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How the Brutalized Become Brutal

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Posted on Aug 24, 2014

By Chris Hedges

  A Palestinian youth wears a bandoleer of cartridge casings left by the Israeli army next to his destroyed home in Beit Hanoun, Gaza Strip, earlier this month.  AP/Hatem Moussa

The horrific pictures of the beheading of American reporter James Foley, the images of executions of alleged collaborators in Gaza and the bullet-ridden bodies left behind in Iraq by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant are the end of a story, not the beginning. They are the result of years, at times decades, of the random violence, brutal repression and collective humiliation the United States has inflicted on others.

Our terror is delivered to the wretched of the earth with industrial weapons. It is, to us, invisible. We do not stand over the decapitated and eviscerated bodies left behind on city and village streets by our missiles, drones and fighter jets. We do not listen to the wails and shrieks of parents embracing the shattered bodies of their children. We do not see the survivors of air attacks bury their mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters. We are not conscious of the long night of collective humiliation, repression and powerlessness that characterizes existence in Israel’s occupied territories, Iraq and Afghanistan. We do not see the boiling anger that war and injustice turn into a caldron of hate over time. We are not aware of the very natural lust for revenge against those who carry out or symbolize this oppression. We see only the final pyrotechnics of terror, the shocking moment when the rage erupts into an inchoate fury and the murder of innocents. And, willfully ignorant, we do not understand our own complicity. We self-righteously condemn the killers as subhuman savages who deserve more of the violence that created them. This is a recipe for endless terror.

Chaim Engel, who took part in the uprising at the Nazis’ Sobibor death camp in Poland, described what happened when he obtained a knife and confronted a German in an office. The act he carried out was no less brutal than the beheading of Foley or the executions in Gaza. Isolated from the reality he and the other inmates endured at the camp, his act was savage. Set against the backdrop of the extermination camp it was understandable.

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“It’s not a decision,” Engel said. “You just react, instinctively you react to that, and I figured, ‘Let us to do, and go and do it.’ And I went. I went with the man in the office, and we killed this German. With every jab, I said, ‘That is for my father, for my mother, for all these people, all the Jews you killed.’ ”

Any good cop, like any good reporter, knows that every criminal has a story. No one, except for perhaps a few psychopaths, wakes up wanting to cut off another person’s head. Murder and other violent crimes almost always grow out of years of abuse of some kind suffered by the perpetrator. Even the most “civilized” among us are not immune to dehumanization. 

The enemies on the modern battlefield seem elusive because death is usually delivered by industrial weapons such as aerial drones or fighter jets that are impersonal, or by insurgent forces that leave behind roadside bombs or booby traps or carry out hit-and-run ambushes. This elusiveness is the curse of modern warfare. The inability of Sunni fighters in Iraq to strike back at jets and drones has resulted in their striking a captured journalist and Shiite and Kurdish civilians.

U.S. soldiers and Marines in the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, and Israeli soldiers in assaults on Gaza, have been among those who committed senseless acts of murder. They routinely have gunned down unarmed civilians to revenge killings of members of their units. This is a reaction I saw in several wars. It is not rational. Those murdered were not responsible, even indirectly, for the deaths of their killers’ comrades, just as Foley and the Shiites and Kurds executed in Iraq were not responsible for the deaths of Sunni militants hit by the U.S. Air Force.

J. Glenn Gray, who fought in World War II, wrote about the peculiar nature of vengeance in “The Warriors: Reflections on Men in Battle”:

When the soldier has lost a comrade to this enemy or possibly had his family destroyed by them through bombings or through political atrocities, so frequently the case in World War II, his anger and resentment deepen into hatred. Then the war for him takes on the character of a vendetta. Until he has himself destroyed as many of the enemy as possible, his lust for vengeance can hardly be appeased. I have known soldiers who were avid to exterminate every last one of the enemy, so fierce was their hatred. Such soldiers took great delight in hearing or reading of mass destruction through bombings. Anyone who has known or been a soldier of this kind is aware of how hatred penetrates every fiber of his being. His reason for living is to seek revenge; not an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, but a tenfold retaliation.

Those killed are not, to the killers, human beings but representations of what they fear and hate. The veneer of the victim’s humanity, they believe, is only a mask for an evil force. The drive for vengeance, for “tenfold retaliation,” among those who are deformed by violence cannot be satiated without rivers of blood—even innocent blood. And Americans do as much of this type of revenge killing as those we fight. Our instruments of war allow us to kill from a distance. We therefore often lack any real consciousness of killing. But this does not make us any less depraved.


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