A Contest of Madness


Appalling! Barbaric! Crimes against humanity!

These are just some of the terms that we use to describe the sick bloodletting committed by the terrorist group, ISIS.
And, really, there can be no argument. The actions of ISIS in the Middle East is nothing short of sickening.  As a small, formerly obscure group, its strategy is simple and macabre. ISIS makes a spectacle of capturing and slaughtering the innocent and posting these grotesque acts of barbarism in the public domain. They are taunting the rest of the world–demonstrating their resolve, dedication and defiance in the face of awesome power. That they disregard the consensus of the civilized world by publicizing their atrocities, these crimes are recognized as being especially heinous. For ISIS the spectacle of violence is a strategy for advertising their peculiar brand of dogma. Violence, in this case does not serve the needs of self defense and the protection of sovereignty. It is nothing more than the stirring of fear in one’s enemies and false strength in an otherwise weak following. They exploit the powerless victims living in the throes of civil instability. As such, their actions should be reviled and condemned by all civilized man for as long as histories are kept. ISIS is an abomination to its falsely professed faith and an affront to all.

Yet this condemnation should not be mistaken for the official, if unexpressed, position of the United States. Rather, the sick strategy of ISIS can be analyze as a challenge to the state held monopoly on the use of violence, specifically, of the largest panderer of systematic state violence in the world, the United States. After all, when it comes to the unquestioned, state-sanctioned violence, ISIS is nothing more than a little league. True, ISIS makes a spectacle of their violence, whereas the United States dramatizes its own violence through Defense Department support for Hollywood blockbusters. The US even outdoes ISIS in pure production value. However, the United States keeps the gruesome consequences of its violence concealed from its own citizens for fear of alienating us. ISIS, on the other hand, uses violence to attract the already alienated.

Here, the differences stop. We must recognize that, except for scale, US state terror is very much in the same domain as that perpetuated by ISIS. Anyone who has ever picked up the body parts after a US or NATO bombing mission knows that this is true. It’s understandable that we might want to make a distinction between the violence that is committed in our name as Americans and that committed by non-state actors referred to as terrorists. Yes, beheading somebody on video is especially psychopathic, but blowing up a teenage boy with a missile is no less psychotic, be it on video or not. The terror inflicted on others is much the same. If a beheading or execution is considered terrorism, then the instantaneous dismemberment of dozens of people, collateral damage, must be so categorized.  This is what cluster bombs, Hell Fire Missiles, or any of a number of WMD in the US arsenal do.

Surely, one might say, since our cause is just, then our violence must be justified. After all, the United States goes to war to help people, but ISIS is only butchering people for their own power. However, if we apply the same standards by which we condemn ISIS, then we must admit that the United States falls short in the justifiable use of violence. If self defense, and the protection of sovereignty, are legitimate justifications for state violence, then US foreign policy must be condemned.  If the projection of violence for the sake of expanding power and striking fear into our enemies is villainy, then it must be that the US qualifies as a villain. Our violent adventures in Afghanistan and Iraq are proof.

After the United States was attacked on 9/11 all of us active in the peace movement knew that someone had to be bombed. Even many of my students understood that we would be going to war. Osama bin Laden was the most obvious suspect in the September 11th attacks. The Bush Administration contacted the Taliban government in Afghanistan demanding that the Saudi terrorist be turned over to the United States immediately. The Taliban was never formally recognized by the United States government, but was involved in ongoing negotiations over recognition, a natural gas pipeline as well as the status of Osama bin Laden. After 9/11, however, the Taliban made a crucial mistake. Rather than immediately comply with US demands, they tried to continue negotiations.

The Taliban insisted that the United States show evidence of bin Laden’s guilt before they turned him over. For the Taliban this was a diplomatic opportunity. For the United States, this was an opportunity to demonstrate its power in the face of the greatest challenge to that power in history. According to Foreign Policy Journal“Former CIA station chief Milt Bearden told the Post, “We never heard what they [the Taliban] were trying to say…. We had no common language. Ours was, ‘Give up bin Laden.’ They were saying, ‘Do something to help us give him up.’” Bearden added, “I have no doubts they wanted to get rid of him. He was a pain in the neck,” but this “never clicked” with U.S. officials.”” The Bush Administration would do nothing to help Afghanistan give bin Laden up, to allow it to save face in the Muslim world. In the face of American obstinacy, the Taliban came back to the table, as is common in negotiations.

This was clearly not the most efficient way to get bin Laden
This was clearly not the most efficient way to get bin Laden

The Taliban offered to encourage bin Laden to leave voluntarily, which was, of course, a ridiculous suggestion, but one that indicates that protecting the terrorist was not their highest priority. They simply wanted something in return. As one Taliban ambassador stated, ”We do not want to compound the problems of the people, the country or the region,…We and our people and all the Afghan people need food, need aid, need shelter, not war.” Food, aid and shelter could have been a reasonable exchange for bin Laden. After all, the resulting war expenditures alone, not including the expenses of caring for the injured, came to around $700 billion. Do you think for a minute that the Taliban would have gladly exchanged bin Laden for $1 billion in aid? It would have been a bargain had the US given Afghanistan $100 billion.  It is understood that when the US tells a lesser power to jump, it jumps as directed. The United States does not negotiate with the powerless.

Instead, the United States commenced to bombing and occupying Afghanistan, because its hegemony would not be challenged even a little bit. The Taliban did not immediately comply, it must therefore be destroyed. Over 20,000 Afghan civilians were killed to demonstrate that the United States was not to be trifled with.  What’s more, the United States did not get bin Laden. President Bush ultimately admitted that he was “…truly not that concerned about him.” American options were clear. Negotiate, spend a few bucks, and get bin Laden, or bomb an already destroyed country as an example to the rest of the world. Afghanistan was no threat to the United States. None of the 9/11 terrorists were Afghan. But the nation had to be destroyed because it didn’t immediately comply with US hegemonic demands.

Is that not terrorism?

Is that not far more destructive and violent than anything ISIS has come up with?

Now the litany of lies and distortions leading up to the Iraq War are well documented and are unnecessary to rehash here. Unlike the myth of Afghanistan being the “right war,” the US invasion of Iraq is universally recognized as a crime against humanity by all but the most ardent apologists of American Exceptionalism. Even before the senseless Iraq War, the United States pursued a ruthless policy of crushing sanctions and virtually endless low-level aerial bombings on Iraq that caused “close to 1 million deaths up to 1998 with mass starvations [sic] and disease.” At least a quarter, or as many as half, of the victims were children. When asked about the grisly, inhuman toll inflicted on a nation with which we were no longer at war, Secretary of State Madeline Albright confidently stated, “This is a very hard choice, but we think the price is worth it.”

Saddam Hussein was the United States' buddy, even when he was committing war crimes.
Saddam Hussein was the United States’ buddy, even when he was committing war crimes.

The unjust Iraq War itself is confirmed to have murdered over 130,000 Iraqi civilians. This was a nation that had nothing to do with 9/11. It did not have weapons of mass destruction. It was no threat to the United States. It’s also important to understand that all of the victims of US aggression in Iraq were the previous victims of a dictator whom the United States supported and armed when it was expedient for us to do so. For a big picture understanding, Juan Cole succinctly summarized the impact of US terrorism in Iraq, “…the US polished off about a million Iraqis from 1991 through 2011, large numbers of them children. The Iraqi population in that period was roughly 25 million, so the US killed or created the conditions for the killing of 4% of the Iraqi population.”

Is there anything that ISIS is even remotely capable of that can come anywhere near that level of violence?

Of course not.

So it is, at best, disingenuous of the United States, either its government or the population that blindly and passively accepts its nation’s atrocities, to feign horror over the acts of this second rate terrorist group in the Middle East. It’s clear that Americans have no problem and no moral reservations over even the most extreme bloodletting. Hell, we make fawning, worshipful movies about our most effective killers.

The real ire caused by ISIS and other such groups that we label “terrorist” is that they challenge the American monopoly of extreme violence. The United States rains terror on whomever it wants and the so called “advanced” nations concede to its legitimacy to do just that. Once upon a time American Terrorism was conducted under the auspices of bringing democracy and Christianity to the poor unfortunately souls not so blessed. We didn’t have to ask them if they wanted these gifts, or if they wanted them under our supervision. Later, the United States pretended to be protecting others from communism. Clearly, we had to destroy the peasant villages of Vietnam in order to save them.

Today, American policy and our presumed legitimacy to perpetuate violence carries with it an inherent and macabre irony. We call it a war against terror. This war on terrorism condones the US war of terrorism. This, despite the clear history that people subjected to terror are more inclined to turn to terrorism themselves.

There’s a certain sense to this nihilistic policy. In a nation in which immense profits can be made from terrorism/war, a war on terror is self perpetuating. We create our own enemies and thus we reinforce the dire need to continue our own terrorism campaign and to spend countless billions doing so.

And the perpetual contest of madness continues.

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