October 11, 2006

The Missing Moral Center: Murdering the Innocent

If you have ever wondered how a serial murderer -- a murderer who is sane and fully aware of the acts he has committed -- can remain steadfastly convinced of his own moral superiority and show not even the slightest glimmer of remorse, you should not wonder any longer.

The United States government is such a murderer. It conducts its murders in full view of the entire world. It even boasts of them. Our government, and all our leading commentators, still maintain that the end justifies the means -- and that even the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of innocents is of no moral consequence, provided a sufficient number of people can delude themselves into believing the final result is a "success."

We are a nation that has voluntarily renounced all its most crucial values, and all its founding principles. We can appeal all we want to "American exceptionalism," but any "exceptionalism" that remains ours is that of a mass murderer without a soul, and without a conscience. We have destroyed the most basic foundation of liberty -- and the nature and meaning of our act has already, in less than a couple of weeks, almost entirely vanished from public discussion. It is useless to appeal to any "American" sense of morality: we have none. It does not matter how immense the pile of corpses grows: we will not surrender or even question our delusion that we are right, and that nothing we do can be profoundly, unforgivably wrong.

Remember the five-year-old Iraqi girl who was killed by the same bombs that killed al-Zarqawi. Remember the following, and try to understand it at long last:
There is one final point to be made about all this -- and that has to do with the supreme value of a single human life. In our desensitized, dehumanized age, most people have almost no appreciation for what I'm talking about, and our political establishment and media only make this grievous failing worse. Each of us is unique; not one of us can be replaced. Each of us has a family, loved ones, friends and a life that is a web of caring, interdependence, and joy. When even one of us is killed or horribly injured for no justifiable reason, the damage affects countless people in addition to the primary victim. Sometimes, the survivors are irreparably damaged as well. Even the survivors' wounds can last a lifetime.

This is of the greatest significance. There is nothing more important or meaningful in the world. No moral principle legitimizes our invasion and occupation of Iraq, just as it will not justify an attack on Iran. Therefore, when the first person was killed in Iraq as the result of our actions, the immorality was complete. The crime had been committed, and no amends could ever suffice or would even be possible. That many additional tens or hundreds of thousands of people have subsequently been killed or injured does not add to the original immorality with regard to first principles. It increases its scope, which is an additional and terrible horror -- but the principle is not altered in the smallest degree.

So think of the five-year-old Iraqi girl who is no more, or think of any one of the countless other victims of this criminal war and occupation. Think of their families and friends. Think of the lives that have been altered forever, and of the wounds that will never heal. Think about all of that.

Contemplate the devastation and the horror. Make it real to yourself. And ask yourself if forgiveness is possible.
Iraq did not attack us. Iraq did not threaten us. Our leaders knew it. Our invasion and occupation of Iraq were blatant, indefensible acts of aggression. Therefore, when the very first Iraqi was killed as the result of our actions, we had committed an act that was gravely immoral, and entirely unforgivable. Yet even now, most Americans desperately cling to the notion that our actions might still be redeemed. In the earlier essay, I excerpted a Jacob Hornberger column, which concludes with this:
More important, all too many Americans have yet to confront the moral implications of invading and occupying Iraq. U.S. officials continue to exhort the American people to judge the war and occupation on whether it proves to be "successful" in establishing "stability." and "democracy" in Iraq. If so, the idea will be that the deaths of tens of thousands of Iraqis, including countless Iraqi children, will have been worth it. It would be difficult to find a more morally repugnant position than that.
Norman Solomon recently wrote on this same theme:
The uproar over Bob Woodward's new book has intensified the media focus on a basic controversy that's summed up this way: Is Iraq a quagmire?

Like many other debates that flourish in American mass media, the standard answers on both sides are wrong - because the question bypasses human realities.


Forget the American Century. This is the American Narcissism.

You see, no matter what happens in Iraq, it's mostly about us - spelled US; the United States. We're encouraged to perceive that Iraq is most important, at least implicitly, because of what it means for the USA: its image in other countries, the deaths and wounds of its soldiers, the political strength of the president and, this fall, the likely effects on the midterm Congressional elections.


But to focus arguments on whether the Iraq war should be called a "quagmire" is to flatten moral issues, transmuting them into matters of strategy and efficacy. That may sound like appropriate journalistic attention to practical politics. However, if a war is wrong, the wisdom of supporting it shouldn't hinge on whether it's a quagmire or a cakewalk.


If the Iraq war is primarily framed as a problem because of what it's doing to Americans, the "solutions" could make the war seem like less of a quagmire even while more Iraqi people pay with their lives. Media arguments over whether Iraq is a quagmire turn the spotlight away from the human calamities that Iraqis are experiencing on a daily basis, while American taxpayers continue to subsidize Uncle Sam's deadly machinations.

Sometimes the fancy words don't provide the kind of clarity that we need. "Quagmire" may sound sophisticated and realpolitik; many journalists and pundits seem to think so. But that doesn't really get to the essence of the war.

It's not a quagmire.

It's wrong.
To call it "wrong" does not come close to capturing the enormity of the immorality involved. Our actions are monstrous. We have unquestionably committed a war crime (indeed, an endless series of war crimes), and a crime against humanity.

Given these facts, there are only two further key points to be kept in mind, both of which I have discussed at length. First, there is no "good" solution to the situation we have created in Iraq. That was obvious several years ago; indeed, it was clear to anyone with an appreciation of history, culture and politics before we entered Iraq. Second, there is only one legitimate course of action for the United States: Get Out Now. The conclusion of that essay contains some suggestions as to how we can make what amends are possible, although such amends will not and should not bring forgiveness for what we have done.

None of these principles is altered in the slightest degree, even though the scope of our monstrousness now appears to be beyond comprehension:
A team of American and Iraqi epidemiologists estimates that 655,000 more people have died in Iraq since coalition forces arrived in March 2003 than would have died if the invasion had not occurred.

The estimate, produced by interviewing residents during a random sampling of households throughout the country, is far higher than ones produced by other groups, including Iraq's government.

It is more than 20 times the estimate of 30,000 civilian deaths that President Bush gave in a speech in December. It is more than 10 times the estimate of roughly 50,000 civilian deaths made by the British-based Iraq Body Count research group.

The surveyors said they found a steady increase in mortality since the invasion, with a steeper rise in the last year that appears to reflect a worsening of violence as reported by the U.S. military, the news media and civilian groups. In the year ending in June, the team calculated Iraq's mortality rate to be roughly four times what it was the year before the war.

Of the total 655,000 estimated "excess deaths," 601,000 resulted from violence and the rest from disease and other causes, according to the study. This is about 500 unexpected violent deaths per day throughout the country.

The survey was done by Iraqi physicians and overseen by epidemiologists at Johns Hopkins University's Bloomberg School of Public Health. The findings are being published online today by the British medical journal the Lancet.


While acknowledging that the estimate is large, the researchers believe it is sound for numerous reasons. The recent survey got the same estimate for immediate post-invasion deaths as the early survey, which gives the researchers confidence in the methods. The great majority of deaths were also substantiated by death certificates.

"We're very confident with the results," said Gilbert Burnham, a Johns Hopkins physician and epidemiologist.


Ronald Waldman, an epidemiologist at Columbia University who worked at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for many years, called the survey method "tried and true," and added that "this is the best estimate of mortality we have."
Even among intelligent commentators, we can see the tactics of emotional distancing from these unspeakable horrors already taking hold. There is talk of statistical methods and accuracy (all of which are entirely uncontroversial and reliable on the major points in a manner beyond serious question). As just one example, Kevin Drum calls these results "remarkable," and he concludes his post by saying:
Still, the most likely figure is the one the Johns Hopkins team reported, and if it's accurate it means that coalition troops are killing nearly 5,000 Iraqis per month. That's truly an astonishing number.
No, it's not "astonishing." It's sickening. It's nauseating.

It is monstrous, and it is criminal.

Remember the five-year-old Iraqi girl. Make her real to yourself. That is the crime. As terrifying and horrifying as it is, the rest is multiplication.

In the manner of religious zealots, and with rare exceptions like Hornberger and Solomon, our politicians and commentators still seek for redemption, for an end that will make these brutal murders, if not "justified," at least "acceptable." Thus, even an unusually perceptive writer, one who sees the futility of our occupation of Iraq and who opposes an attack on Iran, can write the following, as Matthew Yglesias did at the end of August:
If we were looking at a situation where maybe the decision to launch the war didn't look like such a hot idea, and maybe the reconstruction had proven much more difficult than we'd hoped, and maybe the slog so far had been long and hard and looked to continue to be long and hard for a while, I still could easily see myself convinced that the best thing to do was stay firm and continue with the policy.
"I still could easily see myself convinced..."

I don't know what to say any longer when I come across statements of this kind. In other words: there still might be a result that could make the slaughter of hundreds of thousands "worth it." In the end, it does not matter that we attacked a country that had not attacked us, and that did not threaten us. Our criminal acts have no ultimate significance. If the end is a "success" -- in our terms, even though those terms have nothing whatsoever to do with the hundreds of thousands of innocent Iraqis we have murdered -- then all those deaths need not concern us further.

For most people, the five-year-old Iraqi girl has no reality. Nor do her parents, or the other members of her family, or all the countless other Iraqis whose lives have been devastated and altered forever by what we have done.

Even now, we continue to talk about all this as if it concerns only us, and as if only our intentions and our goals matter.

There is only one remotely honorable course of action for us: Get Out Now. Make all those amends that are possible. But, and I say this with aching pain for what this country has become, forget about forgiveness.

We gave up that possibility a long, long time ago.