Despite our length of time occupying Iraq, no real voices dare speak of the hundreds of thousands dead. Even this Time writeup stops short of discussing our culture of indifference.
It is not inconsequential to kill 100,000 people. That much life suddenly and violently extinguished must leave a ragged hole somewhere in the universe. One looks for special effects of a metaphysical kind to attend so much death — the whoosh of all those souls departing. But many of them died ingloriously, like road kill, full of their disgrace, facedown with the loot scattered around them. The conquered often die ignominiously. The victors have not given them much thought.
Still, killing 100,000 people is a serious thing to do. It is not equivalent to shooting a rabid dog, which is, down deep, what Americans feel the war was all about, exterminating a beast with rabies. All those 100,000 men were not megalomaniacs, torturers and murderers. They did not all commit atrocities in Kuwait. They were ordinary people: peasants, truck drivers, students and so on. They had the love of their families, the dignity of their lives and work. They cared as little for politics, or less, than most people in the world. They were, precisely, not Saddam Hussein. Which means, since Saddam was the coalition’s one true target in all of this, that those 100,000 corpses are, so to speak, collateral damage. The famous smart bombs did not find the one man they were seeking.
The secret of much murder and evildoing is to dehumanize the victim, to make him alien, to make him Other, a different species. When we have done that, we have prepared ourselves to kill him, for to kill the Other, to kill a snake, a roach, a pest, a Jew, a scorpion, a black, a centipede, a Palestinian, a hyena, an Iraqi, a wild dog, an Israeli . . . it’s O.K.
If Saddam Hussein was a poisonous snake in the desert, and he had 1 million poisonous snakes arrayed around him, then it was good sense to drop bombs and kill 100,000 snakes and thus turn back the snake menace.
But, of course, the 100,000 Iraqis were not snakes.
To kill 100,000 people and to feel no pain at having done so may be dangerous to those who did the killing. It hints at an impaired humanity, a defect like a gate through which other deaths may enter, deaths no one had counted on. The unquiet dead have many ways of haunting — particularly in the Middle East, which has been accumulating the grievances of the dead for thousands of years.
And yet even now, self-confessed war criminals run for office in the United States on a populist platform. Are we just standing around wringing our hands? Can it be that Americans are not just callous about the body count but indeed find electoral occasions to celebrate it’s perpetuity?