Monday, September 12, 2011

The hidden cost of fear

I happened across a documentary last night called The Ballad of Esequiel Hernández. Hernandez was a student from a border town in Texas who kept goats and was out one day keeping predators away with a 22 rifle when he was killed by a team of four marines on patrol.

If you didn’t know before that we now have our military patroling the border looking for bad guys – drug smugglers, mainly – you do now.

In addition to the death of the Geneva Conventions, the commitment to see somebody as innocent until proven guilty, the right to privacy, and laws against torture, we can now add the death of posse comitatus as a victim of 9/11. That’s the law passed in 1878 which prohibits members of the military from exercising powers that maintain "law and order" on non-federal property.

Instead of finding organizers and sponsors of terrorist acts and prosecuting them as criminals, we have personified the abstract notion of terrorism itself, and made it “the enemy.” And since this putative enemy is a non-person, it will never put up a white flag, never negotiate, never surrender. This means we have effectively put ourselves on a war footing from now till the end of time. Because we have no leaders any more, but only people who manipulate and are manipulated by the masses, we have nobody who can break this pattern without being labeled a traitor and a coward and ignored.

The tragedy of Esequiel Hernández is another illustration of how when you’re a hammer everything looks like a nail. If it were not a story of how the Marines got away with murder, it would be tempting to call it a Keystone comedy. Four guys, assigned to a border town where nothing is happening, sit for hours in heavy gear and camoflage in 100 degree heat in the desert, bored senseless. Because they are trained to search and destroy, they sit and they wait for their chance.

Along comes a local kid with a 22. Because the Marines are camoflaged, he can’t see them. Because he’s a Texan with a gun in the desert, he takes potshots at things. Because he happens one time to shoot in their direction, they decide he’s a drug smuggler trying to kill them and they fire back. Hernández most likely never knew what hit him. He certainly never knew why somebody would show up out of nowhere with the intent to kill him.

I hope this story catches on. Your first instinct may be to view this as a tragic accident. And maybe you will join the Bill O'Reilly, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld crowd committed to the ideology that America has to have these shoot-first priorities. Maybe you too will want to say simply, "accidents happen." But an accident is something you can't see coming. When we condition people to kill, prime them to see enemies as any person with a gun, and actually give the order to "do what is necessary," we're not talking about an accident. We're talking about setting ourselves up for a fall.

I think we need to consider the consequences of priming ourselves to see the whole world as a nail in need of being hammered down. Watch the whole program. Or at least go to the website of the Drug Policy Forum of Texas, which is working to keep the story alive.

There are at least two aspects of this story worth noting – one, the human tragedy of a senseless killing, and two, the evidence that we have become a people caught in a web of significance of our own making. We have given in to fear and a nationalism that approaches tribalism, and lost sight of the values we insist we are fighting for. We have become an empire with a military, and we use that military to maintain the national narrative of ourselves as victims under fire. They, the bad guys, are after us, the good guys. The Marine who pulled the trigger and killed Esequiel Hernández was found innocent. The other three defended his action by asserting American freedoms exist only because of the heroic efforts of our military.

We are face to face with a leap of logic of devastating consequences. Our soldiers fight enemies so that we in America can have our freedoms. (The Swedes don’t have freedoms? The South Africans, the Thais, the Italians?) Even if the enemy they fight is not really an enemy, to call a soldier to account for killing an innocent is to attack our heros and saviors. As somebody from the FBI pointed out, if the killer had been an FBI agent, he’d be out of a job and very likely serving time for manslaughter at the very least, but because he’s a member of our military, backed up all the way up to the Department of Defense, he’s hands off.

You don’t bite the hand that feeds you.

I remember a conversation with a Russian woman once, back in the 60s. She had lived through the Second World War and was going on about how naïve American women are. “All this ridiculous feminism,” she would say. “All these attempts to get your men to take out the garbage, to take care of the kids, to be sweet and gentle and soft!” Her face turned ugly. “If you had lived through the war, had known enemy soldiers knocking down your doors, you would not be asking your men to be gentle and soft. In Russia, when a man beats his wife, she takes it as the price to pay for having the means to fight off the Nazis.”

I suspect most Russian women today do not think like that anymore. Times have changed in Russia.

And times have changed here, as well. Here we don’t excuse wife-beating.

But we do seem to be building a justification for it that might fly.


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