Thursday, July 07, 2005

I Sing the Guilt Collective

I've committed the act of heresy in our society. I've dared to say our right to live free of terror does not trump that of others, and if we breach it, we open ourselves, justly, to reprisal.

We. You, and me. The people who benefit, day by day, hour by hour, from electing people willing to export terror to foreign lands, to visit horrors on distant peoples, so we can have gas for our SUVs.

William Lloyd Garrison said, in his condemnation of slavery, "I will not equivocate, I will not excuse..." I won't either.

I'm sick of Western exceptionalism. Understand: we are not special. We are not God's golden nugget. We are not right by dint of being white. And we have no more right to be safe and secure in our homes than the people of Baghdad. Whether we, as individuals, support or oppose the actions of Western society in the Middle East and elsewhere, is not the issue. These things are being done in our name, to our benefit. If we are a just society, we are not just enough to change our ways. If we are morally upstanding, we are not morally upstanding enough to elect governments who do not act in the same manner as our ancestors, who, whenever possessed of military superiority, visited whatever they pleased upon those too weak to stop them. Crusaders then. Crusaders now. The term is apt. We still go abroad, still storm the gates, still force what we believe upon others, still get what we want. Only the mantras change.

We are the armed thugs who kick in the door, blow off the father's head, and while helping ourselves to the silverware, declare, "The tyranny is ended! From now on, you will hold elections to decide who washes the dishes! Oh, and to make sure you get it right, we'll be sticking around a while..." For this, we expect to be thanked. We are offended by the ingratitude of the homes whose sanctity we violate. We are astonished to find the knives of the sons at our throats. Because we have learned to utter the sacred words "democracy" and "freedom", we imagine ourselves absolved in the eyes of God and man. Because in the end, we only acted for their own good. Right?

As a society, we are guilty. The British elected Tony Blair. The Americans elected George Bush. Put aside the clever hair-splitting of electoral niceties: they are no defense. The British, the Americans, and others elected MPs, congressmen, and senators who, in their hundreds, in their thousands, consented to the crimes now being committed in foreign lands. People are being murdered at the orders of governments we elected. We condemn the Germans for the Holocaust, for electing people who could do such things. We do this without regard for those who voted otherwise; we say "the Germans did this". But we are shocked when those we victimize strike back at us, without recognizing that we're not all bad... The double standard is appalling. Other societies must accept their collective guilt for the atrocities committed in their name, but not us. Oh, no. Never us. In our millions, we have elected governments who do these things. We have not, collectively, prevented this.

History does not judge us one by one. It judges us anonymously, as societies. A thousand years from now, you, gentle reader, you who oppose these actions, will be as guilty in the eyes of posterity as George Bush and Tony Blair, as will I. Western society had the power to do these things. It had the conceit and the arrogance to do these things. It had the will. It did them. What happened today in London was only a tiny shard of the pain we inflict daily in other lands around the world, and have for years and years. The best among us call those horrors elsewhere tragedies. But when they happen among us, it's as though some fundamental law of the universe has been violated. Apples refuse to fall to Earth! Up is down, white is black! We, we gods on Earth, we have been challenged, reminded we're mortal, treated by others as our society treats them! Our outrage is, in truth, our shame. We presume ourselves so advanced. But the last thousand years seem to have taught us so little.

We lament the deaths of those lost today. Well and good. They were human beings; they were murdered. They did no harm to anyone. They were just trying to get through the day when someone wicked who valued human life less than their own goals snuffed out their lives.

I am speaking of people in England? Or Iraq? Israel, or Palestine?

Does it matter?

Understand this, at last. We do not have the moral right to remake other societies in our own image against their will. We were furnished with the luxury of finding our own way. They deserve that same right, even when, especially when, we think they are wrong. We no more have the right today to force democracy on others in the certainty it’s “right” than we had the right to force Christianity on them, in what I assure you was the same certainty among our ancestors. If other societies are to become democratic, then they must choose that on their own. Who today would agree that the British, having abolished slavery in their empire in 1833, would have been right to invade the United States, wade through rivers of blood both white and black, to force emancipation on that country? The United States had to find its own way to that path. And it did. Differently from the British. In their own time, and in their own way. If we persist, as a society, in presuming our right to use terror to enforce our values on others, to slake our thirsts with the bounty of others, to ease our minds by destroying the peace of mind of others, we must expect as a society to live in fear of reprisal. We have no right to demand the security of our homes while we violate the security of others. We cannot demand that the people we outrage acquiesce and suffer humiliation and death without retribution. They are human beings, and yet we act as though they were dogs to be beaten, and beaten all the more for objecting to be beaten!

I am not eager to be on the bus when it blows up, believe me. This is one reason I so adamantly oppose Canada’s involvement in the war in Iraq. Not just because it’s morally egregious, but out of self-interest. If I run up and punch a weak man because my friends are doing it, do I have the right to expect he won’t remember my face, and burn to return the indignity? No, I do not. But even though my country is not involved, I live in the West, the society that benefits above all others from the arrangement of the world, made by force of arms in its image. If the day comes, what can I say? How can I, or you, claim a moral defense? It wasn’t us; we didn’t call the shots. We were just following orders…

If Bush had lost, would things be different? If the Tories had won in Britain, would their troops now be coming home? No one in serious contention in either country that I’m aware of advocated immediately pulling out. People complain there were no alternatives to vote for. This is not the problem of the people who planted the bombs today; it’s our problem. By God, we’d better start digging up candidates who don’t think like reptiles! No one else is going to do it for us! If we can’t find such people among ourselves and put them in power, is that the fault of the rest of humanity? But in recent elections in many nations, that’s exactly the case: we have put forward no such candidates. At best, there was talk of stepped-up time tables. As if this were some sort of contrition! I’ve heard talk of blaming the victim, allusions to rape. It’s a good example, in fact. Imagine, for a moment, you’re being violently raped in public. The crowd around you suddenly pulls the rapist off you… and then, pushes another rapist down in his place! And the new violator tells you, “That guy was an animal… not me, I’m a nice guy. I’m only going to rape you half as long and half as hard…” Tell me, do you feel grateful? To him? To the crowd that chose him? If you suddenly found a gun in your hand, would this pledge make a difference to you?

What happened today in London is the only response of powerless people. We hold all the cards. The missiles, the bombs, the planes, the aircraft carriers, the troop transports… they all belong to us. The people we use them on have no such things; if they did, we would not use ours on them in the first place. Their only weapon is to inflict upon us, from time to time, the horrors we force them to live with routinely. For us to cry out for justice at such times is an affront to the very idea of justice. The people who did this are human beings, just like us. They have the same brains as us. They love their children the same as us. They welcome the sunrise, they dream of romance, they worry about their future. They may have different ways from us, but fundamentally, we are alike. We are the same species. Appeals to their backwardness, attributions of their innate bloodthirstiness (in contrast to ours?), or demands that we are somehow morally superior as justification for crimes when we commit them, and condemnation for the same acts when they do them, will not wash. If we want to live without fear, we have a responsibility, as a society, not to inflict it upon others. We have an obligation to elect people who are incapable of behaving in this manner. We, as individuals, must work towards it; convincing our fellow citizens of it, by speaking the unspeakable as I am right now. By daring to say “we are guilty, and we must stop”. Until we do, as a society, we can expect no peace, nor do we deserve it.


Slim Bacon said...

Very moving and accurate.

A solution: get involved. Educate.

L-girl said...

I've dared to say our right to live free of terror does not trump that of others, and if we breach it, we open ourselves, justly, to reprisal.

That was not your "heresy", and you know it. I agree with this statement, as (I think) do most of the people who were upset by your comments at wmtc.

The only thing that doesn't make sense to me is this "we" business. We're not all white, we didn't all vote for these imperialists. Many of us oppose their war with every cell in our beings.

I don't know why I become "we" with George Bush, who I despise - and over whom I have no control. I don't want to be a target of hatred because of his crimes any more than the average Iraqi wants to be a target because of her country's oil.

She deserves to live in peace, and so do I.

I strongly agree with most of what you say here. But forgive me if I think you sound a bit glib, like someone who's never seen death and destruction up close, and never expects to.

Thanks for fleshing out your thoughts.

Lone Primate said...

The only thing that doesn't make sense to me is this "we" business. We're not all white, we didn't all vote for these imperialists. Many of us oppose their war with every cell in our beings.

You're asking for a special dispensation for good will. It doesn't exist. It didn't exist when we firebombed Dresden, or dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagosaki. It doesn't exist right now in Iraq. We excused -- we constantly excuse -- such indiscriminate acts when we do them, because we call them necessary acts of self-defense. We might shed a few tears over the innocents -- the "collateral damages" -- who had to die, but we kill them, old and young, good and bad, all the same, in pursuit of our own interests.

That is exactly what happened yesterday. We don't want see it that way, of course, because this time, it's us on the receiving end... and isn't there some Eleventh Commandment against it happenning to us? No, there's not. We -- yes, I'm sorry, we, us, our society -- take murder to the streets of other nations all the time. How can we possibly say it's not fair for them to return the gesture? How else are they to get us to stop? Ask nicely? Sit obediently on their hands until we Olympians finally lift our collective head out of our moral turpitude long enough to rain down mercy on them? Or show us what it's like to live in fear like them?

I can't make those exceptionalist arguments anymore. I don't believe them. If you're still comfortable with them, well, what can I say. All I know is that if we want our society to be safe, we have to stop using terror against others. No ifs, ands, or buts. Platitudes and resigned discontent will never be enough to keep anyone safe -- neither us nor the people our system institutionally preys upon.