We have recently been accosted by the photo of the dead Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in newspapers and on television throughout the country. It was rather like a dreadful wild west trophy of sorts. The message was, “don’t challenge US supremacy or this is what will happen to you!” How does this excessively brutal act of killing and vain objectification of al-Zarqawi make us and the world any more safe? The answer to that perplexing question is that it doesn’t!
But how about violence and objectification in another US colony under US military control? From 1902 to just after WWII the Philippines was a colony of the United States. With the so-called Filipino independence, the US insisted on a Military Bases Agreement (MBA) with the US taking one of the best deep water ports in the country for its Subic Naval Base and the other major base being Clark Air Force Base close to Mount Pinotubo. The Philippine Senate finally ended the MBA in the early 1990’s, but there was still JUSMAG in place as it is to this day. The JUSMAG (Joint US Military Advisory Group), with its headquarters in Manila, was another legacy of the independence agreement. It provided the opportunity for the US military to always have the green light to meddle and wreak havoc on the Filipino resistance movement through the CIA and pressure on the Philippine military to serve the interests of the US and Filipino elite.
With the photo of al-Zarqawi I was reminded of the infamous psychological warfare that United States CIA operative Edward Lansdale says he directed in the Philippines in the 1950’s. It was a challenge to the left-leaning Hukbalahop (Huk) guerillas. Ramon Magsaysay, a friend of Lansdale’s since WWII, was the Filipino Secretary of Defense and they worked together. In “The Philippines Reader” (1987) Stephen Shalom notes that “A week after Magsaysay’s appointment, the CIA’s Edward Lansdale arrived in Manila (from Washington). Lansdale had served with the Office of Strategic Services during World War II and then, in the Philippines, as chief of Army intelligence for the western Pacific.” Magsaysay, for one, was offering money to the military for Huk bodies. According to scholar Stephen Shalom, he apparently took his cue for this from American Wild West films. Lansdale describes how some Huk fighters were captured, killed, drained of blood and hung in trees to scare others. The bodies drained of blood were white and ghostlike/vampirelike. He later applied similar atrocities in Vietnam.
Is there something missing here? Where is the expression of humanity both when it’s clandestine and in the time of war when the violence is widely promoted and reported? What does this to do us?
To explore this issue I will turn to the British Anthropologist Colin Turnbull and others. Unknown to some, in addition to his work in central Africa with the Mbuti pygmies (for which he is probably best known) and with the Ik in Uganda, Turnbull also researched the death penalty in the United States.
In his 1980’s article “Death by Decree.” Turnbull reported on his study of the death penalty in Virginia and Florida. He had interviewed virtually everyone involved the death row inmates themselves and their families, the executioners and their families, the guards in the prison, and others. What he found was a “brutalization” of those associated with the death penalty. Rather like in the aftermath of war, veterans often suffer from long-lasting horrors of their experience. Those surrounding the death penalty also suffer their behavior was affected by association and it took its toll on the families. Some social scientists have even speculated that there is a slight rise in homicides just after an execution in communities where it takes place.
Regarding violence, Turnbull acknowledged in his 1983 book “The Human Cycle” that the
“two major concerns of human societies are conflict and aggression. One of the prime functions of social organization is to provide the means of resolving conflict when it occurs or of avoiding it altogether.Although the extent to which the human being is biologically programmed to be either a social or aggressive, predatory animal may be questionable, there can surely be no question as to the human potential for both sociality or aggressivity. Our physiological capability is staggering, for it not only enables us to design and fabricate weapons, it also enables us consciously to plan and chart our forethought. And that, perhaps, is the most dangerous and destructive form of violence.”
Perhaps the death penalty which is planned and timed, and the US aggression against the Iraqi people are contemporary examples of this dangerous and destructive violence.
Turnbull said that sociality had to be learned. He explained in “The Mountain People” that “the vaunted human values are not inherent in humanity at all.” He stressed that being social, as opposed to being concerned only about us as individuals, is a choice we make.
To add to Turnbull’s research on the brutalization of those close to the death penalty, a look at the Rosemary Gartner’s and Dane Archer’s fascinating international research adds considerably to an understanding of the broader impact. In “Violence and Crime in Cross-National Perspective” (1984) they report, after studying 110 countries in the world, that after war violence increases in both the countries of the so-called winner as well as the so-called loser. They looked at every conceivable variable to explain the phenomenon. For example, they considered the “violent” veteran model, the economic destabilization model and others. While all these are important, the variable that had the most potent relevance was that the State itself had used violence to resolve conflict. This filtered into the general population and gave the green light for the use of violence. It’s the age old saying violence leads to violence.
Sociologists have long understood that we learn behavior from our peers and family, but they had not considered enough how what the State itself does impacts and teaches behavior. As Alexander Cockburn noted in his 2001 article “Real Violence and Tim McVeigh,” McVeigh’s favorite quote was by Justice Louis Brandeis: “Our government is the potent, the omnipresent teacher. For good or evil, it teaches the whole people by its example. Crime is contagious. If the government becomes a lawbreaker, it breeds contempt for the law.”
Karen Armstrong’s work is especially salient for all of this. Her description of the essential message from the Axial Age in her 2006 book “The Great Transformation: the Beginnings of our Religious Traditions” stressed the importance of compassion. In the violent age in which they lived, the Axial sages recognized the importance of controlling conflict and aggression through compassion. She says, it was the central message of the most profound spiritual leaders from about 900 to 200 BCE – the likes of Confucius, the Buddha, Socrates, Jeremiah, Mencius and others. Later Jesus (“love your enemies”) and the Prophet Muhammad offered the same message. The great Rabbi Hillel said the ultimate message of the Torah was the Golden Rule (do unto others as you would have them do unto you) and everything else was commentary. Armstrong also said that the Axial sages insisted that “saying” you were compassionate was inconsequential – it was the “act” of compassion that was significant. The importance of compassion was obviously magnified in a time of strife. It was, in fact, compassion outside ones own group that was also essential and of significance. Along the lines of Turnbull saying social behavior had to be learned, Armstrong said the Buddhists recognized that humans have to cultivate being compassionate, particularly for those outside their group.
Regarding vanity and the objectification of al-Zarkawi I am also reminded of British novelist Josephine Tey and the description of vanity in her book the “Singing Sands“. Her protagonist Scotland Yard Detective Alan Grant is speaking with Tad, a civilian assistant.
“I find vanity repellent. As a person I loathe it, and as a policeman I distrust it.”
“It’s a harmless sort of weakness,” Tad said, with a tolerant lift of his shoulder.
“That’s where you are wrong. It is the utterly destructive quality. When you say vanity, you are thinking of the kind that admires itself in mirrors and buys things to deck itself out in. But that is merely personal conceit. Real vanity is something quite different. A matter not of person but of personality. Vanity says ‘I must have this because I am me.’ It is a frightening thing because it is incurable. You can never convince Vanity that anyone else is of the slightest importance; he just doesn’t understand what you are talking about. He will kill a person rather than be put to the inconvenience of doing a six months’ stretch.”
“But that’s insane.”
“Not according to Vanity’s reckoning. And certainly not in the medical sense. It is merely Vanity being logical. It is, as I said, a frightening trait, and the basis of all criminal personality..true criminals vary in looks and tastes and intelligence and method as widely as the rest of the world does, but they have one invariable characteristic: their pathological vanity.”
So what’s the message here? Violence is counterproductive. We’re not safer because of this violent aggression in Iraq; our troops, our country, the Iraqis all of us are likely being brutalized by this aggression in the Middle East that includes the now tragic intensification of violence against the Palestinians by Israel; we’re likely to see more violence in America as a result of all this; we should address what appears to be a US pathological vanity and the objectification of those in the Arab world, especially the so-called terrorist enemy. Usually vanity targets the “other” and from those of us in the western world it’s invariably exceptionally racist. And being compassionate? Not a bad idea. It’s probably way past time we learned it will benefit us.
HEATHER GRAY produces “Just Peace” on WRFG-Atlanta 89.3 FM covering local, regional, national and international news. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.