With our thoughts turning to memorials what with the one-year anniversay of the terrorist attack tomorrow, my thoughts have been turning to the act of demonizingand beatifying. When someone does something spectacular, either good or bad, we as a group tend to de-humanize them. Hitler, Stalin, Hussein, bin Laden have all been demonized. They have been stripped of any possibilities of good qualities, of a normal life, of any real human characteristics. The unkown soldier, the firefighters, Joe DiMaggio, JFK, any saint – these people have been made into great heroes, where no ill can be spoke of them. They’ve lost all semblance of humanity too, but on the other end of the scale.
Why is this I wonder? I think for the most part, it is an act of self-preservaton. If Hitler were human, it would be possible for any one of us to do what he did. If the dead firefighters were human, we would be forced to recognize our own inability to sacrifice ourselves like that (and I’m sure most of us would not sacrifice ourselves like that).
I’ve not spent much time learning about bin Laden – the history is far too contemporary to be able to even begin to trust any literature – especially western literature, but I have read biographies on various other ‘evil men’. Why? Because the hows and whys of an ordinary person becoming something so much more (or less), is fascinating. What led an average, frustrated artist & army veteran to create such splendor (infrastructurally & aesthetically) and commit such atrocities (as I side note, I often think that the same ideology that lead to the artistic vision of Nazi Germany led to the political vision, and in that order rather than the other way around)? There is an upcoming film about this subject that is currently under siege from the Jewish Defense League that explores the ‘human’ side of Hitler. It sounds fascinating to me.
Does it not seem that to demonize or beatify someone is to take the easy way out? I would think that the JDL would like this film. To learn the human elements that made up Hitler provides insights into what might create such a man again, giving the world advance knowledge on how to stop it before it starts. Also, a demon is otherworldly, inhuman – in a very Dostoevskian sense, less evil, as it is born to evil, whereas a man who pushes his own boundaries as to what horrible things he can accomplish does this, with (theoretically, at least) the same moral standards and codes as the rest of us have, willfully trangressing the norm to attempt something, is absolutely evil.
Returning to contemporary events, I sometime wonder about bin Laden’s ‘evil’: the targets chosen for attack last september seem to me to be valid military targets – the financial center, a military headquarters, and assuming that the third plane was heading to the white house, the home of the leader of the enemy. Yes, thousands of innocent civilians died. But if he sees his act as an act of war, then they are acceptable casualties, much like the deaths of civilians who work in an airplan factory might be. I would imagine that similar structures were bombed by the US in the Gulf War. What makes these attacks seems like acts of terror were both the weapons used (civilian airplanes) and that it was ostensibly unprovoked. While the scale is much larger, I see a fundamental difference between these attacks and a suicide bomber blowing his/herself up in the middle of a nightclub, or a market. The latter attack serves no military purpose beyond instilling fear, indeed, an attack of terror. The former, were these two traditional nations at war, would be horrible, terrible attacks – but acceptable under the circumstances. Examine post-WWII photos of London & Berlin to see what sorts of buildings were bombed then. I think what makes the attack of last September an attack of terror is that it became an isolated event. Had those attacks been followed up by further attacks on other targets, I would have felt that yes, this was a war. As it stands I don’t (and I certainly don’t believe that the US somehow managed to thwart further attacks). Perhaps the US military response did prevent further attacks, perhaps not. I doubt we’ll ever know.
Re-reading this, I suspect I could be read as being callow, uncaring towards those who died last year. In one sense, this is true: I didn’t know any of them, I don’t feel any emotional attachment to the World Trade Centre and it happened in a foreign country. In one sense, my reaction to it should match the average American’s response to genocide in Rwanda. Sadness, but the thought passes quickly. There is nothing special about America that make the deaths of Americans any more meaningful than the deaths of Rwandans, Somalians or Afghanis. However, these thoughts do not pass quickly for me. Any act of violence horrifies me. I felt sorrow for those who lost loved ones, much as I do when reading about any other act of mass violence that takes place. The attack of last September forced a stronger reaction purely because of media saturation. Show similar images from anywhere in the world and I will respond similarly. However, America (as a political and emotional entity) lost my sympathy in how it has responded to the attack. While I deplore it, I can understand a military response, although an eye for an eye and the whole world goes blind, etc. That a non-military response was never even considered angered me, and the subsequent and continual fear- and war-mongering of the current administration, as well as their willingness to abuse the state of affairs to their own ends just saddens, depresses, scares me.