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25 Jul, 2012

Home-Grown Terrorism: One Swamp The U.S. Cannot Drain

Commentary by Imtiaz Muqbil

Here we go again. Another shooting in the U.S. Can a society which is incapable of solving violence at home ever be a global champion of peace, stability and the common good? It is a contradiction in terms. Such societies can only implode and self-destruct.

The Column The Bangkok Post Censored
This commentary was originally due to appear in my fortnightly column “Soul-Searching” in the Bangkok Post on 22 July 2012. It was pulled by the paper’s Sunday Editor Paul Ruffini. No explanation was given.
The Bangkok Post claims to be “The Newspaper You Can Trust.”

Such acts of random violence do not occur to such an extent and with such frequency anywhere else in the world. If the U.S. gun-lobby’s argument is that guns don’t kill people, my counter-argument is that the system kills people. People can only kill people when the system facilitates it, and the system is designed to ensure it continues.

Every tragedy is followed by soul-searching about the influence of the gun lobby, the exposure to violence in U.S. society, the fiddling by U.S. politicians, the psychological “demons” that must have driven the killer, etc. But after the temporary paroxysm of hand-wringing, the U.S. goes back to business as usual – until the next time.

In the media, such tragedies are never described as acts of terrorism, but “mass shootings” or “mass killings”. What’s the difference? In terms of outcome, none. Both are acts of violence that claim the lives of innocent people.

The response, however, is markedly different. The mindsets that lead to “mass killings” are analysed and scrutinised, but the machinery and means of carrying them out remain in place. Yet another contradiction in terms.

Even while U.S. rightwing neocons and Judeo-Christian fundamentalists ridicule Islam as a “religion of violence,” the U.S. itself is immersed in a far more deep-rooted culture of systemic violence.

Look at the “good guy vs bad guy” movies which have dominated Hollywood over the years: John Wayne, the cowboy, shooting evil Red Indians, or Clint Eastwood blowing away gangsters in the Dirty Harry series, or Sylvester Stallone in the boxing ring or Arnold Schwarzenegger as the gladiator turned combat machine, Jean Claude van Damme, Bruce Lee and many more. Other “bad guys” have included Nazi Germans and more recently, “Islamic terrorists.”

Not surprisingly, very few movies were made about “good guy” Americans beating up “bad guy” Vietnamese, mainly because the “bad guys” won and Hollywood couldn’t find a way of spinning that.

Ironically, this latest violence took place in a theatre glorifying Batman, a character in the “good guy vs bad guy” movie series generated by Marvel and DC comics, along with others such as  Spiderman, Iron Man, the Fantastic Four, Superman, etc.

Tragically, no real-life Batman came to rescue those innocent victims.

Such mind-numbing Hollywood-promoted violence is exported worldwide via cable TV channels. Try doing a TV body-count estimate of the movies shown and assess its daily impact on vulnerable minds.

Another key player in the “system” is the gun lobby, said to be equally as powerful as the Israeli lobby. Both are major financiers of the U.S. political establishment.

Just like the Israeli lobby, the gun lobby goes ballistic (pardon the pun) when any efforts are made to hold it accountable. To thwart gun control laws, it argues that people are safer possessing firearms as a means of self-defense. The fact that millions of Americans own guns means that nothing has changed since the days of the Western gunslingers, except that they don’t wear them in hip-holsters.

This systemic violence also permeates U.S. foreign policy, which divides the world into “good guys” and “bad guys” – the “good guys” being, of course, the U.S., Europe, Australia and other allies while the “bad guys” are countries of the Middle East or the Islamic world, Russia, China, Venezuela, etc., etc.

Hence, the “system” goes abroad. Gargantuan budgets are consumed by the military-industrial complex and the merchants of death. Every Middle East country which is a client state of the U.S., such as the Gulf sheikhdoms, buys billions of dollars worth of military hardware a year.

Once they become dependent on U.S. military hardware, they remain dependent. There is no way out. All it takes is to withhold the spare-parts to make even the most expensive piece of equipment unusable.

Such militarism is promoted as being necessary to “fight terrorism” as in “we have to fight them there so that we don’t have to fight them here.” Its success is measured by noting that there have been no further attacks on American soil since 9/11.

But foreign terrorists don’t need to attack Americans on American soil in order to remind the U.S. of its dysfunctional political system, social culture and the violence it spawns. Home-grown terrorists are doing the job instead.

The promotion and glorification of systemic violence in the name of defense, security or entertainment has become a major driver of jobs, income and profits. In an economy in which jobs are scarce anyway, cutting back on this means that many fewer jobs.

As the economy tanks and budget-cuts become imperative, the defense industry is already on the defensive, churning out press releases bemoaning the potential job losses and presumed impact on U.S. security.

So, will the naked-body scanners now be installed at all U.S. cinemas, workplaces, bus and train terminals, airports, department stores, schools, colleges? If security is the top priority, they should be.

No matter how many scanners they install, such killings will never stop. This is one swamp that the U.S. cannot drain because the system itself breeds more vermin.

Most important, nothing will change because U.S. government places a higher value on American lives as against the lives of other human beings. Very few Americans care about the hundreds of thousands of innocent people killed, maimed, wounded or bereaved by U.S. wars in the Middle East, or the dozens being killed regularly by extra-judicial drone strikes in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Yemen.

While the domestic TV media gives blanket publicity to home-grown “mass shootings”, the U.S. public’s exposure to the equally heart-rending tragedies of the U.S. government’s foreign militaristic adventures is virtually zero.

Justifying that difference in approach is only a matter of spinning the violence in the right context. To tell the U.S. public the truth about how U.S. government policies are backfiring or failing is to “give succor to the enemy.”

Four years ago, the U.S.’s first African-American president sought election on a platform of “Change you can believe in”. His victory certainly changed the U.S. political landscape. But has anything else really changed? Reducing the culture of systemic violence certainly has not – neither within the U.S. nor abroad.