To do nothing is to send a message to the wrongdoer, and the general public, that the victim has no self-worth and will not marshal the internal resources necessary to reclaim his or her honor. Shattered dignity is not beyond repair, but no elevating and equalizing of dignity can occur without the personal satisfaction of revenge.
-Thane Rosenbaum, Payback: The Case For Revenge
The one who forgives, far from rallying around evil, decides instead not to imitate it, not to resemble it in any way, and without having expressly willed it, to negate it with the sole purity of silent love.
-Vladimir Jankelevitch, Forgiveness
Two months ago polls suggested the American public was weary of war. Then, a group of furious extremists nurtured out of the fertile chaos of our invasion/occupation of Iraq and led by former generals from Saddam Hussein’ army went through Anbar Province in western Iraq like Patton went through Europe: Like crap through a goose. They were taking back what the US had taken from them by empowering Iraqi Shiites. Their secret was psychopathic violence — massacres of men, women and children from hated ethnic or religious factions.
Soon, people from around the world were being recruited to join ISIS. Two brave US journalists were captured in Syria and sold to ISIS in western Iraq. Utilizing 21st century skills with video production, they flaunted their power by brutally beheading the two journalists.
Suddenly, US polls flipped and a majority of Americans now felt it was necessary to race willy-nilly back to war in Iraq. The likelihood that ISIS’s goal was to stir up this kind of fear and blind reaction in America didn’t seem to matter. No one is quite sure what any of it really means. Following President Obama’s war speech, Lawrence O’Donnell asked, “Exactly how many people do we have to kill to ‘degrade and ultimately destroy’ this movement called ISIS?” No one knows. No one wants to lose face or appear weak. Being smart didn’t seem to be a concern; many were ready to hose out more treasure and lose even more ground in addressing our huge domestic problems.
Crime Fiction and Vengeance as Religion
As part of a personal study in the area of crime fiction, I’ve been reading a lot on the subject of vengeance. One of the classic avenging angels is Mike Hammer, Mickey Spillane’s popular Cold War era private detective who followed Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade and Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe. They were real tough guys — detectives. Mike Hammer was primarily about vengeance, which was generally administrated on the final page with a couple slugs in the guts from his beloved .45 automatic.
Spillane and his persona had no patience with something like the ethical movement that, for lack of a better term, goes by the label forgiveness. It’s not about forgiveness in any literal sense, and it does not preclude self-defense. It’s more about not getting sucked into costly cycles of violence and just getting on with life. When thinking about crime fiction, I find it useful to place the two — vengeance and forgiveness — as extremes on a continuum. It allows the analytic possibility of complexity and dialogue between the extremes when it comes to addressing a mess like the one the nation finds itself in right now.
Andrew Vachss is a popular, self-proclaimed vengeance writer working today. His character Burke is a fierce avenging angel hunting down those who abuse and violate children. Vachss is a lawyer who has had a colorful life working in the area of child protection. “He’s not a hit man,” Vachss has written of the fictional Burke. “But he shares the same religion I do, which is revenge.”
On the first page of his final Burke novel, Another Life, he has Burke express what seems a manifesto:
“Every TV ‘counselor,’ every self-help expert, every latte-slurping guru — they all chant some version of the same mantra: ‘Revenge never solves anything.’
“Their favorite psalm is Forgiveness. …When you crawl away, you’re not being a punk; you’re just letting the cosmos handle your business. …Down here, we see it different. We don’t count on karma. But you can count on this: hurt one of us, we’re all coming for you.”
For me, the insulting aspect of this passage nicely characterizes the attitude among the vengeance crowd toward forgiveness as a serious option. No complexity or dialogue is permitted. If too persistent, the forgiveness element becomes identified with the enemy and subject to the same vengeance. Something like this is going on in the current political moment vis-à-vis ISIS. The fact this example is fictional narrative doesn’t make it less apt, since much of the narrative in our political life these days is unhinged from reality. The right is adept at using often preposterous narratives. That a nation’s pulse can go from war weariness to war acceptance almost overnight because of two videotaped murders feels like a culturally important example of this.
Had journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff been murdered discretely or simply been “disappeared” the current war fever would not be so intense. The video-taping of the beheadings by a British speaker was intended to, as Rosenbaum put it above, “shatter the dignity” of comfortable Americans and set off a vengeful over-reaction like a bull reacting to a red cape. We tend to forget that the ISIS video-taped beheadings were examples of vengeance themselves.
Referring to the confused politics surrounding the 2000 Bush v. Gore election in Florida, Osama bin Laden wrote, “All this made it easy for us to provoke and bait this administration. All we have to do is send two mujahadeen to the Far East to wave a banner proclaiming ‘Al Qaeda,’ and the generals run. In this way, they increase their human, economic and political losses without achieving anything of note, apart from some benefits to their private corporations.”
In his writing, bin Laden cites how Al Qaeda spent a half-million dollars for 9/11, and the US ended up spending 500 billion dollars in reaction. (Bin Laden underestimated the figure, which is now put at over three trillion dollars.) “This is evidence of Al Qaeda’s victory,” bin Laden wrote in “A Message to the American People.” He added, “The real loser is you, the American people, and your economy.”
The issue isn’t whether ISIS is evil or worthy of a vengeful death. I’m a peace activist; but I’m also a human being. I’m not a pacifist and I own two handguns. While it’s an abstract matter and a rhetorical stunt on my part, if I had the opportunity to shoot the English-speaking man who hacked off the heads of my brother journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff, I don’t think I’d hesitate shooting the son-of-a-bitch dead. Why? Because I share their dedication to presenting truth to the American people. John McCain does not share that. In fact, he wants the opposite: his ilk wants to bamboozle the American people into believing this mess is all about national honor.
The New York Times on its front page recently said this: “[T]he potential threat [from ISIS] has … forced a re-examination of centuries old tensions between Sunnis and Shiites, Kurds and Turks.” That makes sense, right? But where’s any reference to the “centuries old tensions” in the region that involve Christians and Jews? What about all those many levels of intervention from the days of the Crusades to the carving up of Iraq after World War One to the occupation of Palestine? To bring such “tensions” into the discussion is a cultural taboo.
The left has voiced this question into a black void for decades. It never finds traction. Now would seem a fine time to add it to the mix. But, no, the dialogue can’t include the embargoed terms colonialism and imperialism — even though anyone with a modicum of understanding of history realizes they are intricately involved in the rise of Al Qaeda, ISIS and other “terrorist” elements plaguing the west in our globalized world. A beefed up imperial military response will not destroy such threats, though it may slow them down and cause them to shape-shift elsewhere. ISIS has made this clear. It’s the reason Egypt, Saudi Arabia and other Arab Sunni states are so reluctant to help the US in its current crusade. It’s also why Shiite Iran and Iraq and Assad in Syria are supporters of our intervening against ISIS. Things could not get stranger.
One of the rare voices in the mainstream media addressing imperial America is ironically MSNBC’s political sportscaster Chris Matthews. Lately, whenever someone mentions possible attacks on “the homeland,” Matthews gets his Irish dander up: “What’s this ‘homeland’ thing?” he asks in great irritation. “We used to call it America!” Matthews would never utter the word imperialism, but by finding the term homeland so obnoxious he’s doing the same thing in an elliptical fashion. The idea of a homeland implies an imperial Pax Americana kept safe at the fringes of empire with drones and special ops and other modern centurian instruments.
A Fictional Case For Forgiveness
A recent novella called Others Of My Kind by crime writer James Sallis offers a brave counter to Andrew Vachss’ “religion” of revenge. Both deal with the abusers of children. Jenny, the novel’s protagonist, was kidnapped at age eight and kept in a box under the bed of a man who worked as a prison guard and hospital nurses’ aide. She tells the story as an adult, how she got to the point of being grateful when she heard him come home and knew she would be let out of her box. He rapes her, yet gives her gifts like a Magic 8-Ball fortune-teller toy she loves. She knows Danny is a sick, evil man; she accepts that as part of life.
One day she escapes and takes up residency as a feral child in a large mall. She lives off dumpster scraps until a social worker coaxes her into a better place. Links to her parents have been lost. When she reaches age-16 she lobbies the state to be released as an adult. What’s ironic is she has no interest in revenge upon Danny. Her concern is to move forward with her life, to become independent, to educate herself and to become a productive adult. She finds out she has an innate talent for editing raw videotaped reality into meaningful segments for a local news show. She becomes adept at this and respected for it.
The spare tale takes place in a near future of confusing military actions and wars. “Once upon a time there was a pretense that such wars had to be declared,” she tells us. “Apparently no longer.” She listens to Buffalo Springfield on the radio: “There’s something happening here. What it is ain’t exactly clear.” She wears a t-shirt with an image of the precocious French poet Rimbaud. An experienced police detective named Jack seeks her help for a young girl also kidnapped and violated.
“There’s no anger in you, is there, Jenny? None at all. I don’t understand that.”
“Who would you have me be angry with?”
“I never knew them.”
“The man who abducted you.”
“Danny? He was just being true to what he was, being Danny. He couldn’t help himself. And that was many and many a year ago–“
“In a kingdom by the sea.”
“Exactly. There’s nothing I can do to change any of it.” . . .
“You want it all to make sense, don’t you?” I said. “Our lives, the world. Clear reasons. Explanations. Even when you know better than most how untidy the world and all our lives are.”
Jenny gets a phone call from a hospital. Her abuser Danny is on life support after being seriously beaten. In a living will, he has named her as his agent. Amazed that he located her, she signs the papers to take him off life support. Later, she’s with a group of homeless people she has befriended, and she tells us this:
“Sometimes I think all I’ve learned, the single thing I know is the importance of letting people get on with their lives. However wretched those lives may be or we think them, much of the time it’s only when others turn up hell-bent on change — family, peers, people with religious, social or political agendas — that it all goes to shit. We’re adaptable creatures. We make do. We wear the shirts we have. … We work at making a self for most of a lifetime, only to find that the self we’ve created is inseparable from the struggle.”
Today I watched video of South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham in the Senate well saying thousands of US troops will be needed in Iraq and Syria to destroy ISIS. Then ex-Democratic Governor of Pennsylvania Ed Rendell sold the president’s plan of bombing and the training of local “boots on the ground.” His jowly tanned face got very emotional as he once again reminded the American public of those beheadings of two US journalists. The same day John Kerry was meeting Arab representatives in Saudi Arabia, a nation that beheaded 49 people so far this year. The Roman Empire, I learned, considered beheading much more humane than crucifixion. Where would we be if they’d beheaded Christ, George W. Bush’s favorite philosopher and a key proponent of forgiveness?
For this essay, I subjected myself to an on-line beheading. First, the riot act of Sharia law was read to the poor soul on his knees. Then a man with a long, sharp knife made three firm slices into the back of the man’s neck, apparently severing the spinal cord. Next, like a butcher he literally hacked the rest of the head from the shoulders. It was gruesome. But was it more gruesome and more painful than the botched 43-minute lethal injection recently reported in Oklahoma? I wouldn’t know.
The current Middle East is an extremely polarized, often absurd place of ethnic and religious turmoil. In our narcissistic bubble of arrogance and exceptionalism, most Americans choose not to see the polarization and absurdity of our own culture as contributing to the madness in the Middle East and Southwest Asia. Unanticipated consequences from rash military action is a certainty. Assumed loyalties will jump you one day in the dark. The family of beheaded journalist Steven Sotloff tells us a moderate militia in Syria sold Mr. Sotloff to ISIS. This is devastating information that calls into question President Obama’s plans to train and use such militias as troops below our aerial bombardments. The State Department says the family is wrong. Who should we believe? The antiwar left is demoralized and knows by now taking to the streets in opposition to the war drums is a travesty involving cattle chutes, “First Amendment Zones” and, if you get too frisky, choreographed arrests. There is talk of resistance. Where this is all going to end is anyone’s guess.
A Final Fiction
Roger Spiller is George C. Marshall Professor, Emeritus, of Military History at the US Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. He’s the author of a collection of short stories about generals throughout history called An Instinct For War: Scenes From the Battlefields of History. There’s tales of generals in ancient China, in Mexico with Cortes, in the Napoleonic wars, and a soldier with shell shock after World War One.
The final story is called “The Discovery of Kansas,” and we learn it’s told by a US officer following a devastating apocalyptic war in the future. He has been assigned to excavate the library at what we understand was the command college at Fort Leavenworth. All the previous stories in the book, we’re told, were gleaned from the information dug up in the ruins of this library. The war that demolished the library began in our time and gradually got out of control. “At some undefined juncture in the past … warfare had quietly and without drama transcended reason. … An age-old soldier’s dream had been realized: …war could theoretically sustain itself on its own violence.”
These are tales told by a man who taught US military colonels and generals. He seems to have learned something quite disturbing, and the final story has haunted me for years. It’s the 100th anniversary of the vainglorious leadership that took the world into World War One. Is our current leadership in the declining imperial United States setting us up in the Middle East, in Southwest Asia and in Eastern Europe with another world-class debacle? Then there’s lone voices like Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders that harbor fears of “perpetual war and a morass in the Middle East [while] we have enormous domestic issues. There are tens of millions of Americans struggling to keep their heads above water.”
The narrator of Spiller’s final story says: “We were almost as dangerous to ourselves as was the enemy. The war transformed narrowness of mind into a social virtue.”