Selective Indignation over bin Laden Video
The reviews came in quickly. And to no one's surprise, the verdict was "two thumbs down."
"Can you believe how ruthless this man is? How cold blooded?"
"That monster has no regard for human life."
"What kind of person laughs about the deaths of thousands of innocent people?"
These are but a few of the righteously indignant comments heard over the course of the last two weeks: the reactions of journalists, U.S. political leaders, and everyday folks to the recently aired Osama bin Laden tape. Therein, bin Laden appears to take credit for the atrocities of 9/11 and to cavalierly dismiss any moral concerns about the loss of life involved.
To the extent the tape is an accurate translation, it is certainly a disgusting display of ethical depravity. But really now, did we need grainy VHS footage to demonstrate that Osama bin Laden was a thug? Or was its dissemination primarily for the purpose of re-inflaming the American public?
Of course there is nothing so true about indignation as the simple fact that it's usually applied in a highly selective fashion. So it was easy to condemn the horrific rationalizations for brutality offered up by Soviet Commissars or their proxies during the cold war, for example, but much more difficult to apply the same moral calculus to the statements of America's allies: often brutal dictators whose regimes we supported no matter how many innocent civilians they butchered, tortured or "disappeared."
Certainly there is little reason to doubt that if someone had trained a video camera on U.S. clients like Duvalier, Marcos, Somoza, Pinochet or Suharto, we would have had the chance to be regaled with dismissive rationalizations of murder from them as well. Inhumanity, cruelty and barbarity, as it turns out, have never been deal-breakers for gaining the support of the United States government, after all.
What is of course interesting -- or at least would be to a nation insistent on something so mundane as consistency -- is how Americans react with horror to the cold, calculating comments of bin Laden, and yet brush aside (or better yet, fail to even learn about) the equally cold, calculating ways in which their elected officials and other U.S. spokespersons have regularly dispensed with human life, absent so much as a twinge of remorse.
After all, are the things bin Laden said really any more morally troublesome than the comments of former Secretary of State Madeline Albright? Remember, it was Albright who explained, also on camera, that even though roughly half-a-million children in Iraq had died from U.S. sanctions and bombing, ultimately, this cost was "worth it."
In fact, the calculation that civilian deaths are "worth it" has a healthy pedigree, even extending to the Bush family itself. While George W. might become apoplectic at the dismissive manner in which Osama bin Laden shrugs off innocent lives, one doubts that he has ever lectured his father about the same thing. This, despite the fact that when Poppa Bush was asked whether capturing Manuel Noriega had been worth the deaths of the thousands of innocent Panamanians killed by U.S. forces in 1989, he responded that while "every human life is precious," ultimately "yes, it has been worth it."
Are we to suppose that merely mouthing the words "every human life is precious," somehow makes the acceptance of mass killing less objectionable? More decent? Or instead, might not such a schism between what we say and what we do be even more disconcerting than similar pap spewing from the lips of bin Laden? At least Osama isn't a phony.
As we bask in our rage over the bloodthirsty ruminations of our current Public Enemy Number One, perhaps we should also be willing to roll the tape, so to speak, on any number of equally disturbing comments by red, white and blue Americans.
Like the U.S. soldiers who bombed Iraqi forces even after they had surrendered on the field of battle in Operation Desert Storm -- a certifiable war crime -- and laughed about their actions, calling the strafing "a turkey shoot," and likening it to "shooting fish in a barrel." As one of America's finest put it: "It's the biggest Fourth of July show you've ever seen. And to see those tanks just boom,' and more stuff keeps spewing out of them ... it's wonderful."
Or how about Ed Korry, Ambassador to Chile in 1973, when the U.S. sponsored the overthrow of the democratically-elected government of Salvador Allende, and replaced it with one of the most brutal dictatorships in the hemisphere's history? Prior to Allende's victory, Korry was on record as saying: "Once Allende comes to power we shall do all within our power to condemn Chile and Chileans to utmost deprivation and poverty."
Or what of former Undersecretary of State, U. Alexis Johnson? In 1971, as the U.S. seared the Laotian countryside with phosphorous bombs and napalm, killing tens of thousands of civilians, Johnson described the slaughter as "something of which we can be proud as Americans." He explained further that, "what we are getting for our money there is, I think, to use the old phrase, very cost effective."
Or how about Robert Martens, who served in the U.S. Embassy in Jakarta at the time of the Indonesian coup that brought Suharto to power in 1965, and resulted in the mass murder of roughly 500,000 people? In discussing how the CIA provided the Indonesian military with a list of suspected subversives to assassinate, Martens noted: "It really was a big help to the Army. They probably killed a lot of people, and I probably have a lot of blood on my hands, but that's not all bad. There's a time when you have to strike hard at a decisive moment." Little doubt that the head of al-Qaeda would second that emotion.
Then there's Fred Sherwood, a former CIA pilot who was involved in the U.S.-led coup that overthrew the elected government of Guatemala in 1954. Later he took up residence in the country and became President of the American Chamber of Commerce there. In the late 1970's, as the United States continued its two-decade long support of death squads and military dictators, Sherwood could think of nothing wrong with their murderous deeds: "Why should we be worried about the death squads? They're bumping off the commies, our enemies. I'd give them more power ... The death squad -- I'm for it ... Shit!"
And last but not least, what should we make of Dan Mitrione? Mitrione was the former head of the U.S. Office of Public Safety in Uruguay. In that capacity, Mitrione's job appears to have been instructing Uruguayan police and military officials on how to torture their political enemies more effectively. His favorite slogan, according to those with whom he worked, was "the precise pain, in the precise place, in the precise amount, for the desired effect." Since torturers need to practice their craft, Mitrione would instruct his students to kidnap homeless beggars off the streets, so that he could test out all manner of torture devices on them, including electric shock to the genitals. Once he was finished with these torture models, they were routinely murdered.
And yet in 1970, when Mitrione was himself kidnapped and killed by an Uruguayan rebel group, Secretary of State William Rogers attended his funeral, as did Frank Sinatra and Jerry Lewis, who staged a benefit for the family. White House Spokesman Ron Ziegler said of Mitrione, that his "devoted service to the cause of peaceful progress in an orderly world will remain as an example to free men everywhere."
Yes indeed, the willingness to snuff out human life with absolutely no remorse or sense of guilt goes back a long way. At the risk of spoiling the patriotic mood, one might recall that the founding of this nation was dependent on the butchering of millions of indigenous people, who were typically dispatched gleefully by those "settlers" and pioneers who saw fit to steal their land. So too were we dependent on the stuffing of black bodies into the cramped bowels of slave ships, utterly indifferent as to how many would die on the long trip from Africa to the Americas. And millions did, while others laughed about it.
Ruthless? Cold-blooded? No regard for human life? To be sure, these statements describe Osama bin Laden, and on that we can all agree. But so too do they describe far too many of our own leaders, our own political and military elites. Unless and until we show as much interest in condemning this kind of bloodthirsty rhetoric from all quarters, and not just those defined for the moment as our adversaries, we will continue to stand as hypocrites to the rest of the world. We will continue to be seen as a people who don't mean what we say. Or rather, as a nation that applies one standard of morality to ourselves, and a completely different standard to everyone else. And still we wonder, "why do they hate us?"
Tim Wise is a writer, lecturer and antiracist activist. He can be reached and footnotes for this article can be procured from him at email@example.com.