Yesterday’s Irish Times editorial refers to the ‘barbarous’ execution of journalist Steven Sotloff and the ‘calculated brutality’ of his death at the hands of Isis, calling it ‘almost medieval’. It might be worth thinking about how something can be at once ‘almost medieval’ and ‘in public on social media’, as if satellite and fibre optic technology and smartphones were part of everyday life in the Middle Ages.
It sure is convenient to cast the designated enemy as emanating from a different time, like some kind of Ozymandias. Doing so casts oneself –and usually, by association, the US military- on the side of progress and modernity, as part of the forces of enlightenment amassed to drive back the barbarian hordes. I suppose it would have been too much to hope that the disaster unleashed by the US and its allies in Iraq and Afghanistan would have put paid to such imperialist binaries.
It ought to be needless to say that the journalist’s death is an appalling act, and that beheading is a deliberately gruesome spectacle. There is a need to say, however, that descriptions such as ‘barbaric’, ‘barbarous’, ‘the kind of thing that has no place in a civilised society’, and so on, form part of the work of Empire.
They, you see, are not like us, and that is why the bombing must happen.
(Older readers may recall the media frenzy accompanying the early days of the Iraq war of 2003, where the object of initial bombing was reported to be ‘decapitation’ of the Iraqi regime, i.e. to kill its leadership. Decapitation with a sword is barbaric; decapitation with high altitude bombing is, well, civilised.)
It turns out that this ‘we’, faced with the implacable threat from barbarians, expands to include ‘moderate’ states such as Saudi Arabia, a US ally that conducts regular beheadings, and whose royal family, as As’ad AbuKhalil notes, differs from ISIS in terms of foreign policy, but not in terms of ideology.
It also includes Israel, ever willing to characterise its murder of Palestinian children as part of the heroic work of being a bridgehead for Western Civilisation. Within a short space of time, a coalition of the willing –to use a phrase from a previous imperial catastrophe- takes shape in the public mind to include you, me, the Irish Times and the Irish Independent, RTÉ, CNN, the queen of England, David Cameron, Barack Obama, Angela Merkel, the Fortune 500, as well as all bona fide left-wingers everywhere. Anyone else has either joined the ranks of the barbarians, in spirit if not in body, or they have gone irretrievably soft in the head and need tough-minded realists to tell them what’s what. Which side are you on?
A couple of days before the F-16s shown in the video above flew over Croke Park I was in the Mediterranean sea, maybe a hundred yards or so from the shore, when three warplanes flew in to land at a nearby military airport. I’m no expert on aircraft and have no idea which country they belonged to, though others on the beach seemed confident that they were American planes.
They flew in along the coastline, in full view of those on the beach. Then they turned to land in behind the beach, flying over holiday homes and apartment blocks. The noise was overwhelming. It was as though every atom of land and sea, including, of course, the thousands of half-naked bodies along the shore, were getting hemmed into order by the sound of the jets.
People froze what they were doing and turned their gaze to the sky, called to attention. Some parents rushed to cover their children’s ears. The planes had what I imagine were large fuel tanks attached to them, but one could just as easily have imagined them to be bombs, and I imagine many people did.
It was a terrifying moment. I looked on at people rooted to the spot at the sight of these monsters overhead. There was a glaring contrast between the fragile bodies dotting the shore, and the brutal indifference to human life radiated by the planes with their ostentatious capacity to incinerate flesh and reduce towns and cities to rubble. It put me in mind of Hollywood fantasy movies, where the whole population gets threatened by the awesome power of alien invaders, or Nazgûl and the like. And then people set aside their hitherto intractable differences to combat the common enemy. But what rarely comes into view in these movies is the way the images of the marauding wraiths are the shadow cast by the imperial war machine in real life. What are warplanes, indeed, if not one of the highest forms of calculated brutality?
When you’re confronted with something like this, it gives you a tiny hint of the awfulness of the sound terrorism, in the form of continuous sonic booms- inflicted continuously on the people of Gaza. To say nothing of actual aerial bombardment, and the death and destruction that inflicts.
You can only wonder how corrupted an ordinary person’s ethical imagination has to be in order to perceive such instruments of terror, in everyday detachment, as on their side, and that they, along with those who command them, are operating on their behalf.