Crimes against humanity don’t happen unless it is possible to commit them with impunity. Government corruption and gross imbalances of power will bring them closer to the edge of possibility. But the anticipation of impunity must be personal and social as well as legal and political. The perpetrators need to make sense of their crimes within a positive sense of themselves.
A shared sense of impunity that can pay for mass murder and torture chambers without self-reproach requires denial, distortion, and ignorance of swaths of reality. In totalitarian societies, the state handles these chores to try to keep the people unaware of its most criminal activities.
But in societies that enjoy relative freedom of the press, citizens encounter many unsavory facts that are impossible to deny directly. When “democracies” engage in war crimes, this knowledge pressures citizens to internalize a collective sense of impunity, which must be robust enough to neutralize incriminating truth as it appears.
Most informed US citizens are aware that their government runs a global network of secret detention centers where torture is routinely employed. They also know what this activity looks like, having seen photos of their troops’ bestial behavior at Abu Ghraib. If they followed the story, they know that this behavior was also reported at several other prisons and detention centers in Iraq, under policy directives from the very top of the Pentagon.
They know about the human rights horrors of Guantanamo and Bagram Air Force base, that the CIA runs a global ring dedicated to kidnappings, “extraordinary rendition”, and torture, that hundreds of our detainees have disappeared, and so on.
It is possible to know these things by reading big city newspapers. An objective observer could glean the general shape of these facts from network television news. The American public has been told. And the public has turned the page.
It’s also a matter of record that our government has orchestrated an international economic blockade against the occupied Palestinian Authority, while Israel withholds the PA’s tax revenues. After 15 months of this policy, an economy that aid experts had previously compared to sub-Saharan Africa has imploded. Social and civic services have ground to a virtual halt. (1) Diligent readers know that the Palestinians’ already high rates of malnutrition and food insecurity are now at alarming levels. Doctors warn that skyrocketing numbers of Palestinian children are being crippled for life by chronic malnutrition. (2)
The predictable (and predicted) result of economic siege against an occupied people has been burgeoning chaos and civil strife, eroding what is left of the rule of law in the occupied territories. The informed American knows that this is happening because, in the fairest elections yet seen in the Middle East, the Palestinian people voted for the wrong party.
Yet even the best-informed Americans will be hard put to think of a similar instance in history. When have great powers conspired to destroy the government and economy of a destitute people already crumbling under another power’s long colonial war?
To know about our government’s global gulag and remain silent requires a reckoning with snatching people and repeatedly subjecting them to depraved acts of torture, knowing that those who do not die will suffer lifelong physical and psychological torment.
This reckoning appears to turn on variants of a calculation; that our collective security is worth more than the cost to a few tens of thousands of foreigners of questionable race and religion. This quantifies and prioritizes an otherwise difficult problem, allowing us to minimize the crimes by rounding our sums.
We don’t notice that this pragmatic solution also fingers the people responsible for this inhumanity: us, the ‘collective’ whose security is so valuable that it’s worth committing torture every day of the week to protect it.
To know about the economic siege against the occupied Palestinian territories and say nothing is to acquiesce in crippling collective punishment of millions of poor people, for the crime of holding a democratic election.
Unlike our straightforward torture-for-security deal in the global reign of terror against terror, our justifications for the Palestinian siege are bureaucratic and symbolic.
Hamas is on our “terror list” and therefore beyond the pale of humanity. Before we will end the blockade, Hamas must kiss the three poisoned rings of obeisance: recognize Israel’s unique “right to exist” (as a “Jewish state” that refuses to recognize the rights of its current and former Arab residents), “renounce violence” (unlike Fatah, Israel, the US, etc.), and “accept past agreements” (the long sorry record of unreciprocated PLO concessions to Israel).
The public seems to accept this flimsy hypocrisy as reason enough to force Palestinian doctors to beg for syringes and bandages. (3) It goes down as easily as we close the cell door against the screams, to ease our pathetic fear of “terror”.
Objectively, the American public is much more responsible for the crimes committed in its name than were the people of Germany for the horrors of the Third Reich. We have far more knowledge, and far greater freedom and opportunity to stop our government’s criminal behavior.
But who is even asking the presidential candidates for their positions on torture and starving the Palestinians, or what they think of the respected study that found our war had killed as many as 665,000 Iraqis, as of almost two years ago?
Do we have any excuse for our abject failure to hold our leaders and ourselves responsible for our nation’s most heinous crimes?
If we cannot bring ourselves to say, “guilty”, then “innocent by reason of insanity” appears to be our only plausible defense before a future court of the world.
We will have to claim that our minds were not our own. The corporate media-government propaganda network had grown so ubiquitous that the people were essentially subjects in a mass brainwashing experiment. Unfortunately, the experiment was a success, so increasingly absurd versions of re-manufactured reality were implanted in the public mind.
At the time, some of us complained about cover-ups, lies, all the things we weren’t being told by the media. But the public already knew too much, so our values had already been subverted to accommodate us to our national life of crime. In the reality we were fed, deceit could be virtuous, “terrorists” could destroy us, only leaders could understand the world, and in “extreme” cases the normal questions of morality did not apply. This is why we were silent while “our” government committed these terrible deeds.
The argument has some merit. The elites of this country invented modern propaganda almost a century ago. Today the immense power of corporate-political “opinion formation” in certain reaches the public mind is undeniable. We need to understand how much this system has undermined the public will and dehumanized our lives.
However, to the extent that we as individuals still possess free will and are responsible for our own values, we have no excuse for our mute acceptance of these and other national crimes against humanity. Don’t we pay for them with our taxes, continue them with our votes, and support them with our silence?
1. Occupied Palestinian Territory, Malnutrition in Gaza “as bad as Zimbabwe” says Clare Short
Relief Web/Christian Aid, 1/30/2003
2. Poll: 10% of Palestinian children have lasting malnutrition effects
Ha’aretz/Associated Press 4/11/2007