse for creation, and a form of human entropy would reduce society to chaos. But they are a sizeable minority, and there is nothing special about America which prevents its producing a full share. If we believe that nurture, as well as nature, plays some role in producing these dark creatures, American society may well produce more than its share. They are after all, at least the milder, non-lethal cases, the very people who take pleasure in injuring complete strangers through business fraud, computer viruses, and vicious politics – all prominent features on the American landscape.

There is a persistent tendency for Americans to believe this can’t be so. The influence of Christianity is important here. Since the idea of America is often emotionally blurred with the idea of a secular Church, complete with its own Apostles’ Creed and Holy Scripture (Pledge of Allegiance, Declaration of Independence, etc.), it is not surprising that there is widespread belief in the intrinsic goodness of America’s soldiers. But that belief is as scientifically baseless as the one about “curing” homosexuals or the one about “creationism” being a legitimate school subject – both, please note, held by tens of millions of Americans. We might add also the American Catholic Church’s dreamy ideas and stubborn refusal to take responsibility for conditions of a priesthood that encourage countless cases of child molestation.

Those who enjoy violence and destruction always have been part of human society, likely representing a genetic thread, and in ancient days they were just the kind of people you might want on the ramparts defending your city. The trouble is America doesn’t keep them at home. It insists on sending them abroad to practice their ghastly arts on others.

I have to suppress a bitter laugh when I read things in the liberal press calling on soldiers to hold on to their humanity. Would those be the sons of the soldiers who cut the throats of tens of thousands of civilians in night raids during Vietnam? The sons of the ones who collected human ears? Relatives of CIA officers running an international torture network? The words serve no purpose for those actually possessing humanity. Equally, they are a waste of breath for those with the bad genes. You can’t tell someone with a serious, violence-inclining mental disorder to kindly behave him- or herself.

We have a choice in society. The people who have such uncivilized tendencies may be kept in check by rational laws and policies. America with its high rate of incarceration, its continued use of the death penalty, and its endless fascination with redemption clearly recognizes in some distorted way the importance of doing this at home. What civilized people all over the world want to see is America exercising restraint abroad.

How utterly reckless to just casually start wars without realizing that releasing the human monsters from their cages always is part of what you are doing. If Americans ever come to understand that simple fact, the world will be a better place.

JOHN CHUCKMAN lives in Canada.

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