February 26, 2012

The United States of Gary

When I was 11 or 12, I was stopped by one of the neighborhood kids as I walked home one day. Gary was in my grade; even at that age, I knew he was remarkably stupid. He was also much stronger than I was. Gary was very athletic; I was not. He had a sizable group of friends; I did not. I was overweight, and I knew -- everyone knew -- that I was "different" from most other kids in at least several ways. Gary and I had never had much to do with each other; that day, for some reason, he decided that he had some business to conduct with me.

"Where have you been?," he asked, in a manner suggesting I'd answer if I knew what was good for me. I told him I'd been at my piano lesson. He looked at me with a puzzled expression and thought about it for a moment or two. "I don't want you going to piano lessons any more." Gary said it as a simple declaration of fact: this is what he wanted, and it would happen. I looked puzzled in my turn; I wondered what on earth he meant. Gary noted my expression, and he took a step closer to me, his face tightening with distaste and disapproval. "You aren't going to any more piano lessons. If I catch you going to one, I'm going to beat the crap out of you."

I looked down at the ground without speaking. I couldn't make sense of what he was saying. I understood the words, but why did this have anything at all to do with him? Why did he even care? After a few moments passed and I still hadn't said anything in response, Gary said: "Do you understand what I'm telling you?" He was leaning into me by this time, and his threatening manner convinced me that the first beating would take place then and there if I didn't answer. "Yes," I said. "I understand." "Good," he replied. "No more piano lessons." And he turned back toward his house, dismissing me.

I didn't mention the incident to anyone. There was no one I could talk to about it, or about anything else that concerned or worried me. My parents treated me as an invisible child; if I wished to continue living in their house, my primary task was to never call attention to myself in any manner at all. I was absolutely never to have problems that required my parents' involvement. But I loved my piano lessons. I wasn't about to give them up, but I also knew that, if he chose, Gary could definitely beat the crap out of me. So I devised a few different routes to my piano teacher's house, routes where I thought it very unlikely that Gary's path and mine would cross.

I avoided my old route to piano lessons for several weeks, and I never met Gary. Then I grew annoyed, even angry, but my anger was primarily directed at myself and at the fact that I'd made even that much of a concession. I also concluded that Gary didn't actually care a great deal whether I went to my piano lessons. I saw him at school and in other places; he never mentioned it again. Without yet understanding the psychology involved, I sensed that Gary had delivered the threat simply because it pleased him in some manner to bully me that day. Then he forgot about it. He probably went on to bully other kids about other things. But he seemed to be done with me. So I went back to my old route, and I never met Gary on my weekly trips.

I have no idea what became of Gary. Sometimes I wonder if he joined the police, or the military. Bullies are frequently drawn to such professions, where they are provided official approval for their preferred behavior, where they are encouraged and invited to be bullies almost whenever they wish and whenever there is the slightest pretense of "justification."

Occasionally, I think of the United States government as Gary. They're both remarkably stupid, and they both derive enormous pleasure from telling others what they may and may not do. And they both deliver threats of destruction to be incurred by their victims if the victims dare to disobey them. To make the comparison more accurate, I imagine Gary holding a machine gun which he points at me. By his side is a large pile containing many more guns, together with a huge number of knives and other weapons. I also have to imagine that Gary has already murdered 10 or 15 neighborhood kids (or more), and no one has done anything to stop him. Gary murders whomever he wants, whenever he chooses. It's just the way things are in our town. Nobody questions it; it sometimes seems that no one even notices.

Here is a story from two weeks ago:
NATO-led forces in Afghanistan said on Monday they had mistakenly killed a group of children in an air strike that has enraged the government, and said their deaths may have been linked to an anti-insurgent operation in the area.

The air strike took place last Wednesday near the village of Giawa, in eastern Kapisa province, and followed similar bombings that have stoked tension between the government and NATO over a civilian death toll that has risen annually for five years.

The children were killed as NATO aircraft and ground forces attacked insurgents on open ground in the Najrab district of Kapisa, said Brigadier General Carsten Jacobson, a spokesman for NATO’s 130,000-strong International Security Assistance Force (ISAF).

“At this point in our assessment we can neither confirm nor deny, with reasonable assurance, a direct link to the engagement. Nonetheless, any death of innocents not associated with armed conflict is a tragedy,” Brig. Gen. Jacobson told reporters.

Afghan government officials showed gruesome photographs of eight dead boys, and said seven of them had been aged between six and 14, while one had been around 18 years old. They were bombed twice while herding sheep in heavy snow and lighting a fire to keep warm, they said.

“Where were the rights for these children who have been violated? Did they have rights or not? Did they have rights to live as part of the world community?” said Mohammad Tahir Safi, a member of parliament sent by President Hamid Karzai to investigate the air strike.
This is only one of recent similar stories. These are the stories we know about. How many more stories like this are there, and that we will never know about? The necessary logic of the situation tells us there must be many such additional stories.

Last week, the New York Times published this story, written by Alissa J. Rubin. Remember that name. The story focuses on "protesters angry over the burning of Korans at the largest American base in Afghanistan this week." Almost at the end of the story -- how many readers follow the story almost to the end? -- we read:
Protesters in Kabul interviewed on the road and in front of Parliament said that this was not the first time that Americans had violated Afghan cultural and religious traditions and that an apology was not enough.

“This is not just about dishonoring the Koran, it is about disrespecting our dead and killing our children,” said Maruf Hotak, 60, a man who joined the crowd on the outskirts of Kabul, referring to an episode in Helmand Province when American Marines urinated on the dead bodies of men they described as insurgents and to a recent erroneous airstrike on civilians in Kapisa Province that killed eight young Afghans.

“They always admit their mistakes,” he said. “They burn our Koran and then they apologize. You can’t just disrespect our holy book and kill our innocent children and make a small apology."
Hotak pays NATO and the U.S. a compliment they have done nothing to deserve: "They always admit their mistakes." No, they most assuredly do not. But even if they did, Hotak's point stands. Murder is absolute and final. Apologies about murder are entirely without meaning. They may be of occasional interest in a work of fiction contemplating the delicate shades of conscience and spiritual regeneration. In the world of facts, and when the critical fact is the systematic commission of murder on a vast scale, apologies -- and most particularly "small" apologies -- are another wound. It is an especially awful and cruel wound, given that the murderer has no intention of stopping his murders.

The NYT story from four days ago excerpted immediately above -- the story by Alissa J. Rubin -- identifies the ongoing murders as a key factor in explaining the protests and riots in Afghanistan. Today, a mere four days later, in a story written by Graham Bowley and the same Alissa J. Rubin, we read:
Rioting continued across the country on Sunday as anger over the burning of Korans by the American military continued unabated, putting the relationship between Afghanistan and the United States on shaky new ground.
If we follow the story to the end -- yes, we read the entire story this time, too -- we see this theme reinforced and repeated:
About 4,000 protesters massed in the city on the sixth day of protests around Afghanistan since first reports of the Koran burning at another NATO base appeared last week.
The Koran burnings and the subsequent unrest is complicating relations between the United States and the Afghan government at a time of critical negotiations...
Gone are references to the murders of eight Afghan boys, or to American Marines pissing on dead bodies. All "the subsequent unrest" is the result of "the Koran burnings."

This recasting of events is, of course, fully embraced by U.S. officials, as the latest NYT story indicates, again near the end of the article:
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on Sunday expressed regret for the incident involving the Korans but said it should not derail the American military and diplomatic effort in Afghanistan.

“We are condemning it in the strongest possible terms,” she said in Rabat, Morocco, “but we also believe that the violence must stop, and the hard work of trying to build a more peaceful, prosperous and secure Afghanistan must continue.”
Clinton is not referring to "the violence" perpetrated by the U.S. and NATO. Loathsome person that she is, she refers to the violence of the "unrest" of the Afghan people -- "unrest," we are now implicitly (and often explicitly) told is entirely the result of the "primitive" beliefs of an "uncivilized" people.

Aside from the consequential fact that this rewriting of events that occurred within the last week is entirely false, this is a remarkably idiotic criticism for Americans to make. If we wish to speak of the "primitive" beliefs of an "uncivilized" people, let's instead talk about Americans' pathologically neurotic attachment to a piece of cloth. It appears that most Americans need to be reminded that it was not until 1989 -- 1989, you remarkably stupid people -- that the Supreme Court ruled that flag desecration is a constitutionally protected form of free speech. Moreover, the Supreme Court decision was five to four, not precisely an overwhelming majority opinion. In his dissent, Stevens wrote:
The ideas of liberty and equality have been an irresistible force in motivating leaders like Patrick Henry, Susan B. Anthony, and Abraham Lincoln, schoolteachers like Nathan Hale and Booker T. Washington, the Philippine Scouts who fought at Bataan, and the soldiers who scaled the bluff at Omaha Beach. If those ideas are worth fighting for - and our history demonstrates that they are - it cannot be true that the flag that uniquely symbolizes their power is not itself worthy of protection from unnecessary desecration.
Now that, baby, is primitive.

And a lot of Americans -- and a lot of legislators -- still hold these "primitive" beliefs with enormous enthusiasm. In protest against the Supreme Court decision in 1989, Congress almost immediately passed the Flag Protection Act. The Supreme Court stuck it down. The swollen ranks of "barbarian" Americans were still not done:
Congress has made seven attempts to overrule the U.S. Supreme Court by passing a constitutional amendment making an exception to the First Amendment in order to allow the government to ban flag desecration.
Thus, the United States of Gary: remarkably stupid, vicious, cruel, and murderous without end.

Here's a suggestion. If you wish to show your solidarity with the "primitive" and "uncivilized" people of Afghanistan -- and of Iraq, Yemen, Somalia, of Iran possibly in the near future, and many other countries around the world -- if you want to demonstrate that you choose to side with all those who protest the United States' unceasing drive to American global hegemony, get an American flag.

Set it on fire.

Never let it be said that we advocate irresponsible action. We would never want the fire to spread. So put it out.

Piss on the burning flag.

Everybody happy now?