John Buell

Whose Funerals Matter?

“This is Bryan Williams reporting from Kabul, Afghanistan. We are here at the funeral of Tariq Benamin, a 16-year-old killed recently during a drone attack. Tariq was a bright youngster, loved by family and friends. He loved soccer and aspired to represent his country in World Cup competition. All his relatives can do is shake their heads in disbelief that this has happened to so fine a boy. War goes on all around them, but they have no other desire beyond making a living and rearing their children.“

This was my fantasy as I watched the US media’s single-minded focus on the horrific violence in Newtown, Conn. It was hard not to weep for these children and their parents, but like Glenn Greenwald I could not help wonder how our corporate media can be so insensitive to the human costs of our relentless undeclared wars in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere.

Greenwald points out that the very fact we are at war with these nations leads to our need to dehumanize them: “there are nonetheless two key issues highlighted by the intense grief for the Newtown victims compared to the utter indifference to the victims of Obama’s militarism. The first is that it underscores how potent and effective the last decade’s anti-Muslim dehumanization campaign has been. Every war — particularly protracted ones like the “War on Terror” — demands sustained dehumanization campaigns against the targets of the violence. Few populations will tolerate continuous killings if they have to confront the humanity of those who are being killed….

But this dehumanization is about more than simply hiding and thus denying the personhood of Muslim victims of US violence. It is worse than that: it is based on the implicit, and sometimes overtly stated, premise that Muslims generally, even those guilty of nothing, deserve what the US does to them, or are at least presumed to carry blame.”

Greenwald’s insight leads to another question: Does this self-proclaimed “City Upon a Hill,” now a nation whose formerly majority whites sees their dominance questioned, need war with a vicious, unprincipled “other”? Is such a war needed in order to shore up its tenuous values, institutions, and sense of identity? The slipperiness of this other is evident in its characterization. It is defined only by its supposed “opposition to our freedoms” and often presented — despite formal denials — in racial terms. That there is little besides race or ideology upon which to base this war is evident in some of the most strident defenses of drone warfare. Thus as Greenwald points out, Time magazine’s Joe Klein defends drone attacks that kill innocent children in language that mirrors almost exactly Bin Laden’s defense of similar atrocities. In effect, for many mainstream US commentators a terrorist is no longer anyone of any ideological stripe who kills children for political ends. The category is limited to those who challenge — even nonviolently — our corporations or their values.

For all too many Americans, even such movements as Occupy Wall Street have been rendered as “terrorists.” Utah State political theorist Steven Johnston, in logic that would apply equally to US imperial ventures, points out: “Why is it that most Americans tolerate, even cheer, police violence against citizens? Is it that identification with gratuitous displays of state power allows them to imagine that they themselves also possess agency in a world that routinely and rudely reminds them they are impotent?”

Drone war speaks to our values and institutions in other ways as well. Their purported precision can be read as a tribute to our technological wizardry. In an era when US loss of jobs abroad and concerns about technology’s ability to manage nature have grown, it provides a deceptive ray of hope. Not surprisingly the corporate media have devoted hardly any attention to reports by independent scholars and journalists indicating that these “surgical” strikes kill about 50 innocent bystanders for every militant they gun down. Hence Americans are likely to be shocked by the blowback such indiscriminate killing evokes. Though often eager — often too eager — to find waste, fraud, or abuse in domestic programs — think the scrutiny that attended solar power grants — the military’s purported exploits are routinely granted carte blanche.

In this context one can get a sense of the way violence at home and abroad may resonate together. The availability of guns at home surely contributes to our national violence, but other cultural factors both encourage that access and foster destructive use of weaponry. The notion that as a people we can shoot our way to security surely has implications at home.

In addition, domestic gun politics affects and grows out of a larger ideological landscape. Mark Ames, author of Going Postal, and one who describes himself as once having a “reflexive contempt for people who haven’t gone shooting and tell you that gun control laws are the answer” now places the politics of guns in a broader context. He comments: “But what’s the purpose, what are the deeper ideological politics of that sort of gun-cult fanaticism?

Looking back at Big Business’ violent reaction against the New Deal and the political culture that it created: a more “collectivist” political culture, as the libertarians derisively call it, where people were more deeply involved with each other and their communities, and with that involvement in their politics and communities came greater trust in their communities. That political culture — where people were more involved in their politics and trusted government more than they trusted business — was a big problem, according to pollsters… hired by business lobby groups in the postwar era … Much better is to pour arms unrestricted into the population, give them legal cover and political encouragement to take political matters into their own hands with laws like “Stand Your Ground.” That way you wind up creating a political culture of atomized, fear-fueled citizens who think they’re literally at war with each other, and their only way out is to fend for themselves and their family.”

Thus gun politics crosses boundaries that supposedly divide the social issues from economic ones and foreign from domestic. Ames points out those types of mass-murder were once freakishly rare in America despite lax gun laws. “They only appeared at the end of the Reagan Era. First they happened in the workplace, concurrent with the destruction of labor unions and the transfer of wealth and workplace power into few hands.” Liberal Democrats’ virtual desertion of unions on such issues as card check leaves space for conservatives and gun advocates to promote weapons and “self-protection” as the answer to collective woes.

But addressing the concentration of economic power also entails countering the myth that we can shoot our way to prosperity and security. Surely a conversation about sensible gun laws that would still protect recreational and hunting interests is possible. Sports Illustrated writer Frank DeFord has commented that the politics of guns might change dramatically if the many avid hunters and target shooters who have no interest in and actively disdain automatic weapons would speak up. Such conversations would have an even better chance if accompanied by efforts to build alliances across religious and ethnic barriers here at home and across international borders to regulate the financial and environmental threats that pose the greatest dangers to hunters and the rest of us.

John Buell lives in Southwest Harbor, Maine, and writes regularly on labor and environmental issues. Email

From The Progressive Populist, February 15, 2013

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