The pathology behind the Tucson shooting this past weekend with its six deaths and severe wounding of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords is deeply rooted in contemporary American society. The obvious signs -- the rifle scopes on Sarah Palin's "Target America" campaign or the rhetoric of violence perpetrated for the most part by members of the right win -- are manifestations of a culture that is not only desensitized to violence, but worships it. The knee-jerk adulation showered upon the Palins and Becks of our political flea circus, however, reflects a broader growing inurement to the violence of state-sponsored torture and the underlying hopelessness bred by an endless state of war.
Beneath that resigned acceptance is a deep unease that Americans are articulating in myriad ways, from the earnest beseeching of progressives still trying to figure out if we've been betrayed to the inchoate wounded bellows of the Tea Party. Such crises are supposed to drive us inward to question the basic assumptions that define our reality. And by "supposed to" I mean just that, whether one calls it a matter of survival or some social evolutionary safety mechanism. If a society does not respond to a crisis by engaging in reflective reconsideration of its policies, and institutions and the rationales that support them, then it cannot solve the crisis or respond to it effectively because it will always rely on the same tools ineffective against the crisis in the first place. And that's without considering the role those core ideas and structures had in causing the crisis.
But we live in a distracted society, distracted with celebrity, hate, food and diets, glib assurances, and, of course, with war, and we don't want to feel even the temporary self-revulsion or discomfort that often results from honest self-reflection. Our invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq not only seem endless, some politicians actually promote the idea of endless war. It is mind-boggling that any rational, feeling creature can look at what we are doing there and think, "Yes, this is what the United States should be spending its resources on, this is exactly the project that we should sacrifice the lives of thousands of husbands and wives, mothers and sons, brothers and daughters. Yes, that makes perfect sense!" The words of our pundits and politicians, the generals and the war-flacks of congress and cabinet, are thin and worthless when laid against the realities of war. There has been no compelling rhetoric for these wars because there is no content, no purpose or meaning or integrity that can give the words any value. Our government, with weapons paid for by our taxes (and thus our labor), has concluded that unleashing missiles and high-powered bullets and projectiles upon cities and remote settlements (weapons that purportedly have a sixth sense capable of distinguishing "militants" from civilians), accomplishes some purpose that furthers our "security". Actually, come to think of it, since when has the term "militant" become a by-word for someone it's okay to kill?
Anyone who thinks we can achieve security by bombing the crap out of Afghanistan and Iraq is profoundly misreading the human condition. We cannot solve our own problems by constantly blaming other people. Especially when we decide to go out and kill the people we blame. The continuous use of increasingly exotic, destructive weapons against ill-defined "enemies" is a morally weak and corrupt course of action that will lead not only to economic bankruptcy but to the corrosion of our own social bonds.
We also need to face up to the fact that the world's paymasters really don't give a damn about us so let's stop parroting their opinions and accepting their versions of the truth. (You too, Tea Partiers, spouting an ideology conceived, fabricated, and delivered by the very power-brokers responsible for your rage). When the evening news shows our fighter jets raining lightning flashes of death and terror upon the cities below, it blows my mind that we can watch that and think, "Yes, that is the best solution to our conflicts that we can come up with. There's simply no better way. And really, it's okay because I'm sitting here watching on my 46 inch screen and my leaders assure me that all that killing will make me feel even safer!"
The self-proclaimed realists talk of "hard choices" and "seeing this thing through," although they are often hard-pressed to define just what the "thing" is. The tough guy wing of the "realists" dismiss calls for peace as the weak-kneed, lily-livered 60s holdover mindset that cannot recognize the existence of evil in the world. No matter how violent and corrupt our own policies in their conception and implementation, the tough guys can always reference the devil du jour as justfying our own excesses. Then there are the wheedlers. "We know it was a mistake to go in. But we can't extricate now. We'll leave things so much worse. They might have to work things out for themselves." The benevolent white man's burden. They manage to make "extrication" sound like a secret sexual position available only to the double-jointed in every limb.
Many Americans accept by now that we're in Iraq and Afghanistan because George W. Bush was a sub-lingual tool manipulated by his handlers to channel the basest elements of human nature: fear, paranoia, resentment, and revenge, all the while aping an exaggerated self-parodying machismo. Now we have Obama. Maybe unlike Bush and company he does want to achieve peace Maybe "they" won't let him. Maybe he just doesn't have the courage or gift of leadership to get us out. Hell, he can't even close Guantanamo. Obama's course is to make it look as though we're leaving: to impose troop reductions while privatizing the war, establishing permanent bases, and somehow never really pulling the plug. That manipulation of appearance is something he seems to be good at.
We ought finally to admit that there's no such thing as a war on terror, which is pretty much the same as "a war on fear" or "a war on those things in my closet at night." We feel the terror. If we feel the terror, then the terror is ours, within us. Therefore, we can't thrash around trying to tear terror from the fabric of the world because we're really just tearing at ourselves. And if you doubt that, consider the many costs of a war whose reasons for fighting are shrouded in the fog of lies and the words of slippery men.
Yet we cannot deny that there are people out who would love to blow us away. Some live in other countries, some in the United States. They are criminals, whether they claim political objectives or not. Some are undoubtedly deranged. To deal with such people, one employs solid investigative police work; effective, procedurally rigorous intelligence gathering and analysis; diplomacy aimed at mutually beneficial results rather than a poorly defined "edge" over one's fellow-protagonists; focused and disinterested application of technology; and enlightened public discourse among the citizenry in a variety of public forums. The war on terror's basic calculations convict it of insanity: 250,000 bullets to kill one "insurgent"; one million dollars to support each soldier engaged in Asia; more than 6,000 American soldiers officially killed in Iraq and Afghanistan; a million Iraqis and Afghanis killed and millions more displaced; thousands of coalition troops dead; countless people on all sides maimed, wounded, traumatized, and suicided. Just to alleviate our terror.
It's time to take stock. Looking inward does not mean disdaining action. If anything, the more we externalize violence, the more savage the murders on the evening news, the more we proclaim the cold rational logic of our own wars, the less we actually seem capable of taking firm, clear, effective action to address the real challenges we face. Effective action can only come from reflective action and the willingness to confront the worst in ourselves. It is time for someone -- anyone or everyone -- to change the tenor of our national discourse. Perhaps an honest appraisal of the true nature of the wars we wage - the most severe and burdensome action that a state can embark upon -- is a good place, the only humane place, to begin.