Wild West Justice

My heart is filled with sorrow. The killing of Osama bin Laden has given birth to an apparently bottomless well of dark, narcissistic delight. Though media manipulation contributes to the basic prejudices that drive that joy, it’s clear that America’s celebration is both deep and genuine. I’m stunned at how happy, how proud the killing of this man has made our nation.

It was almost amusing seeing the crowds that spontaneously gathered at the White House singing ‘We are the Champions (of the World).’ I wonder how many realized they were singing a song first sung by Farrokh Bulsara/Freddie Mercury – a bisexual Iranian art student who, before he died of AIDS, fronted a pinko-European rock band named, of all things, Queen.

We have devolved long past cowardice and corruption into realms of violent absurdity. We have told ourselves lies for so long that it would seem our public lives can no longer be influenced by anything as insignificant as historicity, nor inspired by anything so seemingly devalued as human dignity.

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe we’ve always been this way – violent, senseless, and juvenile – from our founding sins of genocide and slavery, up to the present day. But today seems different to me. And I think the difference is that we’re slowly losing our need to pretend, even to ourselves, that we’re anything other than stone-cold killers.

I think back to my birth during the middle of the Vietnam War, a conflict that resulted in over 58,000 Americans killed and near 3,000,000 Vietnamese, Cambodian, and Thai dead, a slaughter waged at the height of the Cold War, waged at a time when we faced an ever-present existential threat of global nuclear annihilation. We committed terrible war crimes during Vietnam, from the Phoenix Program to My Lai and other massacres, to Nixon’s bombing of Cambodia. At home, the government viciously attacked American human rights workers, going so far as to frame Leonard Peltier and assassinate Fred Hampton, among others. I know America wasn’t any more moral in my youth.

But could any serious presidential candidate from 40 years ago have campaigned on a platform of torturing individuals to get information and deliberately bombing other countries simply to steal their resources? Would any American politician of that day (other than perhaps Ronald Reagan) have openly advocated warrantless surveillance of millions of Americans, arrest without charge, indefinite imprisonment without trial, convictions based on torture and secret evidence, and the extrajudicial killing of anyone whom the President designates as worthy of death? I don’t think so. We’ve changed. We’ve cast aside even the pretense of honor.

I think a large part of our sickness comes from how we view our own history. We remember the Alamo, but forget Polk’s War. We remember Pearl Harbor, but forget Hiroshima. We remember September 11th, 2001, but forget September 11th, 1973.

I remember September 1st, 1983, when in the dead of night the Soviets shot down KAL 007, an off-course, Korean jetliner with American citizens on board that had strayed into Soviet airspace. Americans were practically frothing at the mouth in their anger at the Soviets and their desire for blood-vengeance. But I also remember July 3rd, 1988, when in broad daylight Captain William Rogers, of the U.S.S. Vincennes, shot down Iran Air 655, killing 290 innocent Iranians. Captain Rogers got promoted. Americans were actually angry with Iran, for getting upset, and genuinely seemed unable to understand why Iranians were upset.

I remember the 1978 Iranian Revolution and the hostage crisis. But I also remember that we overthrew Mossadeq and supported the Shah for decades. I remember when hundreds of U.S. Marines were killed in a suicide bombing in Beirut in 1983, but I also remember how the U.S.S. New Jersey shelled Lebanese villages, killing women and children. I remember the U.S.S. Cole bombing, but I also remember the fact that the Cole was part of a military blockade that deliberately starved hundreds-of-thousands of Iraqi children to death.

I remember the shoe bomber and the underwear bomber, as well as al-Qaeda’s actual attacks against innocents in London and Madrid and East Africa, and all across Iraq. But I also remember that we’ve likely killed well over a million innocent Iraqis ourselves over the last 20 years, as well as hundreds-of-thousands of innocent Afghans.

I remember that when communist leader Babrak Karmal took power in Afghanistan after a coup in 1978, the United States chose to get involved by providing billions of dollars of military aid and training, including thousands of tons of weaponry, to groups of Mujahadeen, or “Islamic” fighters from around the world – including Osama bin Laden.

In a 1998 interview with the French journal Le Nouvel Observateur, Jimmy Carter’s National Security Advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski, insisted on the righteousness of this war, saying: ‘What is most important to the history of the world? The Taliban or the collapse of the Soviet empire? Some stirred-up Moslems or the liberation of Central Europe and the end of the cold war?’

Yet the Soviet invasion, lasting from 1979-1989, resulted in the destruction of half the villages of Afghanistan, over one million civilian deaths, and over six million refugees. What was more important to the history of those people?

And, to its bitter end, what was more important to the history of the people killed on September 11?

We must not continue to allow the pursuit of terror to be committed outside of the civil and civilizing force of law. Bringing criminals to justice through the law educates and informs our lives and, unlike the rule of force, the law, properly exercised, protects civilians and provides freedom from fear. When we fight terror with “Wild West Justice,” with extrajudicial wars and assassinations, we demonstrate that the only thing we respect is power, thereby teaching that power is all we will respond to–planting the seeds for future terror.

How can we ‘bring terrorists to justice,’ without first bringing justice to those we ourselves are terrorizing in Afghanistan, and Pakistan, and Iraq, and Libya, and Yemen, and Somalia (and God knows where else)?

I have no doubt that Osama bin Laden shared great responsibility for multiple acts of violence, including the September 11 attacks. But when we shot him and dumped his body in the sea, it was with the logic of a world in which even the ceremony of innocence is drowned. It’s madness. How this can make anyone so happy, so proud that they feel compelled to spontaneously gather to sing and cheer and kiss and hug and joyously celebrate is a psychopathy I will not bring myself to understand.

Vengeance is a sin. It is a denial of the redemptive power of love. At its heart, vengeance is the sin of pride – a dismissal of the commonalities all humans hold. Vengeance requires we dehumanize other humans and, as such, it contradicts and corrupts our faith in God. No one in this world, no matter how “evil” their actions, is beyond redemption. This is the actual definition of our species: Humans are animals that possess both the ability to sin and the ability to seek, and find, redemption for our sins.

The simple truth is that my ‘self’ is not any more precious to me, to my loved ones, or to God than that of the person I would injure or kill in defending myself. That person is equally precious to their self, to their loved ones, and to God. There is no “they,” there is no “us.” I know many Americans find this difficult to accept, but we really are all just the same. We’re all human beings. Trust me on this. One thing about we humans, in whatever country we happen to live in: when you kill and oppress us, those that survive scream for revenge. And some among us go out to try and take it.

If we cannot see past our own anger and fear, we would do well to at least remember that neither could the terrorists who destroyed the World Trade Towers. Those attacks, and their aftermath, have manifestly demonstrated that so long as any of us in our world are unsafe, all of us are unsafe. If there was a divine purpose to September 11, we won’t realize it until we start seeing the rest of humanity as we see ourselves. That challenge is where our faith should begin, for in its failure lays continued war, continued terrorism, continued killings, and our continuing moral degradation and devolution.

Bin Laden’s killing has shown us that the only place we can possibly wage war against inhumanity is within our own hearts.

Ramzi Kysia is an Arab-American pacifist and writer. He has worked on peace and justice projects in the United States, Europe, and throughout the Middle-East.


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