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Responsibility and Retribution

Two editorials I published late last year, “They the People” and “Details and Devils,” were the subject of some degree of reasoned criticism, principally because of the broad brush with which I painted the culpability of the American people in the events of the past six years. In “They the People,” I warned that an electorate that twice voted in large numbers for George W. Bush is not to be trusted, despite having this past November brought to congressional majority the Democrats. In “Details and Devils,” I laid the blame for the debacle that has become the Iraqi War at the feet of all Americans, not just those who supported the President and his policy makers in the ill-fated adventure. The intemperance of that over-arching representation should be rectified; it is I, not some faceless “they,” who is responsible: to the extent that I find myself preferring to bemoan what has become of “my” country and its foreign policy, I own the consequences of that wretched mess.

The ceaseless chain of lies, miscalcalculations, and stunningly consistent ineptitude is, of course, the work of the Bush Administration, acting through its people and the federal instrumentalities they control; but while I am here, while I choose to remain a citizen, I do so only as the weak yet loyal opposition, “loyal” because I cower at the prospect of what would happen to me were I to display a degree of disloyalty that would trigger punitive measures by federal law enforcement agencies that have let it be known to the world and to the citizenry of this country of a brutality the government is now willing to carry out. I am honestly amazed by how easy it was to subjugate this country, and I am in no small measure appalled by how easy it has been to drive me to circumscribe any expression of my revulsion at what my leadership has been doing.

I can take only short comfort in telling myself that this awful time will surely pass and the rule of law will again prevail, but such self-forgiving platitudes offer the comfort of a lie: I know nothing of the kind about the eventual prevalence of the “rule of law,” for I know that the rule of law never prevailed fully before the Bush Administration; and far worse, I know very well that an extremist Right-wing Supreme Court will, for a generation to come, be contorting the rules animating federal law to the advantage of the strong, to the benefit of the powerful, and to the end of crushing what little had been gained over the past half-century as far as civil rights are concerned. I also know that virtually no candidate for President in 2008 is going to stray far from the emergent unitary executive doctrine because no Congress can convene anymore with the spine to derail the authority consolidating in the Executive Branch. I also know that databases never die, and the masses of information being collected, sorted, analyzed, and used by both the government and private organizations are not going to be deleted on some happy January morning in 2009.

As a free society, we have been permanently damaged. I cannot change what has already happened, and I cannot find a voice loud enough, convincing enough, or forceful enough to turn the tide of a future history already written.

It is certainly the case that many people, perhaps a majority in both 2000 and 2004, did not vote for Mr. Bush. Moreover, to hold all Americans accountable (myself included) for what has become a 21st Century horror story in Iraq is to trivialize, if not utterly dismiss, the condemnation that has persisted for so long from so many voices on the Left. I would defeat my essential purpose as a political analyst were I simply to cut down or otherwise demean the enormous, earnest, and well-considered political and social warriors who have fought so hard and sacrificed so much, despite how futile such efforts have been and will, I would argue, continue to be. I have no taste for the thuggish ways of Right-wing commentators who defend their indefensible declarations by merely shouting down those who take exception to their thinking. It serves no good purpose for me to deliberately inflame intellectual passions only to wreck them in the course of strengthening my own. That does not mean, however, that I shall not on occasion press my thesis, if for no other reason than to see how well it endures strongly adverse contention.

Comments posted on the article “Details and Devils” in the cross-post at Big Brass Blog included one that expressed the heart of the criticism of the thesis I have set forth about the individuating character of collective responsibility. In edited form, below is that comment:

I refuse to shoulder one iota of blame for the… bloody tragedy in Iraq. I cried out against it from the getgo, I shouted out against the installment of these amoral fuckwits who created it. It’s THEY who are to take the responsibility. And their extremities must be held to the fire.

Including Tony Blair, whose own country had experience in the sands of the Middle East about 100 years ago, which he… bloody well knew about. 

It’s absolutely astounding that anyone can say, oh, it’s time for the Iraqis to “get behind the wheel.” Good fucking grief. Cheney and his puppet Bush broke the vehicle. Would that there were some way to make them do lifetime community service in Iraq, or until they are dead.

To the end of pressing my case, I herewith reprint in edited and substantially expanded form my response, knowing full well as I do that this is by no means a refutation of the criticism of my thesis, but rather only an expansion—albeit perhaps inflammatory—of what I wrote originally. To that modest end, then, it stands for the time being as the last I shall write on the matter.

Those words speak to the essential, long-term problem we face. I rest in self-assurance that retribution against us will come. That is the way of history, and the United States will not escape punishment from those who have suffered under the rule of Empire. It matters not one bit whether we decide to leave and forgive ourselves, to grant our individual consciences clemency for a world wounded deeply by our misguided sense of just revenge.

Perversely, this is the rightful way of the rule of law. What the individual thinks of his personal responsibility is irrelevant. Acts adjudicated under law are measured by the facts of the case at trial, and punishment for the guilty is without mercy for some circumstance that makes an otherwise heinous crime something else. This is so even for those—perhaps especially for those—who think, feel, or know to the bottom of their soul that they are blameless.

The bitterness of Middle Easterners will not be shed only upon those who stood fast with George W. Bush. In the eyes of the victimized who turn to retributive violence, those citizens who opposed him from the very beginning will stand every bit as blameworthy as those who held fast to him and his policies until the very last day of his Presidency. That’s how it will work. That’s how the ancient rite of vengeance comes to expression. To paraphrase a young rabbi from several millennia past, the rain will fall equally upon the righteous and the unrighteous.

The United States, its people, its assets, and its interests will be punished. To put it in the bluntest terms possible, we are very likely to get hammered. Whether or not you, I, our friends, our families, our political allies, or those we care about “deserve” it has no bearing. That new crop of “terrorists” of the future we are now cultivating from Baghdad to Jakarta, from Punjab to the Caucasus—those who will exact their brand of justice at the behest of their psychotic religious leaders—they will not take the time to distinguish between Americans who condemned Bush and those who did not.

Payback will be indiscriminate. My repeated, documented, unwavering condemnation of Bush and the neo-cons will not save me from the wrath of those who have been wronged. I could wear a sign with bright red lettering on it that read: “I DID NOT SUPPORT BUSH. I AM NOT RESPONSIBLE FOR 650,000 DEAD IRAQIS!” and it would make not a bit of difference to a terrorist suicide bomber who was bent on killing Americans because his family was wiped out in a botched raid some company of Marines did in his neighborhood.

It’s not going to matter to him or her.

Look with appropriate horror upon the picture at left. The little girl clutching the blanket and shrieking is a Palestinian child whose family had just been butchered by artillery rounds while picnicing on a beach. The Israeli Defense Forces cynically sneered that the massacre was by Palestinians shooting at IDF gunboats that were attacking a legitimate target.

Whatever. That little girl could very well one day—one day very soon—be a suicide bomber who will walk into a lovely, modern, Western-style shopping mall in Tel Aviv and blow herself and a bunch of Israelis to Kingdom Come. Who here believes she will ask those who condemn the IDF killing machine to please leave before she sends herself and her victims to Hell?

Of course she won’t ask. Her victims’ politics will not matter and that’s because her politics did not matter when her mom, dad, and siblings were sent to the fiery slaughterhouse. The Israelis, both those who support the ungodly acts of their government and those who absolutely do not, pay the price together.

So, too, will we. We will pay because we’re Americans, and America was the nation that did the unspeakable damage in Iraq. We are Americans, so we will, in our individual lives, run the risk of our share of collective punishment. Take a good, hard look at the little girl at right: she’s an Iraqi wounded profoundly in an American military attack. So help me God, if that were my child, I would spend the rest of my days hunting down any member of the tribe that did what was done to her and her siblings.

But I am a member of the tribe that will be hunted. Collectively, we have no exit that does not involve a lot of our own blood, both now and for generations to come. If we continue this brutal, violent, unproductive monstrosity that is the American-Iraqi War—and despite the lies of cowardly Democrats to the contrary, we probably will, at least for quite a while longer—we will merely postpone, but only to some extent, our own days and generations of reckoning with the aftermath. When we leave, we shall in the event have let slip, and ever so quietly at first, the dogs of retributive war upon us for what we have done.

Guilty or not; supporter or opponent of the neo-cons; morally blind, flag-waving pseudo-patriot or hardened, America-hating Leftist; contemplative conservative or moderate liberal, we shall all stand before the bar of the rough justice of the ages that transcends our modern, delicate sensibilities.

The American victims of terrorist attacks have found that out as they have individually paid the ultimate price: while they bore no individual responsibility for the awful history of Western actions in the Middle East, yet there they were, paying dearly and in finality because that’s how the cruelty of street justice would have it. The Hegelian theoretical chalkboard scrawl about historical inevitability is a real pain in the backside when it jumps off the philosophy department seminar table and into fire and shrapnel at the corner of Fifth and Main.

We Americans are all about “taking responsibility,” and our very own justice system is brutally efficient at playing fancy games with legal logic to wreck the lives of people who are nothing more than victims of the circumstances of their lots in life. Imagining that this is somehow an aberration of “who we really are as a people” is nothing more than an excuse for avoiding some really, really awful truths about us: we aren’t God’s chosen, we aren’t “fundamentally good people,” we aren’t better than what we look like in this moment.

And to that same point, whether we like it or not, we really are—all of us—the ones there in Baghdad, the ones in al-Anbar province, the ones in Fallujah, the ones all over Iraq who started this mayhem down the path it is now taking into Hell. I can scream bloody murder at the outrage of it all, but that’s not going to bring back the dead, not one of them, not a single one of my fellow soldier-citizens, not a single little Iraqi girl or boy; and unless I’m willing to repudiate my nation, surrender my citizenship, perhaps even go so far as to take real and deliberate action against the Republicans and their spineless Democratic enablers, I am every bit as guilty as those who will want to hurt me think I am.

How do I know that? That’s easy: I am in the line of future fire, just like every other American.

Will I let them hurt me? No, of course not. I will do whatever I must to survive; and most decidedly, I will not shy from declaring that I am a citizen of the United States of America, however much I might be hated from now on in the rest of the world for making that claim without reservation. My own, personal apology to the world isn’t going to change anything about that, not with those who have been wronged, those who are deranged criminals, those who are ideological nutcases, or those whose loved ones are dead and gone because of what we’ve done.

I will vote, I will write, I will speak, and I will act as one outraged by what this Administration has done. But in all of those things that I will do, I will know this much for certain: if I am not the victim of some retributive act of vengeance, it will not be because of all the righteous, noble things I’ve done on behalf of peace, justice, and rectitude.

It will be because I got lucky.

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