September 17, 2012

A Very Brief Introduction to American Justice

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One week ago today was the 11th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks. This year, the anniversary was not only a day of mourning, but also a day of renewed violence. Muslims around the world took to the streets after an Islamophobic video portraying Mohammed as a rapacious murderer and child molester was broadcast on an Egyptian Islamist T.V. station. The protests, riots and attacks claimed over three dozen deaths worldwide, but here in America, coverage has focused on an attack on the U.S. Embassy in Libya, in which four Americans were killed. American leaders are calling for justice, Islamist protesters are carrying signs reading, “Behead those who insult Islam,” and filmmaker Nakoula Basseley Nakoula seems quite content to throw gasoline on the fire.

To understand this chain of events, we need to begin with the film itself: Innocence of Muslims. If you haven’t seen it yet, take the time to do so. It’s only 14 minutes long, and it provides a pretty concise introduction to bigotry and Islamophobia. Nakoula, an Egyptian-American Coptic Christian, doesn’t just portray Muhammad on film, which in itself has been enough to draw threats of violence in the past. Nakoula portrays Muhammad as a fraud, a pervert and a mass murderer. Innocence of Muslims is an incitement to racist and religious violence of which Goebbels would be proud. It’s bad. It’s really, really bad.

The reaction was no better. Salafists surrounded the U.S. Embassy in Egypt, tearing down the American flag and replacing it with the black Islamist flag. Protesters in Sydney beat at police officers with signs that said, “Our dead are in paradise. Your dead are in hell.” The U.S. Embassy in Libya was attacked with rocket-propelled grenades and other weapons, killing four Americans and 10 Libyan policemen.

The violence continued in the American reaction to the attacks. The statements American politicians made last week are an important part of the story of last week’s violence. Here’s President Obama, sounding more like President Bush than I ever thought he would:

“We are going to bring those who killed our fellow Americans to justice. I want people around the world to hear me. To all those who would do us harm: No act of terror will go unpunished.”

Sound familiar? America was still reeling from the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, when President Bush assured us, “Whether we bring our enemies to justice or bring justice to our enemies, justice will be done.”

If there was any doubt in my mind about what exactly Bush meant by justice, it dissipated one evening in May, 2011, when I heard students outside my dorm room chanting, “USA! USA!” Osama bin Laden was dead, and the country had spoken. When we say justice, we mean revenge. We mean hunting down the man responsible and shooting him in the head, even if it means killing tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians in the process.

Let me be clear: I in no way intend to condone or excuse terrorist violence. I just want us to be honest with ourselves about American violence and American bloodlust. When Americans get killed, the President goes on the television and promises to take an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. He codes his threats in the euphemistic language of justice and defending freedom. The bloody occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as the assassination of Osama bin Laden and countless others, show quite clearly what the American Empire means when it uses these words.

The threat of violence was perhaps most explicit in Mitt Romney’s response to the attacks last week. Romney said, “As we watch the world today, sometimes it seems that we’re at the mercy of events, instead of shaping events, and a strong America is essential to shape events. And a strong America, by the way, depends on a strong military. We have to have a military second to none and that’s so strong no one would ever think of testing it.” When someone in the crowd protested Romney’s politicization of the attacks, the protester was drowned out by the familiar chant of “USA! USA!”

Romney’s message is unusual for its explicitness, but not for its essential content. American politicians from all over the political spectrum are quite comfortable with the idea that because we have the most guns, we should be calling all the shots. In this, Obama has proven himself not much different from his Republican predecessor.

What emerges from this brief sketch of the events of last week is not a simple causal narrative. Indeed, some reports indicate that the attack in Libya was too organized to really be a response to the film. The terrorists may have merely used the film as an excuse to legitimize their otherwise-motivated attacks. Such sleight-of-hand is a recurring feature in the anatomy of revenge: The rage of the people is mobilized in the name of a struggle orchestrated by rather cool-headed individuals with a great deal to gain from violence.

Just as we should question the direct causal link which seems so clear between Innocence of Muslims and the attacks that followed, we should carefully question the direct causal link our leaders have drawn between the Sept. 11 attacks and the American invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. Vice President Dick Cheney, to give just one example, Chairman and CEO of Halliburton Company, had a great deal to gain from an America at war.

My point is not that America is to blame for the violence in the Middle East. Any number of factors are to blame for that violence. My point is rather that the American people have demonstrated repeatedly, throughout history, a fundamental affinity for violence, an affinity which has been exploited time and time again by those with the most to gain from war. Our understanding of our own violence must, in turn, inform our understanding of those we consider our enemies. When we raise our voices to condemn violence, let us not restrict our condemnations to the violence of the peoples we occupy.

Tom Moore is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be reached at ­tmoore@cornellsun.com. What Even Is All This? appears alternate Tuesdays this semester.

Original Author: Tom Moore

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