Murderous Dichotomies by Wendy Hamblet

Hamblet, Wendy (Adelphi Univ.) “Murderous Dichotomies: Exposing the Logic of Violence.” CPP Newsletter Vol. 23, Nos. 1-2 (Spring-Fall 2003).

Most people would agree that the murder of one’s own kind is an evil act. Yet the history of humankind on earth stands as overwhelming proof that people somehow have always managed, and still today continue to manage, to stomach perpetrating such “evil” acts upon others of their species without even the risk of bad conscience. And contrary to facile understandings of violence, very few cases of radical evil involve the least degree of sadistic pleasure for the agent. These stark simultaneous facts—that murder continues to happen, but people do not suffer bad conscience, nor do they enjoy murdering—suggests a well-evolved ability, developed throughout the millennia of human time on earth, that enables perpetrators to redefine their “evil” acts as “otherwise than evil.”

Scholars of diverse disciplines direct their research toward unraveling the mystery of understanding the continuing violence in a world that pretends the loftiest of ideals of peace and justice and human community. Clearly an immense gap divides the lofty intentions and ideals of human beings from the bare facts of bloody history; a history that, despite our increasing understanding of the forces that propel and legitimate violence, has only grown bloodier over time.

Plenty of reasons have been discovered to explain why societies have grown more violent over the last century—the alienating effects of modern industrial societies, the breakdown of family values, and even, in many minds, the erosion of religious values (a questionable factor since religious nations, including those of the “enlightened” West, tend to be the most violent societies in the world). Violence increases over time, concomitantly with another growing reality—the gap between rich and poor. The disparity between the living standards in rich Western nations and those in Third World countries gapes wider every year. Even within the rich Western nations, more people fall below the poverty line each year. These economic free-falls across the globe create pockets of frustration and resentment that linger in festering bitterness until they finally manifest themselves in violent outbursts.

The fact that Just War Theory exists to guide leaders in their assessment of the rightness or wrongness of conflicts proves that many people find some forms of communal violence legitimate, and others illegitimate. This demonstrates that there must exist some mysterious way of thinking about intraspecies murder that permits us to see it as sometimes fair and just. Under certain historical conditions, then, people must find it possible to redefine murder as good, or at least as the best available option.

Peace activists refuse to go that far, holding that no war can be just. To take up mass murder, even as a tool against another evil, is to join the ranks of the enemy and betray one’s moral reasons for action. Martin Luther King, Jr., neatly articulates the paradox that gives rise to the peace activist’s insight: “Nations engage in the madness of war without the slightest sense of penitence. The murder of a citizen of your own nation is a crime but the murder of citizens of another nation in war is an act of heroic virtue.” Philosophers tend to focus upon definitions, so this redefining that turns murder from a crime to a heroic virtue, when the “face” of the victim changes, is a source of discomfiting fascination. And wars, over the last century, have increasingly targeted the “faces” of innocent civilians, with less and less concern for the growing number of civilian casualties, and more and more impunity for the officials that sanction those deaths.

We don’t do body counts,” states General Tommy Franks of the USA military. More and more it becomes crucial that philosophers seek to clarify and illuminate the logic that permits this redefinition to occur. It is essential that we understand how the very symbols by which we understand self and world come to be ordered such that these redefinitions permit conscience-free murder. How is it that people find themselves capable of defining the same act as, in the one case, criminal, and in the other, heroic?

Anthropologists, those students of human truth, have been exceedingly instrumental in helping us to understand how violences were justified in the dawn of human time. Walter Burkert, René Girard, and a host of other experts on human culture, religion and violence, tell us that the first human communities made sense of their environments by employing violence as an important ordering mechanism. Early hominoids ordered their chaotic and threatening worlds by positing “dual containers” into which they sorted the confusing empirical data of their experiences: friend/ foe; good/ evil; divine/ demonic and so on. One container for the nice experiences, the other for the threatening.

The logic that ordered the symbols was simple—help friends and murder enemies. When something new appeared on the horizon of the lifeworld, something unknown that could not readily be embraced within the comfortable understandings of the community, it would be placed in the “evil” container to be dealt with through ritual violence—murder sacrifice, metaphorical murder of torture, or expulsion from the community. The communal murder of some visibly different other (the village idiot, the physically deformed, an unlucky stranger—anyone who is both inside and yet an outsider, without social resources to avenge his death) brought conflicted parties within the social group together. Murder, when shared by the entire community, could be a very unifying and consolidating event.

This archaic method of making sense of the world and ordering the group proved most effective, providing the community with what Walter Burkert calls a “common mental world,” and so it came to be repeated at any time that the community fell into social chaos. Over time, the murder ritual evolved to serve the manifold functions of communal life, eventually spawning the full spectrum of prohibitions and prescriptions that composed the legal, political, economic and social customs and institutions that structured the lifeworld of the social group. The symbols were simple: what was not ours (good) was alien and threatening (evil). And the logic ordering the symbols was simple: help friends and murder enemies. The symbols and logic, tell the experts on violence, remained constant over time, conveyed and reinforced from generation to generation through repetition of the murder rituals. Over millennia in the early history of the human species, these rituals were pervasive.

Though intelligent people today have overcome the tendency toward oversimplified, radically polarized understandings of self and world, at a very deep level of our being, in our assumptions about right and wrong, good and evil, that tendency remains a latent potentiality. Thus there lingers the constant danger that, during times of social upheaval, people may revert to this archaic way of making sense of the confusing data of experience. This is largely because this logic very effectively serves a double benefit: it renders the chaotic starkly clear and simple, making reality easy to understand, with no thinking necessary. Easy sortings of phenomena into “good” and “evil” illuminates the source of social chaos for easy murder, even as it simultaneously purifies the community of responsibility and guilt by projecting the chaos at work within the community onto alien (and usually defenseless) others.

In my curiosity to discover how popular the two containers remain, how many people still revert to simple dichotomies as a way of making sense of the world, I went to the world wide web and searched the phrase “two kinds of people.” I got 2,018,504 “hits.” Many of these, as the anthropologists of violence have asserted, are consistent with a “religious worldview.” It seems St. Paul uses the simple dichotomy to understand the human struggle against sin. How one manages this struggle gives rise to two possible courses of life to be lived. St. Augustine posits two kinds of people according to two kinds of love, giving rise to two kinds of communities, (the good heavenly city and its evil earthly counterpart). Then there was what I will call the more “Protestant” dichotomy of two kinds of human beings—the hard-working, honest and reliable, and those others who are shiftless and worthless. Then there was the distinction between “spiritual seekers” and “domestic cleaners.” Apparently, people are seeking something to fulfill their spiritual needs, and then, once they feel they have found something fulfilling, they spend their energies cleaning and polishing it. Another dichotomy separates the world into those the god talks to and those he does not. The former group splits again into the Jerry Falwells, the Oral Roberts’s and the Pat Robertsons, over against the paranoid schizophrenics (though I am not convinced that the latter is a legitimate split).

Then some people split the world into the have’s from the have-nots; that one I found particularly convincing. Others see the world as a dichotomy between those motivated by freedom and those motivated by security, reminiscent of the famed article by Jonathan Z. Smith, separating people into the adventurous and fearless (the Greeks are the example cited), and those shivering behind the walls of their fortressed cities and practicing elaborate war rituals (like the Babylonians). One wonders whether the choice of examples does not reflect an ethnocentric bias, since the Hellenic ancestors of the Western imperialist spirit, though a culture equally lush in war ritual, come out ahead as colonial heroes rather than butcherous and fearful barbarians Despite the remarkable number of “hits,” some dichotomies didn’t make the list. Peace activists, for example, make a distinction between those with actual intelligence and those with “military” intelligence, those who support just war and those who just support war, those who love freedom and those who love their freedom, and those who believe in the right of free speech over against those who believe in free speech until someone says something they don’t like.

So it would seem that even in the rational, scientific, allegedly secular modern world, the employment of simple dichotomies reminiscent of the archaic worldview remains extremely popular as a means of making simple sense of a disordered world. Simple polar dichotomies have in fact risen in popularity in the past year and a half, triggered, as always, by a chaotic event—the September 11th crisis. They have, in fact, been publicly promoted because they have proven highly politically functional in the chaotic aftermath of the crisis, giving terrified people a quick and easy way of making sense of their threatened world, while conveniently dispensing with the usual need for rational inquiry and debate.

The popular dichotomy began with Mr. Bush’s war cry to his people and the world: “you’re either with us or against us.” The cry soon morphed into a more demonizing form: “you’re either with us or you’re with the terrorists.” This logical tactic was so quickly popularized that it soon spawned the grander dichotomy that took the form of a conflict of civilizations—America as the “beacon of freedom and opportunity” over against an “axis of evil”—a move that, in one fell swoop, posited the USA as an innocent victim over against the dark and hazy world of terrorism, focused in three “evil” geographical locations. This new dichotomous worldview effectively alienated a large mass of the world’s population. In reality, however, it attempts to posit a cosmic truth, as does any worldview—the enlightened, scientific, rational, democratic, freedom-loving West over against a decadent, backward, poor, repressed, ignorant uncivilized otherness—mostly an Arab otherness, but the Koreans could be thrown in for good measure, (though the Koreans make a less functional scapegoat since their murder doesn’t pay off in any coveted treasures and they are not without those “familial resources” that would mitigate against the assurance of murder without reprisal).

Despite the thousands of Afghani civilians sacrificed to the cause of vengeance, the good crusaders failed to “get their man” in the caves of Afghanistan. Now, through some wondrous miracle of conceptual fraud, a new demonic face has replaced that of Bin Ladin, and this has permitted a new war to be launched by the avenging forces of good. The dust has barely cleared from the cluster bombs that ravaged Afghanistan and the corpses of their innocent civilians have barely been laid to rest, when a new war against a new evil has spawned a new dichotomy: “You’re either with the war against Iraq or you’re against the USA troops.” This too is an utterly false dichotomy. Putting aside the fact that the voices who are now calling for “support of the troops” are the same as those who knowingly and in conscience-free fashion exposed previous Gulf War troops to deadly depleted uranium, it is clear that those who really are concerned about the welfare of the troops would remove them from the way of physical and moral harm, by removing them from the site of a dangerous, illegal and unjust war.

However, rational arguments count for little with terrorized people, and the American people, constantly bombarded with red and orange alerts and panicked warnings of anthrax and other threats, have been kept in a state of terror since September 11, 2001. So it has been easy for the powers manipulating their fears to keep them locked in the oversimplified, radically polarized worldview that continues to legitimate murder rituals by carving up reality into two neat little parcels—the good guys and the evil others. It seems that Oscar Wilde was right when he said: “There are two kinds of people—those who think there are two kinds of people, and those who don’t.” For people who believe there are only two kinds of people, chances are that one of those “kinds” comes up acceptable, and the other comes up wanting. Such dichotomies remain faithful to archaic conceptualizations of world and continue to convey a logic that legitimates the murder of alien others from a position of purified belongingness.

The fact is that the convenient dichotomy of pure good over against pure evil is refuted by everyday experience. Evil is an altogether common event but it rarely arrives on the earthly scene unmixed with the good; even the gods are busy perpetrating “natural evils” in earthquakes, floods, aging, disease, and death. Human evil can occur in the best of families, as the overzealous parenting and the overbearing control that manifests itself in physical and emotional scars. And evil can show up in the best of nations under the sacred rubric of patriotism and national security. Terrorism and racism, imperialisms and fascisms can take deep root in a culture that sees its innocence under attack by evil others. Add a vengeful god into the logical mix and you have a recipe for conscience-free massacre.

Evil can hardly be separated, let alone purified, from the human condition. In fact, that little of evil that is avoidable generally comes about as a result of the moralizing gesture that demonizes difference in order to purify those spaces of innocence. The language and the logic of demonic contamination are very, very old, very insidious, and very seductive. They creep into our psyches when we are feeling most vulnerable and point the bloody way to order and security, while assuring the purification of the moralizer.

The first step toward breaking the false dichotomy of good versus evil and frustrating the consequent, moralizing gesture, comes with the classic philosophical move of self-examination—locating the sources of evil in the ambiguities of the self and in the sites of its deepest loyalties. It is difficult to remain self-righteous and moralizing toward others once one is exposed to the fact of one’s own morally ambiguous histories. And all people, all families, all villages and nations, no matter how elaborate their myths of innocence, have skeletons in their historical closets. Exposure of those dark secrets can be humbling to the individual and to the social group.

At this point in history, when the logic of the demonic other has found such ready reception in the hearts of so many Americans, stoking the fires of an unhealthy patriotism and rallying the god behind wars of revenge, it is important that voices within the academy not fall prey to the demonizing rhetoric, and take seriously their duty to their students—to supply them with a language and a conceptual framework that will allow reason rather than terrorized emotion to configure their thinking about current affairs. Recent histories of American foreign policy serve well this humbling rethinking of American myths of innocence. Many voices of conscience, from Noam Chomsky to Howard Zinn have been warning that America’s moral high ground has long been eroding. John Stockwell, high ranking CIA official turned critic-informant, has publicly exposed what he calls the CIA’s “War against the Third World,” one of the bloodiest and goriest wars in history directed at the poor peasants of Third World countries.

The dirty wars and covert actions that have, for more than five decades, been supporting American big business interests in the Third World through the most despicable of means (funding and training death squads, hiring Mafia and Nazis for secret assassination plots, payrolling drug lords for decades, deposing democratically elected leaders, and massacring its people if they attempted to nationalize their own resources) has eroded world confidence in American “innocence.” This “War against the Third World” has thus far taken the lives of over six million people from every continent of the globe, but its costs have been far greater than a corpse count can indicate: it has damaged American prestige in the world, it has cost global confidence in the purity of American intentions, it has cost the trust and admiration of friends and allies and, now, it has undermined the viability of the United Nations to effectively deal with global injustices.

One might wonder how is it that Americans have managed to maintain their myths of purity while the facts of their dirty dealings in the Third World have been coming to the fore in world news for decades—in the exposure of the Tonkin Bay fraud, the My Lai massacre, the Church Committee of 1987, and now the depleted uranium scandal of the first Gulf War? There is an easy answer to this mystery: the powers that have stood behind those dirty wars are aligned with the powers that control the media. Together they have kept the people distracted by keeping national attention focused—on the sins of others.

The average American knows well every blow by blow account of the O. J. Simpson trial, every illicit sexual encounter in the Oval Office. But she knows little of the ties between Reagan, Bush and the infamous drug lord Noriega, jailed in the USA for having the audacity to turn upon the hand that fed him and entertain southern leaders that sought to limit American interests in their nations’ affairs and resources.

The current invasion of Iraq may look like a new confrontation triggered by a new demon, radical Islamic terrorism. However, the present war has distinct consistencies with the string of atrocities committed in the name of murdering similar convenient demons in the Congo, Vietnam, Laos, Campuccia, Chile, Nicaragua, Iran, Panama, and, my personal favorite of the horror stories, Guatemala.

The new dichotomy of “beacon of freedom and opportunity” over against an “axis of evil” is also not so new. It stems from a much older dichotomy, one that served the CIA well in rallying support for their bloody schemes, since the end of World War II. This is another utterly false dichotomy that has yet to receive the scholarly attention it deserves, largely because historians of American history continue to teach purified forms of American “history” that keeps the seductive dichotomy intact and so its dangerous symbols grow more and more rooted every year, even in the academy.

The older dichotomy claims that there are two kinds of communities, based on two kinds of economic logic–capitalist and communist. Capitalism is associated with freedom, democracy, wealth, decent living conditions and enlightenment, while communism is associated with Russia and Stalin and oppression and torture and general poverty. This dichotomy served American (business) interests well. But demonizing communism served an important function: it purified the meaning of capitalism. Capitalism became the epitome of all good, free things over against its evil repressive opponent.

This too is an utterly false dichotomy. Not simply because we have never witnessed true communism instituted in the world, but because communism is not the antithesis of democracy; communism and capitalism compose two forms of “democratic” institution (from the Greek demos, the people, and kratein, to rule—that is, rule by the people). One could argue that communism, could it be effectively instituted, would be more democratic and more free than capitalism, since capitalism invariably signifies a hierarchy of wealth where inequalities compose the very structure of the system, and where the many struggle without adequate shares in the “common wealth” of the nation, one can hardly call a people free.

The myth that capitalism ensures freedom remains forcefully and functionally intact to maintain the false dichotomy of capitalism versus communism in the minds of many Westerners. However, capitalism is no guarantee of freedom for the people under its thrall—not economic freedom for the mass of people, not political freedom (as was made clear in America’s last presidential [s]election); not legal freedom (or the POW’s of Guantanamo Bay would be protected by their rights under the Geneva Conventions to receive humane treatment); not freedom from racial prejudice (or 12,000 Arabs would not have been detained September 12th without due process and without due cause beyond their racial profile); not freedom to speak, meet, act, express difference of opinion, enjoy right to privacy (or the freedom-defining amendments to the constitution would not be under attack by the Patriot Act).

Capitalism is not dedicated to the freedom of people; it is dedicated to the freedom of capital, the freedom of big business. Capital is freest when it moves about without obstruction, unencumbered by the pesky concerns of human rights (decent wages and conditions for workers), or national rights to ownership or ecological safeguards. Capital flows more freely when rules and regulations, taxes and tariffs don’t impede its flow. And where does it flow? The route is clear: capital travels from the poorest of the poor countries, to the richest of the rich countries, stopping en route to reward the leaders of each who protect its flow.

I have just repeated another dichotomy: I have posited rich Western nations over against poor Third World countries. This too is an utterly false dichotomy. Third World countries are not poor; they are rich in resources, a reality proven by the fact of their colonial rape in centuries past, and their continuing neocolonial rape in the global economy. The fact that big business is interested in them at all shows that it is not the countries that are poor. It is the people of those countries that are poor, because their countries’ resources and their labor potential are being strip-mined by rich Western corporations. This is happening because there are no safeguards protecting ecological and human interests; all the safeguards governing world trade are directed toward the free flow of capital, not the interests of those without capital.

It is our task as educators, as parents, and as responsible citizens of a country where, at least for now, we can continue to speak freely, to break these false dichotomies and help our young wards to develop an alternative language and a healthier conceptual framework that will enable them to think more rationally about current affairs. We must help them to understand the true roots of terrorism, not in the demonized religions of foreigners, but in the frustration and humiliation and the hopeless poverty effected by the neocolonial stranglehold of Western corporate hegemony.

Wherever people’s lives are rendered unlivable, there festers a hotbed that breeds religious fundamentalism, which preaches martyrdom, holy war, and death to infidels for the price of a better world for their children and the heavenly rewards of a transcendental gift system that promises greater justice than its earthly counterpart. If we want to break the cycles of violence that now engulf the globe, it is crucial that we expose the real cause of terrorism, the huge gap between the have’s and the have-not’s of this world, instead of rallying terrorism to increase that gap and justify the big business of war against demonized others.

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