Like most people, my mind has been seized by the massacre at Virginia Tech this week. But rather than dwell on the insanity of America’s obsession with guns or the overwhelming percentage of the world’s gun murders that take place in the USA (over 80%, with America also accounting for 41 of 52 worldwide school shootings since 1996), I have been mulling over the notion of bullies. The killer at Virginia Tech armed himself with two automatic pistols and a legion of bullets, which overwhelming firepower enabled him to pick off 32 defenseless schoolmates trapped in classrooms or dorm rooms. And though he ranted and raved about his animus towards the rich and powerful, whom he blamed for "making me do this," he avoided attacking any authority figures. Rather, he targeted those who had no chance whatever to fight back. And when the police finally threatened to reach him, he shot himself to death rather than confront those who were comparably armed.
He was, in short, a coward and a bully (intensely resentful, apparently, of having been bullied himself). The two often go together. And the sad thing is that the nation in which he created his mayhem has often, in recent years, provided him with a model for such behavior. George W. Bush, the man who sets the tone for the nation as a whole, could hardly contain his eagerness to strike out at someone, anyone, in response to 9/11. First he sent American forces into Afghanistan, a beleaguered, impoverished nation with no air force and virtually no army. Within a matter of days, and with the help of warlords in the north of the country, American forces had overrun the country and ejected the ruling Taliban from power. This was not enough to satisfy Bush’s blood lust, however; another punching bag was needed. And so, in March of 2003, Bush unleashed the overwhelming power of America’s military—missiles, bombers, the whole panoply of satellite-directed munitions including tanks equipped with uranium-tipped shells—for a "shock and awe" attack on Baghdad.
What was seldom mentioned in all the commentary about this unprovoked invasion, was the condition of the nation Bush was flattening. First, at full strength Iraq is a nation of only 25 million people, a puny number when compared with the 300 million in the American behemoth opposing it. Second, thanks to 12 years of devastating American-instigated sanctions which deprived it of medicines, water-purifying equipment, and virtually all technology (not to mention the WMD which were alleged to be the reason the US had to "defend itself"), Iraq had been reduced from the most prosperous nation in the Middle East to a third-world basket case. Almost daily bombings in the so-called "no-fly zones" in the north and the south for a dozen years had crippled its minimal defenses even further.
These, then, are the two nations our macho leader decided to attack. And the conclusion cannot be avoided: rather than risk conflict with Saudi Arabia or Egypt, where most of the 9/11 hijackers originated, the United States focused its wrath on two of the poorest, most devastated nations in the world.
If such "kicking the wife or the family dog" could simply be attributed to the cowardice of George W. Bush and his "chicken-hawk" war team, one might come away with a general principle for American voters: don’t choose pusillanimous bullies (and draft dodgers) as Presidents. But a look at recent American foreign adventures shows that Bush’s behavior was but an extreme instance of a common pattern. Ronald Reagan, that great movie warrior, did much the same when he sent American forces to knock off the "powerful" nation of Grenada. And George H.W. Bush did something similar when he dispatched a powerful American force to nab our one-time ally in Panama, Manuel Noriega. Before that, of course, there was our decade-long devastation of Vietnam, and Cambodia; and still earlier, our invasion and long occupation of Korea; with, in between, our dismantling of nationalist governments in Iran, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Chile, and Bosnia, to name a few.
In each of these places, the bully principle holds: attack with modern armaments, making sure that the nation or people you attack are not equipped with even remotely comparable weaponry. Indeed, this is the principle behind our current threats towards Iran. The United States has by several orders of magnitude the largest arsenal of nuclear weapons in the world, besides being the only nation to ever employ such a weapon, having dropped two of them on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, respectively, at the end of World War II. It has established alliances with most of the nations it has allowed to also develop nuclear weapons: England, France, Russia, China, and more recently India, Pakistan and, of course, Israel, the latter three having developed such weapons in violation of the U.S.-inspired Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Iran, by contrast, signed on to that treaty, and so far has abided by its terms. Most estimates calculate that even if it were moving towards a weapon, it would be at least 5 and probably 10 years before it could construct one. And yet, Bush and his Israeli allies have evidently planned devastating strikes against suspected Iranian nuclear facilities because…yes, because Iran cannot, under any circumstances, be trusted with nuclear weapons.
The reason is clear: the United States will not tolerate such a weapon in the hands of a potential adversary. Such a weapon, in the event of a conflict, would be too much of a threat, too much of a deterrent. Deterrent to what? A deterrent to the type of bullying that the United States insists on reserving to itself. This is always the case with bullies: nothing like equality of power can be permitted or even contemplated. The bully must always reserve to himself the overwhelming preponderance of force. Otherwise, some upstart might manage to land an injurious blow, and that could hurt. Nor is it coincidence that this principle has actually been articulated in the national security posture as announced by the Bush Administration, to wit, that American power must be increased to such overwhelming superiority, particularly in outer space, that no nation would be foolish enough to even think of challenging it, much less resisting its demands.
Nor is this to say that the United States stands alone in this posture. The sad fact is that every modern nation state takes the same stance, if not with regard to rival nations, then most decidedly with respect to its own population. Indeed, the state can be defined as that entity which arrogates to itself the sole right to employ violence. No civilian can take another’s life (unless that murder is sanctioned by war with an enemy). The state alone can take life, the state alone can exact revenge or impose punishment. And individuals who dare to transgress this most fundamental of laws are condemned as criminals, hunted down, and punished. Most humans agree to this social contract in exchange for the order and putative justice a state brings to human society. But increasingly, in modern times, the state has become the greatest threat to both individuals and to justice. Increasingly, the organized violence of the state is directed at its own population in the effort to control opposition to its injustices, in order to put down protest or rebellion by its long-suffering population. And the rule of the bully operates here even more dramatically: the state brings enormous and irresistible firepower to bear against essentially defenseless civilian populations.
In the same vein, modern wars are almost exclusively waged in our time by nations employing overwhelming weaponry against civilian populations. The attack on civilian populations, indeed, has become the most common tactic of modern warfare—all in the effort to so demoralize the enemy government that it will give up rather than sustain such damage to its people. This was the announced rationale behind the atomic bombings of Japan. It was the rationale behind the firebombing of German cities like Dresden as WWII neared its end. And it is the rationale behind Israel’s attacks on mostly unarmed Palestinians in the occupied territories, as well as its recent depradations in Lebanon.
The lesson is obvious: bullying by gun-toting cowards has become the norm in our time. Should we, then, be surprised to see this pathology playing out in episodes like the one at Virginia Tech? Hardly. Nor, for that matter, should we permit ourselves to sanctimoniously condemn that insane behavior without examining our own part in what we have allowed to become, more than baseball, a national pastime.