.journal 2002.02.09

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This is not war

Now listening to: Final Fantasy VII Original Soundtrack (available at GameMusic.com)
Now reading: Sylvia Plath, The Collected Poems
Now playing: Final Fantasy X (Playstation 2)

Too many changes rocked my life last year, and even today I still feel that I’m trying to recover from them all. While some changes were of my own design, namely my decision to return to college, a lot of stuff happened that was beyond my control, such as the fire at the house and my best friends needing to take time away from me to deal with personal problems.

Then there was 2001.09.11.

I can still remember my sister turning to CNN that morning after my mother called her, watching a structure ablaze and not really knowing what was going on. Heather was in such shock that she didn’t bother explaining what I was seeing, and it wasn’t until the chyrons rotated again that I knew just what had happened. One plane into the World Trade Centre would have been one thing, but two … oh no. Just before I left for campus, news of the Pentagon crash had gotten out, and as I was listening to National Public Radio on the way over there was news of a car bomb in DC that later turned out to be untrue.

I already wrote about most of the factual stuff in my journal earlier. I guess recently I’ve been remembering my emotional state at the time, how I felt about things. I shouldn’t have to explain the sadness I felt, because I’m sure everyone reading this felt the same way. There was something else I was feeling, though, and that was confusion; confusion over what to do. For all of my adult life have been a pacifist, and I wanted to think that pacifism could find its way here. But in the wake of such an enormous tragedy, such a blatant act of aggression against innocent civilians, how could I support pacifism, I asked myself. Weren’t there just some things that were so heinous, so atrocious, that pacifism would need to be shelved?

Then I thought about the death penalty. My feelings about the death penalty varied greatly even up to a couple of years ago. I certainly didn’t want the death penalty used in most of the cases where it was being applied in the United States, but I still had this vague idea that there were simply some people for whom there could be no other solution than to execute them. If you asked me what the circumstances were, I’d blurt out some number or maybe say execution for someone who’d already been imprisoned for murder, was released (or escaped) and committed murder again.

The more I thought about that, though, the more I realized that just wouldn’t work. Let’s say that we set the benchmark for the death penalty at a minimum of twenty murders, just to pick a number out of thin air. So what do you say to the families of a murderer who has been convicted of nineteen murders? “Well gee, if he’d just killed one more person we could have executed him, but we’re just going to have to give him life in prison. Sorry.” That’s the problem with picking an arbitrary number, and it is a danger that happens at every number – even one.

I don’t believe in the death penalty at all now. Practically, the death penalty is not shown to be an effective deterrent, and when a wrongly accused person is put to death (and don’t kid yourself, it happens) you can’t exactly undo the sentence once it is applied. Morally, I don’t believe it is our providence to make the decision to terminate another person’s life against his or her will. My stance against the death penalty is absolute, and don’t try to argue the “what if someone murdered your mother” rhetorical with me because I’ve done it before and it doesn’t faze me.

That being said, I realize my stance on the death penalty is in the minority here in the United States, and I don’t care. What the majority cares for is one thing when it comes to political matters, but the death penalty is not a political matter, it is an ethical matter. When it comes to matters of ethics, majority rule often conflicts what is right, and we should do what is right, not what the majority wants. Furthermore, it should be the role of our leaders, whether political, religious, cultural or otherwise, to espouse what is right.

To bring this back to the discussion of 09.11, realizing my thought process on the death penalty helped me to realize that when it came to the response of what to do about the attacks of 09.11, I had to support pacifism. I don’t care if it puts me in an even greater minority than those who oppose the death penalty, it is still the right thing to do, both morally and practically. I firmly believe that the current course of action the United States is engaged in is only intended to foster public sentiment, and that it does nothing to cure the root cause that allowed people like Osama bin Laden to gain power and perform the acts that they do.

Firstly, though, let me turn back to the moral issue. I’ve spoken on this before, but I believe public support for the death penalty in the United States is as high as it is because people really don’t stop to think about what it is they are supporting. Like all cultures based on Judeo-Christian doctrine, the United States believed in “an eye for an eye” more than it believed in “thou shalt not kill” in its infancy, and that attitude has pervaded to today. The death penalty seems to be a permanent part of our judicial system, something that seems as much a part of our collective culture as baseball and conspicuous consumption. We grow up hearing about executions in the news, we’re told by our parental figures that people are executed because they did very, very bad things, and before long these synapses can be hard-wired into people’s brains.

There is also the element of retribution to be considered. As much as people like to think their notions of fair action and reaction are based on justice, in truth most people’s decisions in these matters are governed by justice’s dark side, vengeance. When something bad happens to a person, he or she most likely thinks of things in terms of retribution, or “getting back” at whoever or whatever caused things to be so bad. This is what the whole “if someone killed your mother” argument gets at, because it plays towards notions of retribution. You hurt me, so I hurt you back. However, if someone causes hurt it is not always just to hurt that person back. It may feel good, but morally it is not necessarily correct.

Something needs to be said about mob mentality in this as well. People desire acceptance, and so often people will simply go with the majority view on a topic, especially when the topic can be difficult to figure out for one’s self. Especially for the death penalty, I think once you removed mob mentality from the picture, support would drop tremendously. Mobs tend to collect and promote the worst interests of people, and when looking at the death penalty, and especially the events of 09.11, the only word that adequately describes the mentality at play is “bloodlust.”

That’s what bothers me the most about seeing all this public support for the United States’ current course of action, this mass desire for blood, for killing. For the past decade the United States had been free from international conflict, and conflict is unfortunately something that’s very easy. A cursory glance of the various forms of entertainment available today shows how we compensated for this with game shows on television, action movies, battle-based video games and the like. In an effort to make up for the lack of a “Red Menace”, we manufactured us versus them battles we could become involved in on a visceral level.

When 09.11 happened, all of a sudden the conflict was real, and people latched on to the whole “us vs. them” concept. We are the Free World, and We are in the right (because of course We could only ever be right), so therefore They must be wrong. We must fight Them, and We must eradicate Them, because otherwise They will only hurt us even more. These notions all play to the basest of human instincts, and in everything from political speeches to popular culture to the marketplace, we are all being played, whether we are aware of it or not.

Nothing is more disturbing to me than the element of trendiness this whole thing has taken on. A lot of the displays of patriotism I see are genuine, and I respect those, even if I think the feelings behind them are misguided. Let’s face facts, though: a lot of people bought American flags for exactly the same reason they bought Britney Spears albums, Old Navy sweatshirts and sport utility vehicles: because everyone else was. There is nothing good about that; that goes beyond mob mentality into sheep mentality, simply trying to be part of the herd, a conscious decision to eschew rational thought and just try to fit in. I have no respect for that.

Surely the lack of a conflict for such a long time began to give Americans an inferiority complex, exacerbated by The Greatest Generation, Pearl Harbour and their ilk. Now all of a sudden we had Our Battle, we had the event that defined us as a generation, and by gum, we were going to prove ourselves to be as noble and praiseworthy as our forefathers. So not only did the war make us cool, it made us important as well. All of a sudden Dubya and Rudy Giuliani were being elevated to the likes of FDR and Churchill, and don’t think they didn’t notice.

That’s jumping the gun a bit, though; let’s turn to the practical side of the issue for a bit. I tend to be a very practical person, much more so than I’d like to be given my artistic desires and all. I wouldn’t believe the things I do about the events of 09.11 and their aftermath if I didn’t believe there were practical underpinnings to my lines of thought, and hadn’t thought them through a great deal. Thankfully I had a chance to really examine the practical side of things recently, when it came time to write my final paper for the Women’s Studies course I took last semester. I applied a model designed by feminist Charlotte Bunch to determine what caused the events of 09.11 and where to go from there, and along the way I thoroughly researched every aspect of the whole situation. My research only led me to comprehend the forces at work here even more, and toughened by resolve on this issue.

The most important thing to understand about what led up to 09.11 is that the anti-American sentiment played upon by Osama bin Laden is endemic in the Middle East. The reason for this is quite simple: the United States pours more money into Israel than it does any other country, eight billion dollars for the last fiscal year alone, or nearly $120 per family of four in the United States. (This does not take other sources of government revenue into consideration so the figure does not represent taxpayer cost, but it is still a relevant tidbit.) In addition, unlike aid to other countries which is dispensed on a monthly basis, Israel gets all its money in a lump sum from the United States at the start of a year, allowing them to invest the money and earn massive interest on it. Much of this money is earmarked for military spending, although the United States doesn’t care too much if non-military monies are invested for military purposes. By comparison, other Middle Eastern states get pretty much zilch from the United States. Obviously something like this is going to foster feelings that the United States doesn’t care for the Arab populations of the Middle East.

So why does the United States have these policies? It could be argued that the policy is a remnant of the Cold War days, when Israel was the “democracy in a sea of monarchies” and valuable territory as the United States and Soviet Union played their game of Risk. Why, then, would the policies continue to today? Sadly, United States support of Israel is too politically expedient for most politicians to question. The Jewish-American vote represents a significant swing constituency in several key states, whereas the Arab-American vote is only considered to be significant in Michigan. Endorsing cuts in United States funding to Israel would alienate Jewish-American voters at best, and be perceived as a clear sign of anti-Semitism at worst. It is no wonder, then, that Israel continues to enjoy such lavish funding from the United States.

Perhaps this would be easier to comprehend if Israel were a well-behaved state, but the truth is far from that. I’m not going to argue about whether or not Yasser Arafat has truly given up his terrorist past because the present evidence is unclear. It can’t be questioned, though, that in their zeal to strike back at Palestinian terrorists, Israel has killed scores of innocent Palestinian civilians, something that American politicians and citizens have more often than not turned a blind eye to. And whose monies paid for the guns that were used to kill those innocents?

Attempts on the part of the United States to try to forge a peace in the Middle East have been spotty at best through the years; Bill Clinton probably did as good a job as any president since Israel’s founding, but on the whole even his efforts were markedly lacklustre. When Dubya took office last year, his government’s policy was characterized as “wait and see”, although waiting and seeing did not include reducing the flow of money from the United States to Israel. It’s hardly like any other Middle Eastern country has the infrastructure that Israel does; Israel is more than capable of producing all the weapons it needs, but still the United States subsidizes Israel’s military to a grave extent. So as Dubya and his bretheren “waited and saw,” more Palestinians were being killed and more Middle Eastern countries were falling into economic disrepair and outright poverty. The reasons for anti-American sentiment in the Middle East should be crystal clear by now.

That being said, I think Osama bin Laden and others of his kind in the Middle East are more than aware of the political realities in the United States. They just play on the sentiments of people in that region to further their own personal desires, and there is nothing worthwhile about that. The problem comes in the fact that no other attempts to correct the disparity in United States funding have been successful, and so a lot of people there are going to think that the only way they can get out of poverty is to take up arms against their American oppressors. Their violence cannot be justified, but at the same time the fact that their cause is represented by such reprehensible figures as Osama bin Laden does not invalidate their core beliefs that the United States is propping up an already viable Israeli state at the expense of more needy Arab countries.

With that in mind, though, I think we as Americans have been played these past several months by our government; they are playing on popular sentiment to advance their own causes, and make themselves out to be our great saviours. I’m not exempting any political party from this, because everyone’s been kissing up to Dubya on this, but Dubya’s the big figurehead and he and Giuliani have been the ones who have gained the most clout and respect from this. Don’t think Dubya didn’t learn any lessons from his father’s trip in the Oval Office.

The worst part of all this is that Dubya’s manipulations are so transparent; he calls everything a “war” to futher us vs. them mentality and to play on people’s basest instincts, but when it comes time to house detained soldiers all of a sudden we can’t call them “prisoners of war” because then that would mean giving them Geneva Convention rights. Of course, we can’t do that because that would mean treating them with some degree of basic respect, and we can’t allow these killers, these madmens, these agents of The Great Satan to have any kind of dignity. This goes back to what I said about vengeance; we want to make those bastards suffer for what they did to us as a country.

You’ll also notice that Dubya is quick to point out how this so-called War on Terror is never going to end. Of course it’ll never end, because then there’ll always be an enemy to play the American people against, there’ll always be reason to pump massive amounts of government spending into the heavily Republican military-industrial complex, and there’ll always be a need to keep the people who “helped” us through the initial attack in power to help guide us to a better future. Anyone who read 1984 should know just what his means for our future. 09.11 may have been the best thing that Dubya could ever have wished for, because with careful spin to an easily manipulated American people, he may keep Republicans in power in Washington for perpetuity.

While all this goes on, though, Israel gets richer and richer while Arab countries get poorer and poorer. What good is eliminating Osama bin Laden and the Taliban going to do? In the short term, it sure makes us Americans feel a lot better, doesn’t it? The villain has been vanquished, the hero takes the heroine in his arms and plants a big kiss on her lips, the music swells to a torrid crescendo, the end. But it’s not the end. Killing off the current crop of “terrorists” is only going to result in more rising to take their place, as America shows more and more that it really doesn’t care about the poverty in Arab states, it just cares about its own selfish interests.

Making American policy in regards to the Middle East more equitable for all countries won’t entirely stop everyone in the Middle East from resorting to violent means to achieve their ends. But it would do a great deal to curb the anti-American sentiment that’s already there, and take away a lot of popular support in those regions for such actions. To achieve this, though, American people would need to be better educated on the realities of American foriegn policy, the unconscious tie between support of Israel and support of Jewish people would have to be broken, and people of courage would have to rise up to bring this enlightenment to fruition.

Will this ever happen? Doubtfully. It’s much too easier for us to simply go with the status quo, to not question the policies our government officials devise and implement, to accept what is told of us and to get on with more immediate concerns, like getting tickets to the next Britney Spears concert, or taking out a new line of credit to fund the gas bills our sport utility vehicles are piling up. And why would Dubya want to do something that could jeopardize his ongoing deification by the American people? Because it’s the right thing to do? If Dubya did what was right, he wouldn’t be the one handling this situation in the first place. (Although I concede Gore would likely have done little different.)

I’ve got all other kinds of things I could mention here, like how ongoing globalization means that the new government of Afghanistan will soon become yet another slave to the industrialized nations of the world, or how Dubya has bullied other countries into following our desires for no good reason. But I already wrote one whole paper on this issue, and I didn’t want to write another one. All I know is that things keep getting worse, not better, and I needed to vent about them. I assure you, the paper I turned in to my Women’s Studies professor was a lot better organized and made a lot more sense than this. This wasn’t a formal research piece, though, this was just me blabbing. I needed to do it.

So I’m a stubborn pacifist in a sea of blood-thirsty people. I try to comfort myself by saying that a lot of the war-mongerers out there don’t know any better, but then I have to deal with these people on the television shows I watch, the roads I drive and the school I attend. And in the meantime I have to deal with trying to get good grades in school, with trying to make enough money to cover my selfish entertainment demands, with trying to widen my support net of friends. In the end, I may be just as confused as I was on 09.11.

Everyone take care and be well. I’ll see you all again soon.

— Sean

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