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Sunil Sharan

Sunil Sharan

Posted: June 14, 2010 01:49 AM

The West's Victim Complex

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A wave of righteous indignation sweeps the West with every alleged act of terror, while quotidian civilian casualties in Iraq or Afghanistan are treated as a humdrum affair, barely meriting mention. In the wake of Faisal Shahzad's arrest, Pakistan's image as a breeding ground for terrorism is taking hold in the Occident. Without condoning his purported actions, this essay asserts that to defuse the current conflict, the West needs to first get over its victim complex.

The present-day discord is quite often painted in simplistic terms. Ranged on one side are the good guys, the cops chasing the evil robbers, who are running afoul of every established norm of etiquette and decency and therefore must be brought to heel. Were those pointing fingers at others to look at their own selves in the mirror, they would discover multiple digits pointing back at them.

But either they disdain self-scrutiny or perhaps the mirror itself is muddied, not so much by dirt but by the fog of superiority that clouds many Western minds. Bill Maher has said that Americans consider their lives superior to those of others and that the only time people dying overseas catches their attention is when American lives too are lost.

In light especially of the outpouring of American support for earthquake-ravaged Haiti, mistake not his hyperbole for gospel truth. But his argument does ring true in the case of the nearly decade-long military campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq. Western casualties, albeit only at a trickle now of one or two every other day, continue to generate a venting of grief in their television and print media. Any deaths on the other side, every day in the tens or maybe even hundreds, go unremarked upon if of combatants and unlamented if civilian. And, ever so often, unarmed civilians end up becoming masqueraded as fighters to make the killings more palatable.

Westerners have developed an acute consciousness of their own pain but their senses have become dulled to the suffering of those they take on. Centuries of world domination have inculcated in them a feeling of solipsism, that my hurt matters while yours does not. The ideal of freedom, its protection at home as well as its evangelization overseas, is repeatedly invoked to justify military interventionism, almost as if without a world vigilante constantly fanning the flames of liberty, asphyxiation would strangulate the planet's supposedly oppressed. But consider the poignant remark of a U.S. soldier serving in Iraq: "We were sent to liberate Iraq. Instead we sure have liberated the hell out of the Iraqis."

By some accounts, over a million lives have been lost in Iraq and Afghanistan. Other sources place this figure considerably lower. Massaging it has become a hobby of sorts. It is after all just a number. Did not Benjamin Disraeli, the nineteenth century British prime minister, say that there are three kinds of lies: lies, damn lies, and statistics?

Post 9/11, the Pentagon is reported to have devised kill ratios of 1:100 and more, in other words for every American life lost at least a hundred of the enemy must perish. Only then would the other side learn a lesson it would never forget. Over 6,000 Western soldiers have been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, a figure quite in line with the intended accounting. It begs question though whether the lesson itself has been conveyed adequately.

Occidentals also frequently portray the ongoing clash as one between the West and Islam, almost never as between Christianity and Islam. An air of moral superciliousness is affected, as if one religion is above violence while the other is synonymous with it. Religious passages are cherry-picked, often by those with little understanding of the whole scripture, to lend weight to this argument, while remaining oblivious of similar language outlined in one's own holy texts.

The Bible counsels turning the other cheek but Western leaders who profess to follow it have little compunction in striking if they believe their interests to be at risk. And, just before launching "just wars," some seek divine blessing. They never tire of reiterating that the West is not at war with Islam, and never will be, for which they are acclaimed as peacemakers even as they keep escalating the conflict.

An invasion such as that of Iraq, of which the publicly-declared rationale has been proven to be flawed, and the outcome of which has gone awry, is brushed off with a casual shrug of the shoulders, or at most with, "Ooops, sorry, we made a mistake in the cause of liberty." Imagine if another country had behaved likewise. The U.S. would have been the first one hollering to bring its leadership to justice.

But protagonists of the Iraq war and the long but fruitless hunt for a relatively small number of jihadis in Afghanistan are frequently hailed as defenders of freedom. They are happily engaged in writing tomes on their exploits and earning millions of dollars on the lecture circuit. Although Kofi Annan, the United Nations secretary general at the time of the Iraqi invasion termed it as illegal because it contravened the U.N.'s charter, no international institution has had the guts to even broach investigating the actions of its perpetrators. In the twenty first century, might is still right.

Who then will history deem the bigger terrorist? Those who indulge in attacking planes and buildings or those who lay entire countries to waste, employing the most terrifying weaponry--cluster bombs, Predator drones, Cruise missiles. It is an axiom of human nature that hate begets hate, and so is the case with love. No further point can be served in figuring out who started the current mess or which civilization's values are loftier. For that is an endless debate. It is time to stop reveling in outraged innocence. It is time to quit imposing belief systems on others. It is time to live and let live.