Kandahar and Toulouse: A Tale of Two Cities
26 Mar 2012
‘Western civilization? I think it would be a good idea.’ Mahatma Gandhi
The US army staff sergeant Robert Bales, who shot dead Afghani civilians on their home two weeks ago, has now been formally charged with 17 counts of murder. Aside from the heartbreaking tragedy of this incident, it’s clear that, in the West, the prototype of the ‘lone wolf solder’ has some advantageous side effects. He plants a false discrepancy between murder that is permissible, and murder that is a violation of our collective moral code.
We in the West slaughter innocent men, women and children en masse – but we prefer to do it remotely, ‘humanely’, from a palatable distance. We kill without looking into the faces of our victims. We kill with regret, not pride. We do not own our actions. Yet this gap between authorised violence and renegade barbarism is imaginary. From the victim’s perspective there cannot be a significant difference between being executed by a robotic drone or blown up by one American solder. It is estimated that at least 40,000 civilians have so far been killed in Afghanistan since 2001. Add to that the 36,000 members of the Taliban, the 14,000 Northern Alliance and the 10,000 members of the Afghan Security Forces, and the figure is shockingly high. As painful as it may be to admit, Robert Bale’s murder of 17 Muslim peasants was totally consistent with the very ideology that planted him on Afghani soil in the first place. The decorated American father of three was not transgressing the ideology that his uniform represents. He was merely seeing it through. For us to imagine otherwise is a subtle form of self-congratulation, implying that we live in an ethical culture temporarily punctured by the arbitrary whims of a mad man. This is not the case.
Meanwhile, the case of the Algerian French ‘lone wolf’ of Toulouse, who gunned down seven civilians in France last week, highlights the embarrassing disparity between the way in which the actions of individuals are interpreted as being indicative of the collective from which they hail. When a Muslim commits an atrocity, his actions are understood to represent the values maintained in his culture. American Robert Bales is an isolated maniac with anger management issues, but Mohamed Merah is acting on behalf of ‘a group’. We may not know who the group is (so far alleged links include al-Qaeda, ‘The Knights of Pride,’ Syrian extremists and Salafism in general), but it’s definitely ‘a group’. It’s inconceivable that it could just be him.
Regardless of what the truth of the matter may be, it’s clear that when it comes to appropriating the Enlightenment notion of ‘the sovereign individual’, we are conspicuously selective. We do it only when it suits us. This applies to the victims in France as well as the perpetrator. The death of the first two (Muslim) men shot dead on 11 and 15 March did not qualify as headline news in the global media until they became an appendix to the harrowing murder of a Rabbi and his sons.
Hence the very concept of ‘war crimes’ appears to be a western luxury. The My Lai Massacre committed by troops in Vietnam, the Haditha massacre of Iraq, the killings in Sabra and Shatila, the bombing of United Nations shelters in Gaza, were all understood as aberrations. In order to reconcile ourselves with this endlessly unfolding catalogue of carnage and abuse, we enjoy the prototype of the young, vulnerable, undereducated soldier who just got slightly over excited by the chauvinist revenge rhetoric inherent in their training. Lynndie England, of ‘Human Pyramid’ fame, for example, is often described as a ‘poor, brain-washed, trailer-park dimwit’ rather than an ordinary American patriot enjoying her moment of Schadenfreude.
Perhaps its time that we ponder on the clue loaded in the often-used phrase describing this phenomenon: ‘the lone wolf’. In the animal kingdom and in war, the lone wolf’s singularity is shaped by his essentialist nature as a pack animal. It is because of the pack, not in spite of the pack, that he strikes out alone.