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Missiles Over Damascus

Photo by Official U.S. Navy Page | CC BY 2.0


Monsters and Animals

On 13 April 2018 President Donald Trump ordered the bombing of selective targets in the Syrian capital, Damascus. He did so because he was emotionally upset by Syrian President Bashar al- Assad’s alleged use of chemical weapons against civilians in the town of Douma – the last rebel (ISIS-style) stronghold adjacent to the capital.

Just prior to Trump’s actualizing his emotions by throwing missiles into Damascus, he had expressed his opinion (and keep in mind that there is no difference between fact and opinion for Mr.Trump) that President Assad is a “monster” as well as an “animal.” At least in part because the Syrian President stooped to “killing his own people.” The problem with all this is (1) Trump has no hard evidence that Assad was behind the alleged gas attack and (2) killing your own people is, unfortunately, what civil wars are all about.

Alas, the world has always been, and still is, full of “monsters” and “animals.” And, since we are throwing around such epithets, we might as well give a couple of close-to-home examples of those qualifying behaviors.

— How about the invasion of a nation along with the subsequent killing of at least half a million people, all based on “false and overstated intelligence”? That is what the “monster” and “animal” President George W. Bush did back in 2003 in Iraq.

—How about lining up a 100 “sharpshooters” at a border for  what seems to be the almost gleeful act of repeatedly shooting down unarmed protesters? That is what the “monster” and “animal” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been doing at Israel’s border with Gaza during the month of April 2018.

We can go on citing examples such as these – all about the “monsters” and “animals” in power in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Myanmar and, at one time or other, just about every other nation. Donald Trump himself, with his racist tendencies and impulsive behavior, is also a very good candidate for wearing the epithets he assigns to others.

A lesson learned from this endless list is that it seems to be very difficult to be the leader of a state, particularly a strong and/or ideologically driven leader, and not end up a “monster.” It is not only the power that rests in the leader’s hands, but also the corrupting organizational pressures and expectations to use that power that create the slippery slope to abuse. Even those who come to office with relatively decent reputations, such as in the case of the U.S., Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama, end up with bloody hands.

Minions

However, the problem does not end there. After all, the “monster” must have his or her minions. Albert Einstein once said that “the pioneers of a warless world are the youth that refuse military service.” More recently, the Israeli human rights organization B’ tselem has called on Israeli soldiers “to refuse orders to open fire on Palestinian protesters in the Gaza Strip.” These public positions have made no a noticeable difference. The massive violence continues.

Human violence might have something to do with our evolutionsry history, but why should this inclination be so readily indulged? After all, just because we are evolutionarily inclined in a certain way doesn’t mean that we can’t exercise a modicum of self-control. And indeed, a good number of folks do go through life in a relatively non-violent fashion. Yet, put just about any of us in a rotten barrel and we turn bad.

Part of the problem might be that our cultures and institutions infantilize too many of us. By this I mean that from infancy through old age we are taught to follow orders and go along with the group. As children we are taught to obey our parents, then our teachers. When, as teens we (at least in the West) begin to break away from parental control, we more often than not replace parental guidance with that of our peer group. Then, on to a career, where a new set of rules and expectations is imposed. Of course, there is sociological logic to all of this. We could have no societal structure and stability without a certain level of rules and obedience to them. However, there is a price. The price at the state level may be seen in terms of all too often unquestioning loyalty, patriotism and solidarity that leads the average citizen to simply follow the leader, and thereby participate in the violence the state has declared as necessary.

“Monsters” like George W. Bush, Benjamin Netanyahu and now Donald Trump do not actually pull the triggers. Someone else does on their orders – someone trained to obey. Actually “someone” is misleading. It is not one. It is millions. Military establishments are the most obvious environments where this follow the leader cum infantilization takes place. Put into a military organization, the citizen is back in that childhood environment where he or she is expected to just obey. There may be specified situations where one does not have to obey, but they are so rare and so strongly counterbalanced by peer pressure that they almost never come into play. Thus, in the military, all soldiers of whatever rank are infantilized relative to their superiors: told to shoot, they shoot; told to fire the missile, they fire it; told to drop the bomb, they drop it; and told to guide the weaponized drone onto a target half a world away (oops! It turns out to be a wedding party) they guide it.

There is no ready solution to any of this. The number of people who will refuse military orders, as suggested by Einstein, or refuse to shoot protesters, as suggested by B’tselem, is much too few to stop the mayhem. Our proclivity to violence has been institutionalized and our fundamental societal need to maintain group cohesion has been perverted by the those who claim to be our leaders. It is something of a vicious circle – or maybe just an eternal Catch 22.

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Lawrence Davidson is professor of history at West Chester University in West Chester, PA.

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