Sunday, July 13, 2008

Empire of sadism

Stories like this are news because they supposedly represent an aberration from the norm in which good-hearted British soldiers extend the best care to the natives. But look at what happened:

The victim ... says he was rounded up with a friend while trying to steal milk cartons from a food distribution centre. He was whipped, beaten and forced to strip naked.

"They made us sit on each other's laps," he said. "They were enjoying humiliating and abusing us, I wished I was dead at this moment. Then they made me sit with Tariq... where I was forced to put Tariq's penis in my mouth. The other two were made to do the same."

The opportunity for sexual sadism in this case was supplied by the ordinary run of martial law that has been imposed on Iraq. Had it been left at a whipping and beating for the crime of stealing milk, it may not have ever been reported. This sort of daily, often quite arbitrary, violence by forces who accept the minimum possible responsibility for their behaviour is just so much background noise to the war against barbarism/extremism/terrorism/savagery/etc. It just blends into the screams from the torture chambers and the crunch of metal against bone as troops shoot up cars at checkpoints or lob missiles into houses. The fact that this is perfectly ordinary behaviour by imperialist troops, under whatever authority and of whatever nationality, is always missed. Whether in Kosovo, Somalia or Haiti, whether the military mission is conducted under the NATO brand or the UN brand, there always emerges some sickening stories of systematic physical and sexual abuse of the supposed recipients of humanitarian largesse. This is not mentioned, I suspect, because most journalists wouldn't notice the connection. And though I could not help but think of a colonial officer whipping 'coolies' for similarly petty offenses (or none at all), that comparison depends on a limited background knowledge of the British empire which is generally absent in our culture. To the extent that empire did become a fashionable topic in television programmes and books in recent years, it was almost invariably to celebrate its achievements and obscure its crimes. Recent BBC series have sometimes discussed British atrocities only to cast them in light of a 'clash of civilizations' in which the anti-colonial forces were always even more savage.

Which prompts another point. Those who rightly point out the utter weirdness, the sheer lunacy, of some of the products of the industry devoted to attacking Islam, ought by now to have got the message. There can be no let up in production, no matter how absurd it is. To render these crimes tolerable requires a culture in which Amis could write and publish The Second Plane without producing an avalanche of laughter and derision. It requires a culture acclimatised to absurdity, and of constant genuflection to chimerical 'Western values', defined in opposition to putative Islamic/Islamist/Islamofascist/Islamototalitarian/etc. As an instance of the latter, take Hitchens' crude sophistry during his recent torture spiel:

The team who agreed to give me a hard time in the woods of North Carolina belong to a highly honorable group. This group regards itself as out on the front line in defense of a society that is too spoiled and too ungrateful to appreciate those solid, underpaid volunteers who guard us while we sleep. These heroes stay on the ramparts at all hours and in all weather, and if they make a mistake they may be arraigned in order to scratch some domestic political itch. Faced with appalling enemies who make horror videos of torture and beheadings, they feel that they are the ones who confront denunciation in our press, and possible prosecution. As they have just tried to demonstrate to me, a man who has been waterboarded may well emerge from the experience a bit shaky, but he is in a mood to surrender the relevant information and is unmarked and undamaged and indeed ready for another bout in quite a short time. When contrasted to actual torture, waterboarding is more like foreplay. No thumbscrew, no pincers, no electrodes, no rack. Can one say this of those who have been captured by the tormentors and murderers of (say) Daniel Pearl? On this analysis, any call to indict the United States for torture is therefore a lame and diseased attempt to arrive at a moral equivalence between those who defend civilization and those who exploit its freedoms to hollow it out, and ultimately to bring it down. I myself do not trust anybody who does not clearly understand this viewpoint.

This isn't an argument for torture (at least inasmuch as it isn't an argument), but it is an apologia. It says there is something understandable and perhaps forgiveable about subjecting a terrified prisoner to slow drowning. It says that there is something identifiable as a 'civilization' at stake (the American empire); that these men whom Hitchens so admires are the bearers of the 'values' of that civilization (what Thomas Jefferson said); that the people they put through this procedure behave in much worse ways and that anyway they bear opposing 'values' or perhaps none at all (in the fashion of Kaplan's 'new barbarism' thesis); and that to accuse the US (the Bush administration, the state and the military apparatus) of torture is to posit a 'moral equivalence' (cf Jeanne Kirkpatrick) that only the lame and the diseased (lame liberals, diseased intellectuals) would venture. All this on the basis of eleven seconds of a carefully planned and, er, watered down performance. For this impressionistic layering of pseudo-axioms to work, the barbarity of the other chaps has to have been asserted frequently and forcefully enough as to provide an automatic context. Intellectual coherence is a subordinate concern for the muses of empire; as with advertising, the efficacy of the impressions themselves is key. It is not an accident, as people used to say, that the pattern of these arguments closely follows the pattern of advertising, that mass industry devoted to mass ignorance and irrationalism, whose credo is that Toxic Sludge is Good For You.

If you take all the polemical output devoted to running down Muslims, portraying them as uniquely weird and in need of torture and extermination ("there is no talking to some people"), and reduce it to its Thirty-Nine Articles, you might well end up with a series of advertising slogans. "Waterboarding is Good Gor You!" "Mass Murder Keeps America Safe!" "We Must Not Be Afraid to Assert the Superiority of Western Values!" And so on.