The Banality of Killing
The standard explanations for the Arizona killings are now being set forth, such as widespread violence in America and right-wing extremism. I’d like to weigh in with another possible factor, one that I can’t prove but one that I think Americans ought to at least consider: the fact that killing has now become an accepted, essential, normal, and permanent part of American life.
No, I’m not referring to the widespread gun violence in America that liberals point to as part of their gun-control agenda. I’m not even referring to the widespread violence that accompanies the decades-long drug war, especially in Mexico. I’m instead referring to the U.S. government’s regular killing of people thousands of miles away in Afghanistan and Iraq, killing that has now gone on regularly for some 10 years and that has become a fairly hum-drum part of our daily lives.
Six people were killed and 14 were injured in the Arizona shootings, including a woman who was shot through the head and a 9-year-old girl whose life was snuffed out. Everyone is shocked over the horror, which is detailed on the front page of every newspaper across the country.
But let’s face it: Such killings go on every week in Afghanistan and Iraq and have for some 10 years. Parents, children, brothers, sisters, cousins, grandparents, friends, brides, grooms, and wedding parties. People are killed in those two countries every week, and the killing has now expanded to people in Pakistan.
We don’t see those deaths on the front pages of American newspapers. They’re buried on page 14 of the papers in small news reports, if at all.
Why don’t those killings get front-page coverage?
One, the killings have become commonplace. They’re now just considered normal. Massive death on a massive scale, but normal. We just put all the deaths at the back of our minds. The football playoffs are this weekend. Got to pay the bills this month. Life demands our attention. Anyway, it’s not as if we, the American citizenry, are doing the killing. It’s the military and the CIA that are doing it.
Two, our public officials say that we’re at war and that people are always killed in war. Never mind that what we have in Afghanistan and Iraq are military occupations, not war. The idea is that a military occupation is a sort of war and, therefore, we shouldn’t let the daily killings affect our consciences. Moreover, since we’ve been told that the war on terrorism is considered permanent, we just have to get used to the fact that the weekly killings will be a normal and regular part of our lives for as long as we live.
Third, we are told that the people being killed are terrorists, enemy combatants, or unfortunate collateral damage. Never mind that our public officials have had 10 years to kill terrorists and enemy combatants to their hearts’ content but apparently still haven’t gotten them all. Never mind that the terrorists and enemy combatants might well now consist primarily of people who are simply trying to oust their country of a foreign occupier, like people did when it was the Soviet Union that was doing the occupying. Never mind that the number of terrorists and enemy combatants continues to rise with each new killing. It’s all just part and parcel of the new normality for American society.
In the process, life is cheapened — well, the lives of Afghans, Iraqis, and Pakistanis. The weekly killings of adults and children from those three countries are relegated to page 14 of the newspaper because they’re just Afghans, Iraqis, and Pakistanis. It’s not as if they’re Americans, after all, people who place a much higher value on human life than others.
We mustn’t forget how, for the last 10 years, the lives of Afghans and Iraqis have been expendable for the greater good of their society. How many times have we been reminded, for example, that the deaths of countless Iraqis have been worth the effort to bring democracy to Iraq? In fact, one of the most fascinating phenomena about the Iraq War, an illegal and unconstitutional undeclared war of aggression that the U.S. government waged against a country that had never attacked the United States or even threatened to do so, is that there has never been an upper limit on the number of Iraqi deaths that would justify the achievement of democracy in Iraq. Any number of Iraqi deaths, no matter how high, has been considered worth it.
We saw this same reasoning through 11 years of brutal sanctions on Iraq, which were imposed for the purpose of achieving regime change — the ouster of Saddam Hussein from power and his replacement by a pro-U.S. regime. When Bill Clinton’s U.S. Ambassador to the UN, Madeleine Albright, was asked by Sixty Minutes whether the deaths of half-a-million Iraqi children had been worth it, her answer perfectly reflected the mindset of Washington officials for the past two decades: “I think this is a very hard choice, but the price — we think the price is worth it.”
How much value is placed on the lives of people, including children, who are sacrificed for the greater good of society? Not much value at all. Life is supposed to be sancrosanct. But then again, don’t forget that those are only Iraqi people we’re talking about.
How can all this massive, regular, permanent death and destruction not affect and infect a society? Sure, it all takes place thousands of miles away. Sure, it’s buried on page 14 of the newspaper. We don’t see the caskets or the burials. We don’t see the crying, the anguish, or the anger of the survivors. We just go about our daily business, deferring to authority. Our public officials know what is best. That is their job. We have to trust their judgment. If they say that American soldiers and CIA officials have to stay in Afghanistan and Iraq permanently and just go on killing people forever, then we, the citizenry, just have to accept that. If they say they have to expand the killing to Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia or wherever, then that is just the way things are. They are the experts. They are in charge.
In the process, everyone convinces himself that the people who are being killed are “bad guys” or people who just happened to be too close to the bad guys, including their wives, children, other family members, or friends.
Of course, the possibility that the U.S. government — the invader, the occupier, the interloper — is the “bad guy” doesn’t even enter into most people’s minds. The thought is too horrible, too terrifying. It might cause citizens to have to search their consciences. Easier to simply continue “supporting the troops” who are “defending our freedoms” by killing all those people on a regular, weekly basis.
The news media are reporting that the accused Arizona shooter, Jared Loughner, tried to join the U.S. military but was unsuccessful. The irony is that if he had been successful, he would have gone to Iraq or Afghanistan and participated in the weekly death-fest and, upon his return, public officials, pundits, media personalities, and even many church ministers would be hailing his heroism and thanking him for serving his country by killing Iraqis, Afghans, Pakistanis, and others in the “defense of our freedoms” here at home.
Did the normalization and trivialization of killing and the denigration and devaluation of life in Afghanistan and Iraq trigger something inside the apparently disturbed mind of the accused Arizona killer? I don’t know. But how can such actions not have a horrible long-term adverse effect on people whose government is permanently engaged in such evil?