The title is an allusion to a widely noticed piece by Asia Times correspondent Pepe Escobar on the massacre conducted by an American terrorist in the district of Panjwayi in Kandahar. I chose this title because after the killings and its subsequent events and how the situation was handled by the media and the American military it became evident that certain behaviour patterns have established themselves and all you can feel as an Afghan is anger.
Details of the, and just this one time I’ll be neutral, “incident” have emerged and we now know that the killer went from house to house, rounded up the inhabitants and shot them one by one, regardless of age or gender.
What I have described so lethargically in one simple sentence has in fact been one of the most horrendous war crimes ever perpetrated by a service member of the United States Army. In order not to spare you all the gory details you may picture a soldier kicking in the doors of mudhouses in two villages in Afghanistan, waking up the people who live there, stuffing his rifle in the mouths of 2-year old toddlers, pulling the trigger and enjoying to see their brains splatter onto the walls.
Given the more or less fake outcry this war crime sparked in the Western media it strikes me that it had to be an Afghan journalist, Qais Azimy, that drew our attention back from the perpetrator to the victims of this heinous crime by making us aware of the fact that, once again, no one asked the victim’s names. The fact that this focus-shifting piece was, as usual, published on Al Jazeera is just a footnote in the order of events of a farce that to most of us Afghans seems like a broken record that keeps repeating itself throughout the last 11 years of Afghanistan’s history.
Before we get into that let’s rewind for a bit and remind ourselves of who we are talking about.
We are talking about Mohammad Dawood, the first victim of the rampage. His brother had to scrape his brain and pieces of his skull from the floor. We’re talking about Shah Tarina, a 60-year old grandmother. Then there’s Bibi Zohra and her daughters Nabiya (4), Farida (6) and Masooma (9) and their brothers Faizullah (12) and Ismatullah (13) as well as their nephew Essa Mohammad (15). We’re also talking about their newly-wed uncle Akhtar Mohammad (20) and his wife Bibi Nazia (18).
And then there is Palwasha, 2 years old, who, according to her father had no bullet marks and has not been shot but burned alive. It must take a lot of guts, hate, psychic problems – you name it – to shoot a human being. What it takes to burn a 2-year old child alive is beyond comprehension.
That makes it 11 humans from one family. Wiped out from the surface of earth like they never existed, only their blood on the walls left as a witness to their existence and their gruesome passing from this world.
The terrorist then moved on to the next household, that of Syed Jaan, and killed his wife, brother, brother-in-law and his 3-year old nephew. His niece, Zardana, 6-years old has been shot in the head and is still alive, but not expected to survive.
About humans and non-humans
The cautious attempts of some media outlets at insinuating the area to be a hotbed of Taliban activity came to me as no surprise. Neither did the fact that the military was quite fast at trickling bits of information on the assumed health status of the terrorist to the media, sparking interest in him, his past and his family. It all started with his name, Staff Sergeant Robert Bales, which, despite the usually tight-lipped American military, was released to the public, even before anyone even asked about who the victims were, let alone ask for their names. His wife and children were relocated “to a safe place” right after the incident and the military attempted to wipe out every reference to him from its websites, because “they owed it to his family”. But when Army Major Nidal Hasan went on a killing spree in November 2009 such courtesy was not extended to him or his relatives.
The methodology of labeling the victims of wars is not a feat unique to how Western militaries run and sell their wars but common across the globe. Demonstrators become “rioters” and members of opposition parties are quickly identified as “terrorists” or “financed by neighbouring countries”. Regimes in Muslim countries invented that, no doubt about that.
What is different though is the methodology of dehumanizing the victims, a technique, given the high number of casualties produced by them and the watchful eyes of the moral instances called “media” and “journalists” that they’re under, invented in the West. A killing becomes an “incident” and an atrocity becomes a “mistake”. The American militaries’ marketing machinery releases tiny bits of information that the media grabs and analyzes over and over again but independent research is barely happening. Journalism is expensive and we live in an age where a royal wedding attracts thousands of journalists from all countries all over the world but questioning information the military releases is barely done. What adds up to this is the fact that the media has never shied away from turning into an accomplice in instigating wars and inflaming opposing parties against each other.
So you dehumanize the victims but you also need to shift attention away from the atrocity itself, towards the perpetrator, or perpetrators, and try to build a case and story around his or their actions. Usually the story involves, allegedly, defective chains of command, misunderstandings or insufficient training.
The average human being is accustomed to naming and visualizing the things he talks or reads about. A Bin Ladin has a name and a face and he can be declared an enemy of the state. He can be chased, killed or even, theoretically, put on trial. His face can be shown on TV and he can be declared as the reason why Afghanistan needs to be invaded.
But how does one pursue a lawsuit against a face- and lifeless concept such as a chain of command, a misunderstanding or insufficient training? Responsibility is spread across so many heads that the target gets blurry. Cases like this either seep away, end up in an acquittal or a scapegoat is found that is convicted and locked away, not just physically but also away from all media attention.
But in case of a sole perpetrator, personal issues come into play as well.
The perpetrator is given a name and identified, which shifts responsibility away from the military and attention defocused from his victims. His family story is released to the public and his caring and worried wife is put more or less in the spotlight. A Joe the Plumber is pulled, intended to align the perpetrator’s personal situation to that of the average Joe, by, e.g., releasing information on his poor financial situation. By now the audience is more or less identifying with him by telling itself “If I was in his situation this could have also happened to me.”.
If you go to war, then go the ‘f’ to war
How does one justify not risking the lives of its own soldiers by throwing off bombs from a plane instead of sending in ground troops? Going to war is not what it used to be. It has become a commodity, a computer game in which lifeless creatures need to sacrifice their life for the greater good.
So if an Afghan that has lost his entire family, thanks to an American cluster bomb – yes, bombs now have nationalities – thrown on his village, goes on a revenge spree then it’s safe to put him in the pre-labeled box “Terrorist”, with no right for trauma, anger or even pride, but if an American soldier does the same then, paying tribute to the American self-perception as the keepers of good and opponents of evil, he is immediately, and I mean in the first reports that came in, referred to as “mentally unstable” and having “marriage problems”. This little distinction clearly exemplifies what dehumanization means.
It’s unclear what issues he really had and we will surely never find out but we can rely on the U.S. military regularly feeding us relevant information that will establish the distorted image of him they want us to have.
The traumas millions of Afghans are going through each and every single day don’t qualify for taking revenge, going Israeli on someone or even hating the invaders. They’ve been dehumanized well enough for the population of the invading country to go numb over the invaded’s pain or sorrow or fear.