There are no small acts of violence. Each act is an outward manifestation of a set of assumptions, frames and beliefs, the outworking of a small set of rules in each person that, when acted upon in social and political settings, give rise to a system greater than the sum of its parts. At the dawn of the Internet age, fascination with the behavior of densely interconnected crowds prompted the rediscovery of emergent properties/beings and superorganisms. Books like Out of Control and Emergence filled bookstore shelves. The phenomenon of networked human behavior forcefully reminded us that human groups create a “oneness” that is greater than the sum of its parts, and that this “oneness” can act almost willfully.
Books like Zimbardo’s The Lucifer Effect also reminded us that when inequalities and domination are introduced into the system, the evil of the system can alter the behavior of the constituents. Zimbardo’s prison experiment demonstrated that people who are psychologically stable and healthy can be warped into monsters simply by creating a system in which some have power and some do not. Zimbardo was later called as a witness in the trial of Abu Ghraib perpetrators.
Christian theologian Walter Wink uses the example of a “Riot Demon” to explain this phenomenon in his book, Engaging the Powers:
Think, for example, of a riot at a soccer game, in which, for a few frenzied minutes, people who in their ordinary lives behave quite decently on teh whole suddenly find themselves bludgeoning and even killing opponents whose only sin was rooting for the other team. Afterwards people often act bewildered, and wonder what could have possessed them. Was it a Riot Demon that leaped upon them from the sky, or was it something intrinsic to the social situation: a “spirituality” that crystallized suddenly, precipitated by the conjunction of an outer permissiveness, heavy drinking, a violent ethos, a triggering incident, and the inner violence of the fans? And when the riot subsides, does the Riot Demon rocket back to heaven, or does the spirituality of the rioters simply dissipate as they are scattered, subdued, or arrested?”
Dexter Filkins nods to this phenomenon when he writes about a crowd morning for Uday and Qusay Hussein in The Forever War:
The Iraqis crouched on their knees and lined up in prayer to mark the end of the ceremony. As they finished, one of them rose from his knees and cried out, jabbing his finger at me and Tyler Hicks, the photographer who accompanied me.
“Death to America!” he shouted, with roars of assent from the others. “Death to America!”
The men rose and the crowd began to move, and it was growing louder, rapidly approaching the moment when it would transform itself into a beast, its individual parts absolved by the actions of the whole. I heard angry chatter all around me.
“Let’s go kill some Americans,” one man said to his friend. “Just like we did before.”
Wink would certainly approve of Filkins’ choice of word, “beast.” Wink interprets the language of “powers and principalities” in the Christian scriptures to refer to exactly this phenomenon: the spirituality of groups and institutions, perceived by ancient writers and projected as personified demons or angels in a heavenly council. In his interpretation, these Powers are essential aspects of human existence as social beings. Like humans, they are good, fallen, and will be redeemed. But in their fallen state, thoroughly infected with violence, they are part of a larger system of systems, which Wink calls “the Domination System.” He points to John’s Revelation as a seminal text for understanding this state of affairs within the Christian tradition: the Spirit of Domination, symbolized by the great red Dragon, Satan, who calls forth, shapes and yet transcends the tangible institutional manifestation: the Beast from the sea.
In Wink’s view, every act of violence, no matter how well-intentioned, is an act of fundamental validation of and belief in this system, its spirit and the lie that gives rise to it: that violence saves.
So when my friend Steve Hynd describes counterinsurgency (COIN) as “a modern mystery religion,” he’s closer to the mark than he knows. The COIN-pushers have done a masterful job positioning COIN as “war that helps.” Hugh Gusterson puts his finger on the problem:
Putting more U.S. troops into Afghanistan will make it possible to capture and kill more Taliban, and it will provide reassurance to some fence-sitting peasants that the United States means business. However, more U.S. troops in Afghanistan also means that more homes will be rudely searched in the middle of the night, more Afghan women will be dishonored–deliberately or inadvertently–in contacts with U.S. soldiers, and more U.S. soldiers, dressed like armadillos in sunglasses, will intrude into Afghan daily life with their alien clothes, speech, and body language. The Pentagon will try to minimize the insult through cultural sensitivity training and new doctrines that emphasize befriending the locals, but they will fail because it’s in the very nature of counterinsurgency that occupying forces must be intrusive to be effective. And when you have thousands of foreign troops being shot at, accidents and atrocities happen. The more such troops you have, the more accidents and atrocities you get.
As Robert Naiman said in a recent email:
The question on the table is not whether to send 40,000 Pashto speaking culturally sensitive Muslim development workers. It’s about whether to send 40,000 kids with guns who are trained to kill.
War, any war, only helps those that survive, those that escape un-maimed and un-raped and un-crazy, those that make it out with their loved ones and their culture, those that don’t watch their hopes for schools and health and communal prosperity burn on the altar of militarism. War helps, but only a few: the powerful (those who remain powerful when it ends, anyway), the rich (those who remain rich when it’s over) and those who sell the weapons. But the history of American attempts at COIN, at “helping,” is strewn with Vietnams and El Salvadors, where we “helped” thousands die while working to shore up repressive regimes. And now, we’re “helping” Afghanistan. Just 40,000 troops and more than a trillion dollars, and we’ll develop (oops), diplomacy (oops) and “defense” our way to a better tomorrow for the Afghan people.
It’s a lie to say that violence saves, that war helps. Not many people know this better than the Afghans, who’ve watched the tsunamis of imperialism wash over their landlocked country ad infinitum, ad nauseum. After 30 or so years of war, the Afghan people are at the late end of the path laid out for those on the bottom of the pyramid of the Violence System. Afghan ex-pat Tamim Ansary describes Afghanistan as:
a pulverized society suffering from deep social and psychological wounds.
In his famous 2001 email, Ansary described the Afghans broadly as
starved, exhausted, damaged, and incapacitated. A few years ago, the United Nations estimated that there are 500,000 disabled orphans in Afghanistan–a country with no economy, no food. Millions of Afghans are widows of the approximately two million men killed during the war with the Soviets. And the Taliban has been executing these women for being women and have buried some of their opponents alive in mass graves.
Now, take Ansary’s description with some caveats: it’s not just the Taliban who buried/buries people in mass graves–our allies do likewise. And as far as the Taliban killing women for being women, well, the mob we’ve backed in Kabul tends to err on the side of rape vs. murder. But he poignantly describes the shredded social, economic and spiritual fabric of Afghanistan. And his correction of our idea of “reconstruction” in Afghanistan is welcome and necessary:
“Reconstruction,” the usual word for efforts to restore a country, can be misleading here because it evokes images of bulldozers, rebar, concrete and other material things.
But the restoration of Afghanistan isn’t primarily about things. It’s about restoring a social fabric. It’s about families again imagining they can plan for the future. And young people again finding their way into stable marriages. And parents regaining a sense of control over how they raise their children. And older Afghans again feeling themselves part of a social network that assures them of the care and dignity Afghans once took for granted.
Above all, Afghans must recover ownership of their own narrative by reconnecting to values and ideas that inform their emotional and spiritual life in times past, and do so with pride, not defensive resentment about the world seeing them as primitives.
Restoring Afghanistan means rebuilding a social framework within which poets can make poetry, mystics can acquire followers for their wisdom and musicians can touch hearts, a place where Afghans can pray together and feast together, plunge into raucous enjoyment of Afghan sports and crack jokes that tickle sensibilities across ethnic lines.
Ansary wants troops used only as guardians for small-scale “peace building” development projects rather than a counterinsurgency campaign, and while I prefer his solution to the vision outlined by General McChrystal (60,000 more troops, now?!), I don’t think he goes far enough. The U.S. military presence in Afghanistan is just the latest manifestation of a system that’s been grinding away at the people of Afghanistan for decade after decade. The last thing these people need are more well-intentioned acts of faith in the system of violence.
Word is out that President Obama thinks the Taliban could be part of Afghanistan’s future. This is a simple acknowledgment of a fact the U.S. is not able to alter, 60,000 troops or not. Those throwing a fit about it are, like the old patriotic preacher in Mark Twain’s “War Prayer,” implicitly calling for mass slaughter. They’re operating under the articles of faith of the myth of redemptive violence: that the violence of the universe can and must be pushed away by force, that we are “violent by nature,” that in order to overcome the Taliban Tiamat we must escape our normal moral constraints on our violence, and that on the other side of our temporary monstrosity is the Peaceable Kingdom.
The president should build on his concession to reality and work with the Kabul government toward a political arrangement that removes Taliban association as a criteria for automatic blacklisting from elections. The blacklist should be replaced by a universally applied standard for screening out individual human rights abusers from the ballots. The U.S. should then immediately begin negotiations with the resulting unity government for a speedy withdrawal of forces from the country. Ansary’s peace-building projects could be begun concurrent with this process, but these projects should not be used as an excuse to keep U.S. troops in areas where they are not welcome or beyond a deadline set by the Afghan government.
President Obama just won the Nobel Peace Prize. As someone who repeatedly directed people to read the Sermon on the Mount during campaign season, let’s hope he listens to the Prince of Peace and puts down the sword. The alternative, for Afghans, for our troops, and for our common good, is to die by it.