On hubris, shame and war



By Rajneesh Narula

(Another in my occasional essay series http://meritbbs.unimaas.nl/narula/essays.html)


During the three weeks of the Iraqi war, I did a fair bit of travelling. Airports and airplanes have a certain disarming neutrality about them; a sort of tube-like extension of Switzerland.  Life from an airport-eye view is antiseptic, with people toddling from one gate to another in a slight daze, a little like A Space Odyssey. All existence seems to be transitory. The news too, is provided and acquired – whether from newspapers, TV monitors - as an afterthought because it loses its relevance; it happens to those poor non-airport people: it does not matter. Thus the sight of people glued to the TV watching the best-choreographed war since Saving Private Ryan seems not in the least incongruous. What I have found incongruous is that normal non-airport people seem to view the war with the same nonchalant attitude, except that it seems to be addictive. Welcome (I muttered to myself) to the world of war-as-entertainment, feeling slightly disturbed, but not entirely sure why.


Several airports, one war and a few continents later, I think I now understand why. Because it is discomfortingly and dubiously amoral. It matters not that I disapprove of this particular war. I disapprove of wars in general, or any other means by which we act out our primal territorial instincts, but there are occasions where it is more justified than others. There are deaths which are necessary to avoid other deaths. Machiavellian and cold-blooded I know, but true. I rage today not against the taking of human life, but how war-as-entertainment has changed our appreciation of the gravity of the taking of life. I know that this particular war is essentially over, but I raise this because war-as-entertainment has the appearance of a phenomenon that is here to stay, and if it cheapens death any further, I despair for mankind.


My starting premise is my earliest epiphany as an independent adult: that Man has a unique and unparalleled capacity for cruelty. I have no great expectations of mankind as kind gentle folk; for this is our exterior; below the surface bubble cauldrons of primal activity, and part of this is an unspeakable capacity for cruelty. Read Lord of the Flies if you do not believe.


But in our search to prove ourselves as superior evolved (or created) beings, we have marked certain actions or behaviours down as downright uncivilised. One of these is cruelty. Cruelty, dear friends, is to wreak pain and suffering for its own sake. It is cruel, I think you will agree, to torture people, to kick a dog, to kill another person. We are surrounded by societies for the prevention of cruelty to animals and there are global human rights conventions. These are all good things. We do not condone torture, suffering, humiliation or pain inflicted on most sentient beings, and where we do so, we seek to minimise these. Naturally there are regional and cultural variations in sensitivities, but by and large, cruelty and killing (and enjoying these activities) are not good ways to make friends at cocktail parties. We are largely clear about the immorality of it all.


Somewhat less clear is our moral position on being there as observers, but not engaged in the actual cruelty or killing. But I suggest to you, dear friends, that it is also an act of cruelty to watch such an act of humiliation or suffering. It is a flimsy excuse that since it is not your finger that pulls the trigger, your foot that does the kicking, your fingers that deliver the slap, that you are a neutral observer, that you are pure in matters culpable. On the contrary, you as a voyeur to cruelty are the justification, the audience, the excuse, the reason, and worst or all, the reluctant judge. It is uncontroversial that the people who perform these acts do them not entirely for their own sake, but as an offering to you, the observer; they need an audience, they need your reaction, and at some level, they desire your approval. In other words, by not impeding, you endorse. This if anything, is the lesson that the West should have learnt from two world wars and one holocaust. But we had two more (Cambodia and Rwanda, if you must ask), and we are still not clear on the concept that when a tree falls in a forest and no-one is there to hear it, it still makes a sound. I accept that it is reasonable that if you do not see such an action, you cannot logically stop it. Ergo, I bear no responsibility for the deaths in Biafra. By extension, if you witness such an action, you are morally bound to act, or, where concerns for personal safety arise (for our survival instincts loom larger than our moral outrage), at least to express your disapproval then, or at some future date, or at the very least, not to derive pleasure from the proceedings. If you do neither it is reasonable to harbour a tremendous sense of shame for your inaction. This, it has always been my understanding, is the code of any civilised people.


But we are in an age where physical absence is simply not enough of an excuse. We are gifted by new technologies to be global (and instant) voyeurs. A child dies in Belfast, a grandmother is garrotted in Guatemala, a peasant drowns in India and we are all there, courtesy of satellite technologies.  We have ring-side seats. We may not have to wipe the spray of warm blood from our faces, nor can we smell the stench of urine as a doomed man involuntarily releases his bladder, but we have looked him in the eye. The camera crew is there at our behest, they are our proxy. This is not unreasonable. Witness the outrage expressed about showing dead soldiers on TV, which were promptly never shown again. But we know, dear readers, do we not, that those noisy guns and colourful lights that bombs make have one purpose alone: to kill and maim people? By making this war into an entertainment that can be watched by the whole family we have censored out death, the most basic, most common element of war. Most countries restrict the amount of death and suffering shown on daytime TV so as to prevent children from violent images, but this war has been a 24-hour experience. Bugs Bunny cant blow up Elmer Fudd, but American GI’s may shoot Iraqis for breakfast. We have gentrified death. To paraphrase the ever-astute Pinar, this skirmish is simply a logical extension of reality TV: Big Brother, move over. If we as civilised folk say, we do not wish to see death, whether the actual dead people, or the means by which they get that way, the camera crew would not be there.


It is scary that death has become a spectator sport, since TV has become the purveyor of truth. To see it on TV is to believe. Aldous Huxley was only off by less than 20 years.  In this essay series I regularly use entertainment metaphors, because TV plays an important role in creating a common understanding of reality. But I know that Buffy and all her slayage is fake, as she plucks out eyeballs from intensely ugly demons and stabs mean-looking vampires who promptly revert to dust.  Because all the violence, intestines and gooey green jelly that permeate from the Hell Mouth are as unreal as the antics of the teenage mutant ninja turtles. It does not cloud my belief for one second that this is anything like an actual death.


Are we not, now, assuming the same thing from war-as-entertainment? That “no actual persons were hurt during the making of this 21 day war”? Can we now sit and watch this with our children because it absolves us of any moral responsibility?


Where, you may well ask, does hubris come into all this?  Hubris, dear readers, is essential if we are to suffer no pangs of moral angst, if we are to live with our consciences. Hubris is necessary because we need to believe that these deaths serve a greater good. That because I am superior in some way to the dead and dying, they are not like me, that they are somehow less. Their children do not feel pain in quite the same way as mine do. When they bleed their blood is not as red as mine. Nothing beats a little blood and gore for entertainment, especially if the blood and gore isn’t yours.  We have cheapened death into a commodity by creating war-as-entertainment.


One cannot grow up in Africa and not know of people who died, who disappeared, victims of unreasonable, senseless, needless violence. Yet death is never a matter for nonchalance, even though one learns quite early that Life is rarely ever fair. But if we fail to bow our head, to cast our eyes down with shame, to pour libations to mark the passing of a soul, or at least to mutter the truth about an unspeakable event beneath our breath, if we start to accept as everyday what is unreasonable and cruel, if we observe such events without feeling, perturbation, anxiety or comment, then we cannot call ourselves free; we have abused our rights for self-determination. We have lost the right to call ourselves part of the community of civilised people.


We cannot give up this essential part of our humanity without a fight. Carry your shame and your conscience and your respect for death and dying with pride. To paraphrase Dylan Thomas: Do not go gently into that good night/ Old age should burn and rave at close of day/Rage, rage against the dying of the light.