A dozen years ago, before 9/11, before Bush Jr. or the war on terror, Bill Clinton, then in the midst of impeachment hearings, bombed Iraq over a four-day period. Shortly before this act of national distraction, I read an article in the Chicago Tribune discussing, with the knowing, amoral inanity of the mainstream media, the international implications of the pending action.
For me, the article was immortalized by the following pull-quote from an anonymous Jordanian official, which crystallized the cynicism of geopolitics and the way nation-states function: “Look, nobody here likes Saddam, but people will not be happy when they see Iraqi babies dying on TV.”
The article was in no way critical of the quote, which seemed to be delivered up merely for our sophisticated consumption. The idea, or so it struck me, was to coyly bring readers into the know so they could pretend to weigh, as important officials do, the troublesome public relations components of an act of war before committing murder in the name of national security.
If we oppose war, if we stand in horror at every nuance and detail of it that comes to our attention, if we grow less “knowing” and “sophisticated” as the days pass and the machinery of empire grinds on — if we have experienced war first hand and felt the cruelty of industrialized murder disconnected from its justifications — and if we are driven by this horror, let us say, to stand illegally at the White House fence in protest of it and, like Thoreau, Gandhi, King, submit to arrest for our beliefs, this cynicism is our dilemma.
The 131 people who did so a week ago — members of Veterans for Peace and Code Pink, Daniel Ellsberg, former CIA analyst Ray McGovern, former FBI agent Coleen Rowley, journalist Chris Hedges — barely merited news coverage in our sophisticated, dying media, which can purvey knowing cynicism far more easily than they can convey moral outcry. This slows down, coagulates, the dynamic of change.
Today’s supercharged world, the one the media desperately summon for us 24/7, has no spiritual depth. Even so, some 60 percent of Americans, according to a recent ABC/Washington Post poll, are now saying the war in Afghanistan “hasn’t been worth it”; that number has jumped 7 percent since July.
“I’m well aware of the popular concerns and I understand it,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in response to this ebbing of support, “but I don’t think leaders, and certainly this president, will make decisions that are matters of life and death and the future security of our nation based on polling.”
While her words sound so rational and sensible, this is when I thought about the “dead babies” quote and how the conceit of representative government is that it prevents the passion of the mob from ruling the day. Yet “the mob” is the reservoir of human empathy and the pulsing ocean of our evolution. When it comes to war, “the mob” may be the only voice of restraint and concern for the common good. The “leaders,” isolated in their servitude to the corporate status quo, tempted by the power they command, are the ones who commit acts of inhumanity. Such acts are rational far more often than they are passionate and primal.
“Must the citizen ever for a moment, or in the least degree, resign his conscience to the legislator? Why has every man a conscience then? I think that we should be men first, and subjects afterward.”
So wrote Henry David Thoreau in his essay “Civil Disobedience,” quoted by Ray McGovern a few days ago in an article discussing his own act of civil disobedience. Our only hope is the human conscience, individual and ungovernable, yet connected to the core of who we are while the decisions of political leaders — who do not “make decisions . . . of life and death . . . based on polling” — are too often connected only to the interests they represent.
Pondering all this, I also thought about theologian Walter Wink and what he calls the Myth of Redemptive Violence: the simplistic belief in incorruptible good and irredeemable evil, locked in an endless go-around of carnage and collateral damage. This myth, writes Wink, is society’s dominant religion, at least as old as ancient Babylon, as current as the Saturday morning cartoons. It’s the stand-in for wisdom in politics and pop culture — and it’s what the protesters at the White House on Dec. 17, and maybe even the respondents to the recent ABC/Washington Post poll, cried out against.
In the Babylonian myth, Wink explains, the universe was created in a confrontation between gods, an act of primordial violence. Thus our natural condition is war. And human beings, Wink writes, “are thus naturally incapable of peaceful coexistence. Order must continually be imposed upon us from on high: men over women, masters over slaves, priests over laity, aristocrats over peasants, rulers over people.”
This myth imposes a toxic immunity on all who embrace it — an immunity, you might say, to “dead babies” and all else that is harmed in the name of doing good. It has delivered us to our current crossroads. The time has come to transcend it, one conscience at a time.