THE BLOG

Their Barbarism and Ours

02/15/2015 08:21 pm ET | Updated Apr 17, 2015

It will come as no surprise to you that we're top-notch when it comes to denouncing barbarism -- as long as it's theirs. So the responses here to the horrific burning to death of a Jordanian pilot by the Islamic State -- the definition of an act of barbarism -- were suitably indignant and horrified. Unfortunately, when it comes to our own barbarism, we turn out to be a tad weaker, whether you're talking about torture, horrific abuses, the killing of prisoners and of innocents, or the deaths of children by drone ("collateral damage") across the Greater Middle East.

So I have to admit with some embarrassment that, when I heard of the fate of that Jordanian pilot, my mind ran first to Medieval Europe, to the burning of Joan of Arc, as our president's thoughts evidently ran to barbaric acts involved in the Crusades. He made mention of this at a recent National Prayer Breakfast, for which he was savaged by his critics. As Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal put it, "We will be happy to keep an eye out for runaway Christians, but it would be nice if he would face the reality of the situation today. The Medieval Christian threat is under control, Mr. President. Please deal with the radical Islamic threat today."

Let's admit that Jindal has a point about such ancient history. When it comes to a commitment to death-by-fire, the Islamic State is hardly alone and you don't have to reach back to medieval Europe for examples. After all, we live in the country that, in World War II, developed and first used napalm, an incendiary whose special "anti-personnel" advantage is that it sticks to human skin while burning. But that, too, is ancient history. (So Korea, so Vietnam!) In Iraq, the U.S. military used far more powerful bombs that were meant to burn up enemy troops en masse, not to speak of the incendiary capabilities of white phosphorus shells sent into urban areas where civilians were still living. In Pakistan and Yemen, we might well be discussing the inflammatory properties of the aptly named Hellfire missile that the CIA's drones often use in their assassination campaigns.

Nor historically is there any need to reach back to Medieval Europe when it comes to the celebratory burning to death of prisoners. Such events -- sometimes at fairgrounds, often made into postcards (the videos of their day) to spread the news ("This is the barbeque we had last night. My picture is to the left with a cross over it. Your son, Joe"), and with onlookers gathering bits of ash and bone to keep as souvenirs -- are an integral part of far more recent American history. From the nineteenth century well into the twentieth, black Americans were regularly publicly burned to death in this fashion. Not that I can claim this came instantly to my mind either, but it did to Bill Moyers's -- in the middle of the night after the Jordanian news arrived -- and he wrote an eloquent piece about one such case in Texas in 1916.

It's important to remember that if there is a world of Middle Eastern barbarism, there is an American one, too, which, as we know from recent events, has by no means ended, even if trial and death by fire is no longer part of it in this country. Today, in "Once White in America," novelist and memoirist Jane Lazarre offers an intimate, lyrical, post-Ferguson look at what it's meant to her to raise her two black sons in the afterlife of such a world.