A Bug on the Windshield

Wednesday, February 5th, 2014

By Robert C. Koehler

The young guys were half a block ahead of us. Nothing was happening except that they were walking. A police car pulled up behind them, slowed to their pace, aimed a spotlight at them.

They were African-American (did you guess?), numbering maybe half a dozen. They weren’t intimidated. Some of them stopped, stood staring at the police car, talking to it; this had obviously happened before. The spotlight continued to shine in their faces. Other young men crossed the street in front of the car and joined the crowd. The game went on for a while: the slow saunter, the cops driving along next to them, the light in their faces.

Chicago, Chicago! My kind of town, but not this. How weird to see the moment unfold as I was walking along Pratt Avenue, through my own ’hood. The energy I felt was immensely unpleasant — racial profiling, pointless discord. Young black men in Chicago have to know their legal rights; that’s simply the way it works. These guys obviously did.

Suddenly the light snapped off. The police car accelerated, drove away. That was it. No further confrontation. The young men kept walking. I was an observer in an occupied zone.

“But there is little or no discussion of larger social or cultural forces in the United States and the American institutions or leaders who bully other countries or workers and citizens at home.”

Thus wrote Yale Magrass and Charles Derber, in an essay published at Truthout, called “Bully Nation.” Their point is that, while suddenly bullying is a big deal and officially recognized as problematic, the public debate on the matter focuses almost entirely on troubled loners, when in fact no bully ever acts out of purely personal motives. Everyone acts within a social, cultural and political context, and that context is one that, in so many ways, rewards — indeed, reveres — bullying and domination.

Worse than that, as the fleeting moment of police harassment I watched unfold in front of me seems to indicate, this is almost all we know, at least in an official, policymaking sense. When there’s a problem, or a potential problem, our impulse is to dominate it. When this makes things worse, we look at every new problem thus created in painful isolation, as a specimen under the microscope.

And thus we never learn anything that challenges official policy — or wrestles with the official myths that underlie our culture: Winning is always good. The enemy is always bad. As long as we embrace these myths in the approved fashion, and we’re not unlucky enough to be members of one of the enemy subgroups, things are fine and the U.S.A. is number one.

“The United States,” Magrass and Derber write, “openly views itself as the world police force, a benign hegemon morally ordained to impose its interests and values on the rest of the world and justified in the name of freedom, human rights and antiterrorism to do to weaker countries what it wants. It spends more on weapons than its next 20 largest competitors combined.”

Well, OK, there’s nothing hidden or secret about this, yet it seems to be a fact hidden in plain view, and maybe that accounts for the lurching pain I felt as I watched members of my local police department play a fleeting game of “racial profile” with half a dozen young black males walking innocuously down the sidewalk. Whatever their justification for doing so, it’s not effective behavior in terms of building and maintaining a peaceful community. We cannot bully such a community into being. But we can, of course, provoke confrontations.

I’ve written about this endlessly — about the absurd cruelty of the institutional order we keep trying to impose. More than a decade ago, just prior to the U.S. invasion of Iraq, the Washington Post ran a story that began thus:

“In devising the targeting plan for a possible war against Iraq, U.S. military planners are hoping to reduce the potential for civilian casualties by using a new computer program whose name belies its serious purpose: ‘Bugsplat.’”

The indifference at the core of our national identity is, as far as I’m concerned, contained in that single word. We are so powerful as a nation we can afford to reduce irrelevant human life to something squashed on the windshield of our arrogance. Just imagine the sort of judgment that’s awaiting us as a nation.

While the Post dismissed the shocking inhumanity of the term (what if the word “bugsplat” had been found among official Third Reich documents?), other sources have indicated that it was used casually in planning meetings, as though simply embedded in military consciousness the way the n-word would have been embedded in a small-town Southern police department in, say, 1945.

In 2010, journalist Allan Nairn told Amy Goodman in a “Democracy Now!” interview: “In the opening days of the invasion of Iraq, they ran computer programs, and they called the program the Bugsplat program, estimating how many civilians they would kill with a given bombing raid. On the opening day, the printouts presented to General Tommy Franks indicated that twenty-two of the projected bombing attacks on Iraq would produce what they defined as heavy bugsplat — that is, more than thirty civilian deaths per raid. Franks said, ‘Go ahead. We’re doing all twenty-two.’”

In a domination or bully culture, you either win or you’re bugsplat. But of course, that term is just a projection of the winner’s own unacknowledged self-judgment.

Robert Koehler is an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist and nationally syndicated writer. His book, Courage Grows Strong at the Wound (Xenos Press), is still available. Contact him at koehlercw@gmail.com or visit his website at commonwonders.com.