Thursday, March 22, 2012


I have written before about the propensity of Americans to shoot first and ask questions later; specifically, what D.H. Lawrence, in his Studies in Classic American Literature, wrote a century ago, while analyzing Fenimore Cooper’s frontier heroes:

…you have there the myth of the essential white American. All the other stuff, the love, the democracy, the floundering into lust, is a sort of by-play. The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer. It has never yet melted.

However hyperbolic you might think this, the events of the past weeks offer little comfort and less repudiation. To begin with, we have the grisly murders in Afghanistan: on March 11, according to military authorities, staff sergeant Robert Bales stalked through two villages in Kandahar province and massacred 16 residents, including 9 children. So far, no one knows why he did it; he reportedly came back to his base and admitted that he had “taken out some military-aged males,” grunt-speak for ‘insurgents.’ Only later was it discovered that the “take-out” included mostly unarmed, defenseless women and children. Only later, too, was the “lone veteran” who snapped after his 4th deployment and financial troubles at home (Bales apparently owes over a million dollars due to a fraud he committed in his pre-military investment business), turned into the reigning theory. ‘These guys are overstressed,’ is the idea; ‘this guy has suffered traumatic head injuries and probably PTSD and god knows what else.’ And so Robert Bales gets whisked out of Afghanistan and then to the military prison at Fort Leavenworth in Kansas to be interrogated and psychoanalyzed and eventually tried for his crime. And while American pundits far and wide prognosticate about whether the psychological screening techniques for returning veterans are adequate, Americans in general accept the standard story of yet another really nice neighborhood boy just going berserk for unaccountable reasons, except perhaps the stress placed on poor servicemen sent back repeatedly to our neverending theater of war.

The people of Afghanistan, of course, are not so quick to absolve or explain Bales. In fact, most think he did not, could not have acted alone. Recent reports from journalists on site have found that the massacre actually took place a mere three days after an American tank on patrol in the village of Mokhoyan was destroyed (presumably by an IED). Moreover, several villagers and headmen have concurred in their report to the AP that shortly after the bombing, US and Afghan troops returned to the village, turned the residents out and lined them up against a wall, and warned them that they (the villagers) would pay dearly for this. According to villager Ahmad Shah Khan,

It looked like they were going to shoot us, and I was very afraid. Then a NATO soldier said through his translator that even our children will pay for this. Now they have done it and taken their revenge."

Ghulam Rasool, a tribal elder from the Panjwai district of Kandahar province, concurred:

"The Americans told the villagers, 'A bomb exploded on our vehicle. ... We will get revenge for this incident by killing at least 20 of your people.’ These are the reasons why we say they took their revenge by killing women and children in the villages."

U.S. media accounts, however, continue to portray the incident as just another case of a “lone nut” going berserk, probably after drinking too much. Hope lies in this portrayal: perhaps a more precise psychological test can identify such “nuts” a bit sooner (it is worth nothing that the current “tests” for psychological fitness are multiple-choice written tests, with no face-to-face interview with a therapist). Then, to invade another country that has not attacked us we will send only stable young men, well-adjusted soldiers who can kill in a more reasonable, humane, and justifiable manner.

“Justifiable” is the rationale for the Trayvon Martin murder as well. Martin, a 17-year-old black youth, was returning to his father’s house in a Sanford, Florida suburb on the night of February 26, after going to a convenience store for a drink and a bag of Skittles. George Zimmerman, a self-appointed neighborhood protector, spotted Martin from his SUV and found him ‘suspicious’. Leaving his car to follow Martin on foot, Zimmerman called 911 and offered the reasons for his suspicion: the alleged intruder was wearing a hoodie, he had his hand tucked into his waist, he was wandering about on a rainy night—and he was a black male. Though the 911 dispatcher told him not to follow Martin, Zimmerman stalked him anyway, lamenting that “these assholes, they always get away.” This time, however, the “asshole” didn’t get away. In the confrontation that followed—police say a voice heard on the 911 tape is Zimmerman calling for help; Martin’s parents say it is their son’s voice calling for help—Zimmerman shot and killed the boy, who (and how often must we hear this?) turned out to be unarmed. Trayvon Martin’s family has also produced evidence from another phone call that night, from a 16-year-old girl to her friend Trayvon, in which she advises him to run, but in which he insists he ‘won’t run but just walk away fast.’ The phone conversation also indicates that the girl heard Trayvon say 'Why are you following me?' and the other voice say, 'What are you doing around here?'

More than three weeks later, the killer, Zimmerman, has still not been charged with any crime. Apparently, the Sanford FL police, with hardly any investigation (they did test the dead person, Trayvon Martin, for drugs or alcohol, but not the killer, Zimmerman!), concluded it was a case of “self-defense.” This is due to Florida’s (and 17 other states’) ‘Stand your ground’ statute, passed into law in 2005 after fierce lobbying by the National Rifle Association. Such statutes add fuel to the so-called “Castle Laws” whereby a person has an unlimited right to defend his home, allegedly his castle, against intruders, up to and including the use of deadly force—which just wasn’t enough for Florida, the NRA and America’s gun-lovers. So the ‘stand your ground’ statute was enacted by the enlightened Florida legislature and signed by then-governor Jeb Bush. The statute allows the use of deadly force anywhere, at any time, whenever someone feels a threat. In short, in ‘stand your ground’ states, the (gun-toting) citizen who feels threatened is under no obligation to ascertain whether the threat is real or imaginary, no obligation to retreat (as previous law required) into his/her castle, but can “stand his ground” no matter where the threat occurs, and shoot to kill. According to a 2007 AP report reprinted on MSNBC’s website,

the new laws create an automatic presumption that a person is justified in using deadly force to ward off an attacker in just about any public place.

The same report quotes Ashley Varner, a spokeswoman for the NRA, regarding the laws:

We believe that self-defense is an innate human right and the law should never put the innocent victim of a crime in a position of having to second-guess themselves.”

Well, shit, who could ever argue with that? Apparently not even the U.S. Department of Justice, which, according to the most recent reports, is having second thoughts about interfering with local law authorities in the Trayvon Martin case. That’s because proving that George Zimmerman actually targeted Martin because of his race; or that Zimmerman's goal was to prevent Martin from using public streets, would be hard to prove beyond a reasonable doubt. Though Zimmerman identified Martin as ‘suspicious’ and ‘black’ in the same breath, that alone would not automatically prove racial profiling. Moreover, though the place where Martin was walking was a public street, it was also within a gated community.

Still, there may be hope that, if the phone call from Martin’s girlfriend holds up as evidence, it might suggest clearly that Zimmerman, contrary to his account and the police report that he was being attacked, was actually the aggressor.

As to the larger issue, the hope seems dimmer. What can possibly be the remedy for legally allowing a self-appointed vigilante (and this nation is teeming with them) to shoot someone for “walking while black?” What can ameliorate a situation in which difference—in dress, in skin color, in the timing of an evening walk—is automatically perceived as threatening, and in which feeling threatened automatically justifies killing someone? And beyond that, what is ever going to change an entire country’s conviction that the way to settle disputes, be they neighborly or international, is to shoot first and ask questions later? Especially when the unarmed victim (including nine children) is a different color or a different race or a different religion or a different culture? Because that’s really what this is about. The lives of some people matter; the lives of those who are black or ‘ragheads’ or ‘slants’ or ‘A-rabs’ do not. They can be exterminated upon the slightest provocation, and sometimes with no provocation at all. That is really what the NRA stands for: the right to hunt and shoot that which is different, be it a game animal, a foreigner, or a dark infringer of white, American space. It is a sickness with deep roots in our culture and history, one which, even a hundred years after D.H. Lawrence pointed it out, shows little signs of melting.

Lawrence DiStasi