the assumption of responsibility for the welfare of the world











2004 April 9


“¡Camina!”, shout the Roman soldiers, over and over. Roughly translated, “Move it!” They beat the man again and again, as he drags on his shoulder the heavy piece of wood to which he will shortly be nailed, to hang, suffer, and eventually suffocate. He is not the real Jesús, of course, just the fortunate young man chosen to play Jesús at the Catholic church on my block. A few weeks ago I saw the rehearsal; tonight, Good Friday, I saw the grand performance, looking out my window, watching the congregation trailing the Messiah, celebrating the traditional passion play as so much carnival. This year, of course, passion plays are inevitably compared to the latest film adaptation, Mel Gibson’s brutal depiction of torture and execution, which has now grossed three hundred million dollars more than Gibson personally invested to tell the story of the Lord that he worships. Gibson is a religious extremist, an ultraconservative, a gore fetishist; but he has clearly found a ready audience. I think his religion every bit as fictional as the procession I have just witnessed. The story of Jesus’s life is filled with obvious fabrications; how can we believe any of it? In fact, I was convinced several years ago that the gospels probably began as a passion play; that is, they were written as drama and later taken for history. But for most that is not even a possibility; virtually all of the world believes Jesus to have been historical, half the world believes him to have been holy, and a full third believes him to have been nothing less than God. Today, by the traditional reckoning, was the day of his execution.

One year ago today, Baghdad fell to US forces, marking the effective end of the tyranny of Saddam Hussein. Thirty-five years of killing and torture were brought to an end with a brief but deadly invasion. But Iraq is now in the midst of the worst violence since the war itself. A few days ago, four US civilian combatants were ambushed, burned, and killed, their bodies mutilated and hanged while the mob cheered. Islam has perhaps the most reverent traditions towards corpses, which made these actions all the more shocking. But unlike those who find these the actions of a few animals, I suspect the killings and mutilations, if not the celebration of the crowd, were calculated acts, attempting to drive the US from Iraq as it was driven from Somalia. Rather than a withdrawal, though, the mob in Fallujah has secured itself an escalated assault.

After Yankeeland conquered Dixie in the nineteenth century, a movement surfaced in the South among the newly-disempowered whites to reclaim the privilege they once enjoyed. While it is true that the motives of the North were far from pure, the end result was just ― the slaves in the South were liberated, and given full political and social rights. That the Ku Klux Klan and its like succeeded in rendering those rights null is known to history, and no one would dream of characterizing the Klan as a noble effort. The Iraqi resistance among Sunni Arabs is precisely the same thing as the Klan. Those who used to rule, and rule despicably, are attempting to seize power anew, to subjugate Iraq anew, and are portraying their kind as victims of occupation and carpetbagging so effectively that some outsiders even take them for victims, and some of the actual victims of that very rule are now sympathetic to them, believing that, indeed, the US and its allies are in Iraq to deprive Iraqis of their rights. But if the US were to withdraw, it would not empower the long-suffering ordinary Iraqis, but merely open the way for their former masters.

Meanwhile, in the Shi‘ite territories of Iraq, a second resistance has developed, led by a young cleric with disturbing goals and disturbing methods. Shi‘a Islam is fairly messianic to begin with; Muqtada al-Sadr calls his militia “al-Mahdi”, referring to an Islamic messiah, while his followers chant his name and pledge their eternal devotion to him. It is no accident that the army is led by a cleric. Muqtada al-Sadr is pursuing a theocracy, with himself as the chosen savior, Ruhollah Khomeini and then some. He could not win an election, thankfully, but he believes he can take advantage of the chaos in Iraq to establish his rule by force. He, too, is decrying the occupation to make his own cause more sympathetic, stirring up nationalist pride and religious hatred to serve his own aggrandizement. And in his case, he is speaking to and claiming to speak on behalf of the masses who genuinely were oppressed in the old Iraq. He could not defeat Saddam. But now that Saddam has been defeated, he looks to transfer the hatred of tyranny that Iraqis learned under Saddam to the US occupation, and step in as liberator before anyone notices that he himself is a tyrant. Should he succeed, he will assuredly take credit for ending both Saddam’s rule and the occupation. He will also, most assuredly, rule from his own whim with his own interpretation of the Qur’an behind it. Today he says, Be with Muqtada and you are with Allah. Tomorrow he will say, Be against Muqtada and you are against Allah.

Three days ago marked the ten-year anniversary of the start of the Rwandan genocide, a successful assassination of the Hutu presidents of Rwanda and Burundi which provided the excuse for a long-planned massacre of Tutsis and moderate Hutus, hundreds of thousands of them, perhaps a million. A hundred thousand apparently-ordinary individuals deliberately murdered their own neighbors with crude weapons, piling the bodies up and dumping them in rivers. This mass murder took place in full view of the world, which could easily have ended it but carefully chose not to, despite the existence of fifty years of moralizing and legislating against this very occurrence. Even in the bloody twentieth century, it was a horrific event; and it rendered empty all that was said after the Holocaust.

By accident of calendar, there has been much occasion recently to think about the brutality that we subject our own kind to. In particular, the anniversaries of today bring to mind two remarkably-similar images: the statue being hauled down, the cross being hauled up. Of what use are these powerful images? What good comes of being reminded that humans are horribly violent, if it leads to nothing substantive? Did the liberals who bemoaned the mass murder in Rwanda ― and called for armed intervention ― not oppose every effort to end the mass murder in Iraq? Do the conservatives who bemoan the torture and execution of Jesus not ignore or even condone the torture and execution of political dissidents throughout the world? Is there more to be had than hollow posturing, creating the appearance of compassion while masking its utter absence?

The obvious thing that the Rwandan génocidaires, the Baathists, and the Mahdi Army, Pontius Pilate, Muqtada al-Sadr, and Saddam have in common is that they believed themselves entitled to rule over their fellow humans, and violence was but a tool in service of that rule. Another thing, though, is that they were minorities among populations that could have stopped them. Even the Roman Empire could not overpower all of its subjects at once. And in today’s world, there is enough information, strength of organization, and, especially, force in the hands of the supposedly-well-intentioned to bring to a swift end all the oppression and oppressive violence that currently exists. But there is no will; there is no conviction.

We have seen, thanks to Slobodan Milosevic, how quickly a trial on the most serious crimes can degenerate, literally, into farce. Saddam’s case is much worse, and he himself is the greater showman. Rather than witness that spectacle, let us hire Mel Gibson and his writing partner for a good courtroom drama. Saddam can even play himself. Tom Cruise, of course, will play the prosecuting attorney, who cleverly extracts a confession in an ending twist which I will not reveal. Saddam will get the Oscar and spend the rest of his career playing the avuncular widower who parcels out wisdom while fishing on the pier. As for Rwanda, forget the stone memorials and the mounds of human skulls. Let us have an annual reenactment at the local community center, populated by young persons with cardboard machetes who make the most of their melodramatic lines. The stage will fill with “bodies”, we’ll hiss at the villains, and afterwards have cake and ice cream.

The alternative is to take all of this seriously, to treat the memories of dreadful violence as a summons to act against it, to use our full power to stop those who would make it a reality. But though we claim to believe it a reality, we do not act as such. It may as well be a movie, since we have no intention of redressing it. We have no more intention to end the suffering in the real world than we do to depose Emperor Palpatine, defy Prince Humperdinck, or cut down the Jewish preacher who has been hoisted onto a wooden death apparatus. You’ve seen the show; you know the fellow I’m talking about.


Original version


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