One day last week, I was in a Shawarma shop as the wall-to-wall TV coverage of the Boston manhunt provided the soundscape for lunch. The gentleman behind the counter and I exchanged words of sadness about the sickness infecting those who would commit the kind of violence we saw at the end of the world-famous marathon.
"This reminds me of growing up in Lebanon," he told me. "Every day, during the war, bombs like this would go off all the time." Hundreds were indiscriminately killed, like those killed this past week in Iraq by car bombs, and in Afghanistan and Pakistan and Yemen by U.S. air strikes. As the lunch hour went on and the stenographers to power struggled to fill the airwaves with commentary, the inevitable questions arose. Was anywhere safe, given something bad could happen on a moment's notice? What drives a person to do this?
"Why did these young men who grew up and studied here as part of our communities and our country resort to such violence?" asked Barack Obama on Friday night. It is a testament to the self-censorship of global media that Obama can ask such a question without a hint of irony, nor without a single voice asking the same question of the Harvard-trained, constitutional lawyer Obama himself, who two days earlier signed off on the latest of his daily kill lists, resulting in the extrajudicial murder of two individuals in the town of Wessab, Yemen.
Writer Farea Al-Muslimi, in an Al Monitor editorial, "My Village Was Attacked By US Drones in Yemen," describes a sense of bewilderment that his village could be attacked, one that must have mirrored the sense of outrage felt by Bostonians when their trademark marathon was bombed. "If you live in Yemen, the golden rule is to expect anything any time," al-Muslimi wrote. "That, however, does not include expecting your hometown village -- one of the most peaceful and beautiful places in Yemen -- to be bombed. The peacefulness of such a place makes you believe that no one has ever heard of it, let alone that it is bombed by a US drone strike at night…. The ominous buzz of the drones terrorizes communities. Where will they strike? Will I be next? These are the questions youngsters now grow up asking...The 'collateral damage' of drones cannot just be measured in corpses. Drones are traumatizing a generation."
Based on the daily trauma of drone strikes, the editorial concludes, "It is tempting to conclude that the US has no interest in a measured response to terrorism. It is difficult not to think it doesn't matter to them whether they terrorize (and radicalize) entire populations as they check another name off their 'kill list.'"
That nagging question about who would do such things arose again during a White House press briefing, where the pack mentality was briefly broken by a very brave correspondent, Amina Ismael, who put it plainly: "I send my deepest condolence to the victims and families in Boston. But President Obama said that what happened in Boston was an act of terrorism. I would like to ask, Do you consider the U.S. bombing on civilians in Afghanistan earlier this month that left 11 children and a woman killed a form of terrorism? Why or why not?"
White House spokesflak Jay Carney's answer was typical bafflegab, and the rest of the reporters fell in with softball questions more befitting the narrative of the day. Meanwhile, editorial pages lit up with the not unexpected think pieces about "radicalization," with Canadian national security industry spokesman Wesley Wark struggling to understand how "seemingly well-integrated young men can come to take up the cause of mass casualty violence and terrorism." It is a testament either to his poor scholarship or his willful blindness that Wark concludes that, despite a decade of counter-terrorism efforts, "we are no closer to possessing a definitive answer."
Wark wonders about the motives of individuals who would seek to "kill and maim," but rather misses a key point. The suspects were acting no differently than a general in the Pentagon when they detonated a crude version of weapons that are a regular part of many a military arsenal: cluster bombs, anti-personnel weapons that are no different in their intended use than the Boston bomb, designed to rip apart human flesh and inflict maximum suffering. These things have been dropped millions of times on civilian targets by air forces whose pilots have received medals of bravery.
Wark and others might also benefit from a brilliant piece of 1970s research by Dane Archer and Rosemary Gartner called "Peacetime Casualties: The Effects of War on the Violent Behaviour of Noncombatants." This analysis, which documents substantive increases in domestic homicide rates following a war, begins by stating the problem that is largely dismissed as part of the "root causes" argument: "Violence by the State is strangely absent from discussions of violence. Books about aggression, for example, often treat topics ranging from hormones to homicidal criminals without mentioning capital punishment, the shooting of looters, the beating of protesters, or even that most impressive form of 'official' violence: war."
The legitimation of official violence, they argue, becomes so embedded in the culture that the core message -- "the unmistakable moral lesson that homicide is an acceptable, or even praiseworthy, means to certain ends" -- becomes mirrored in the population at large. A majority of nations involved in wars experienced homicide rates that increased significantly compared to nations not involved, revealing a "linkage between the violence of governments and the violence of individuals. This linkage is mediated, we believe, by a process of legitimation in which wartime homicide becomes a high-status, rewarded model for subsequent homicides by individuals….The wartime reversal of the customary peacetime prohibition against killing may somehow influence the threshold for using homicidal force as a means of settling conflict in everyday life." Put more succinctly, U.S. Justice Louis Brandeis famously wrote in 1928: "Crime is contagious. If the government becomes a lawbreaker, it breeds contempt for the law."
Another answer can be found in our recent history. A media obsessed with anniversaries (the one-week anniversary of Boston, the 100th commemoration of the First World War, the latest day count of Lindsay Lohan's sobriety) failed to miss the 45th anniversary of a story that was originally reported as an American military victory.
On March 15, 1968, young American soldiers went into a Vietnamese village and when asked by a soldier, "Are we supposed to kill women and children?" were told by their commanding officer, "Kill anything that moves." As Nick Turse further recounts in his excellent history of U.S. war crimes in Vietnam, Kill Anything That Moves, "Over four hours, members of Charlie Company methodically slaughtered more than five hundred unarmed victims…They even took a quiet break to eat lunch in the midst of the carnage. Along the way, they also raped women and young girls, mutilated the dead, systemically burned homes, and fouled the area's drinking water." Such atrocities were the norm, not the exception, and Turse notes that massacres were so common that the Pentagon formed a secret Vietnam War Crimes Working Group.
While ordinary soldiers committed these heinous acts, they were, like the tortures, renditions, and mass slaughters from the skies of today, part of the official command structure. War criminal Henry Kissinger relayed the murderous orders of President Nixon on the bombing of Cambodia, instructing the Air Force: "Anything that flies on anything that moves."
That genocidal mentality (rooted very much in the slaughter of indigenous populations and the ethnic cleansing symbolized by "residential" schools) was also reflected in the deliberate targeting of Iraq's electricity grid and water treatment systems during the 1991 Gulf War, with the U.S. Air Force noting in a 1998 report that "The loss of electricity shut down the capital's water treatment plants and led to a public health crisis from raw sewage dumped in the Tigris River." A US Defense Intelligence Agency analysis entitled "Iraq Water Treatment Vulnerabilities," noted that sanctions (which killed 1.5 million people, and were "worth it," according to former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright) would prevent the importation of the necessary equipment to purify water, leading to "a shortage of pure drinking water for much of the population" and "increased incidences, if not epidemics, of disease."
Perhaps the real question is: What radicalized U.S. officials do so hate civilian populations around the globe that such atrocities could be planned and carried out? Another opportunity to understand the "radicalization" of American officials (and their Canadian counterparts) was lost with the media's failure to provide an equal amount of coverage to two well-documented reports on complicity in torture. One report (Globalizing Torture) found 54 nations (including Canada) provided assistance to the U.S. program of rendition to torture, while another (The Report of the Constitution Project's Task Force on Detainee Treatment), a bipartisan effort undertaken by some very conservative elements, including members of the military, found it "indisputable" that the U.S. has been complicit in torture, and expressed its concern at "the kind of considered and detailed discussions that occurred after September 11, directly involving a president and his top advisers on the wisdom, propriety and legality of inflicting pain and torment on some detainees in our custody. Despite this extraordinary aspect, the Obama administration declined, as a matter of policy, to undertake or commission an official study of what happened, saying it was 'unproductive' to 'look backwards' rather than forward."
As people around the globe, from Boston Massachusetts to Wessab, Yemen and the Kunar province of Afghanistan remember the dead and care for the wounded in their communities, all victimized by acts of terrorism, it remains our collective to task to not only seek accountability, but also a consistent recognition of -- and action responding to the fact -- that terrorism is committed with our tax dollars, by our governments, in our name.