One of the more frustrating — not to say stupider — arguments I run into when talking to people about Iraq is the one about “why can’t they just stop killing each other?” or “we liberated their country and then they started looting it” or “we don’t act like that here when things don’t go our way” or some variation of the same. The idea that as Americans we’re better, we behave in a manner befitting our Constitution, we don’t do political violence and we don’t kill to solve our problems.
Every time I hear it I just want to laugh, out of sheer frustration and the knowledge that there’s only so many times you can bang your head on the wall before it starts to dent the wall. Because really? We’re so different? We’re so much better? We’ve all learned to live with each other in perfect paradise, that we can look in utter befuddlement at people settling scores and enacting long-held revenge fantasies and taking what they think is theirs and acting, in short, precisely like human beings, no more virtuous, no less vicious? We’re all okay now, that we can say it would never happen here.
I’m not talking equivalencies here, that Iraq is just like Detroit or the West Side. I’m not talking statistics. I’m talking motivations and emotions. To pretend that we don’t understand how people can be like this is to ignore not only our own past but our present, a present in which people shoot through the windows of a black man’s house because he had the temerity to run for public office, a present in which we walk down one street but not another and say one neighborhood is “good” and another is “bad,” a present in which our politicians declare that it’s really no big deal, your ancestors having been sold like cattle, so just chilll out already, is to pretend to ignorance of the highest order.
“We don’t kill each other over politics in this country,” somebody said to me recently, forgetting Martin Luther King, Robert F. Kennedy, Abraham Lincoln even, asserting our inherent superiority and evolutionary adulthood.
(I mean: Jesus H. Christ in a chicken basket. We don’t kill each other over politics. At our best, no, we don’t. Not directly, anyway. De facto apartheid, educational inferiority, the kind of victim-blaming that makes deliberate ignorance of poverty possible, no, we don’t kill over politics. Not with guns. We let economics do it for us. If only the Iraqis were so civilized.)
We do it here. Maybe not as often, maybe not all at once, maybe not on TV. Maybe there aren’t panels on CNN, maybe nobody asks Jonah Goldberg and Charles Johnson to weigh in with their nuanced views of what the United States goverment should do to intervene, but we do it here. We’ve got no right to say we don’t understand.