How war brutalizes all of us – 2

In July 1983, during the week of mob rule in Sri Lanka triggered by the killing of 13 government soldiers by Tamil separatist guerillas, a large number of Tamil prisoners in one of the government jails were brutally murdered by their fellow inmates in ways that are too gruesome and harrowing to describe here. Since the Tamil prisoners were suspected of being separatist rebels, they had been held in a separate section of the prison from the Sinhala prisoners who had murdered them, so the question naturally arose as to how these this atrocity could have been committed.

The ‘official’ story put out by the government was that the Sinhala prisoners had overcome their guards, taken their keys, released themselves, obtained various weapons, gained access to the Tamil prisoners, murdered them, and then returned to their own cells voluntarily.

This story was so preposterous that no thinking person would give it any credence. It was obvious that there had to be collusion between the prison authorities and the Sinhala prisoners to kill the Tamil prisoners as an act of revenge for the killing of the Sinhala soldiers by Tamil separatist guerillas.

What was appalling to me at the time was the readiness of so many people whom I knew well (friends, relatives, colleagues) to accept this official story at face value. Even if they doubted the story, they condoned the murders in other ways, saying that it was just as well that the prisoners had died since they were probably bad people and guilty of other crimes and that society was well rid of them. I remember being sickened by such sentiments, more so because they were being uttered by people whom I thought I knew well and who I thought would share my horror at what was, essentially, government-sanctioned murder.

This is how war brutalizes all of us and not just the soldiers who fight them. We end up as apologists for any and all actions taken by ‘our’ side, first the soldiers and then for their superiors all the way up the chain of command. We start looking at and judging things, not from basic principles of law and human rights and humane behavior, but by seeing who did the actions. If they were done by ‘our’ side, we find reasons to excuse them. If they were done by the ‘enemy’, we condemn them.

In the previous post, I discussed the case of prisoner abuse and torture and murder that is now going on as part of the so-called ‘war on terror.’ Some day people will look back at our time and wonder what kind of people we were to allow this kind behavior to be done in our name. They will ask what kind of people we were to let the government set up secret camps in foreign countries where people could be held without trial indefinitely, without contact with the outside world or lawyers or family, and where they could be tortured and killed and ‘disappear.’

These things have happened in the past and history has never looked kindly at those episodes. We wonder now how the people in those countries then could have permitted such acts on other human beings. Now we know how this can happen, because that process of gaining public acceptance for acts that would be considered barbaric if done by others is unfolding before our eyes. But we will see it if only we care to look.

The first thing governments do to get the public to acquiesce in such acts is to instill deep fear in people by making them think that they are being stalked and attacked by dark and shadowy forces that could be secretly living among them. After having frightened the public, they say that the government has to resort to all these police-state measures in order to protect the public from attacks by this enemy. It is argued that to insist on due process is to shackle the government in its efforts and that those people who try to uphold the principles of law are in effect aiding the terrorists. And this strategy seems to work, making a prophet out of Nazi reichmarshall Hermann Goering who said that any people in any country can always be made to support any war that the government wants to fight.

[T]he people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in any country.” (Hermann Goering to Gustave Gilbert, author of “Nuremberg Diary”(Farrar, Straus and Company, 1947, pp. 278-279.)

Since most people do not like to think that ‘our’ side is capable of doing anything bad, we tend to try and find excuses and justifications for the actions of those on ‘our’ side. The government prejudges people by using language describing them as ‘terrorists’ and ‘evildoers,’ so that people overlook the fact that very often no evidence had been brought against such people and that for all we know, they may be just as innocent as you or I. For example, in the White House press briefing on November 9, Press Secretary Scott McLellan said “Under our system, there is a presumption of innocence.” This is an admirable sentiment but here he was referring to questions raised about the indictment and possible pardon of Vice President Cheney’s chief of staff Lewis Libby. But are we committed to applying the presumption of innocence to everyone? Or just to well connected and influential people?

We are at that stage now where we have to make choices. Do we wish to live in a nation of laws where people are presumed innocent until proven guilty, where we do not have to fear being dragged from our homes in the middle of the night and taken to locations where no one has access to us and possibly tortured? Do we want to preserve the constitutional and due process laws that have been won with such difficulty and that protect the lives and freedoms and ideals that are articulated so clearly in the opening paragraphs of the Declaration of Independence and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights? Or are we going to docilely surrender them and live in a nation like Argentina during its ‘dirty war’ where secret prisons, military tribunals, torture, and the disappearance in the night of people are routine events?

That we have to even pose such questions is an indication of how brutalized and compromised we all have become by war.

POST SCRIPT 1: Anything goes, as long as it can be kept secret

A curious footnote to this story of secret prison camps in the above posting. The Republican leaders of the Senate and House are furious, not that such secret prisons were created, which would be what outrages sane people, but that the news of their existence was made public. Senator Frist further goes on to say that he is “not concerned about what goes on” behind the prison walls. Have these people no sense of decency left? Don’t they even pretend to uphold humane behavior. And he is a doctor, swearing to do no harm?

But just afterwards, Senator Trent Lott said that the camps were discussed by the Senate Republicans at a meeting with Vice President Cheney the day before the news story. See here for a CNN report.

POST SCRIPT 2: Please support

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