discomfort (2007-11)

Own It

They're our people, and it's our problem

by Steve Dupree

Imagine you are in a home, perhaps your own home. Imagine then that you see a cockroach. If you are like most folks I know, your first impulse is to kill the cockroach. Almost no one, even those who might choose not to kill the cockroach, would find your actions remarkable, even though it could possibly be argued that the cockroach in the home that you own, probably having eaten food you, albeit unwittingly, provided, is your cockroach. Still, killing the cockroach is no big deal because to your way of thinking, you have no significant relationship with the creepy, crawly insect.

You could expand this concept to a larger geographical area. The coyote that is feeding on the livestock that you have on your ranch or farm could well be considered your coyote. Even though it is your coyote and you have been feeding him and you have provided a living environment for him, you would not be considered especially bloodthirsty if you were to set a trap, shoot, or hire someone to shoot the pest. De facto ownership does not instate or imply any other relationship.

In war, it is pretty common to dehumanize the enemy. We call them "nicknames" that do not in any way connote respect or a level of value for the individual or culture. We do that so that we can kill them with little to no compunction. Sometimes we lie (or are lied to) about the enemy, especially when we want the war to be fought and/or if we stand to profit from the action. We don't want our guys in uniform to hesitate, thinking about what they have in common with the person that they are getting ready to kill. No, we want them to kill quickly and kill often. Damn the PTSD as somebody else's problem.

We tend to group ourselves according to any of several characteristics that we pretty much arbitrarily decide are important. Those characteristics denoted as important can and do change. They also differ according to the group we are identifying with at any given moment. In it's essence, this is tribalism. We humans, and other species, feel an overwhelming need to belong. We simply must belong to some group. It seems to be a genetic (or even, dare I say, evolutionary) imperative.

The important thing to consider here is that we treat other members of our tribes differently than we treat non-members. Whether we are talking about genetic families, professional organizations, motorcycle clubs, street gangs, church congregations and/or denominations, school alumni, or citizenship groups at the micro or macrocosmic level, they are all tribes that we are either thrust into via circumstances outside of our control or have selected for ourselves. (In my experience, there seems to be no important distinction between self-selected tribes and those formed of no conscious choice. Once you identify yourself as a tribe member, you act tribally to those in and out of your tribe.)

One of the lies that has been told so often as to become accepted as truth is that Saddam Hussein "gassed his own people." I have heard countless justifications for the war in Iraq and the subsequent execution of Saddam that used that phrase. In particular, those who would defend the current Bush (mis)administration trot out that phrase or some version of it for every argument. They are wrong. Period. It is incredibly obvious that Saddam did not consider those folk his tribal kinsmen.

If one accepts the verbiage of the new testament of the Bible as truth, then it would be accurate and reasonable to say that Saddam killed our people since we are all brothers and therefore of the same tribe. It would make far more sense to be upset at such a thing. Of course, if you accept that, you would have to acknowledge that we are now doing exactly the same thing. We are killing our people, our tribesmen.

I suppose that is an argument for regime change in the United States, if what is sauce for the goose truly is sauce for the gander. If one does not accept that those Kurds and Shia were our tribesmen, even though our predominant religious icon says so, then one also has to accept that we cannot make them be of Saddam's tribe simply by us saying so.

In any case, that matters not. Only the most barbaric sort of non-human animal would consider a lack of tribal affiliation between a killer and those killed to be an ameliorating factor in mass murder. The individual who would use such a justification as "gassed his own people" clearly identifies him or herself as, at best, having no greater morality than Saddam.