The Moral Dead Zone

Thursday, January 15th, 2009

“Mr. Ban said too many people had died and there had been too much civilian suffering.”

That almost bears repeating, but I won’t because I don’t believe it. Too many? In the moral dead zone of the human heart, perennially justified as “war” (evoking honor, triumph, glory), there’s no such thing as too much suffering. There’s no bleeding child or shattered family or contaminated water supply that can’t be overlooked in the name of some great goal or strategic advantage, or converted to fodder for the next round of hatred, revenge and arms purchase.

Ban Ki-Moon, the U.N. secretary general, about to embark on a peace and diplomacy tour of the Middle East, was speaking, of course, about the hellish conditions in the Gaza Strip, pummeled by Israel with modern weaponry and Old Testament fury for the last three weeks. Vengeance is mine, sayeth the coalition government. Close to a thousand have died. Many more thousands have been injured or displaced. Too many?

No. Not even close. If too many had died — if hell had reached its capacity, or some other limit had at last been achieved — something would change. The collective enterprise of human violence would convulse and start malfunctioning. Fear, perhaps, would mutate into courage, anger into forgiveness, hatred into love. Or at least we would start looking at what we’re doing . . . how do I say this? With evolved compassion? With an understanding, with a determination to survive, we now disdain and mock?

Israel’s invasion of Gaza is the world’s spotlight war right now, reaping headlines, global censure, a special endorsement from the U.S. Congress and, apparently, an audiotape hiss from Osama bin Laden, possibly from beyond the grave.

What all of these reactions do, it seems to me, is confer an unwarranted special status on the war, as though it were isolated, without a context any deeper than its accompanying propaganda. This forces us to try to understand the war strictly on its own terms — who started it? who’s the bad guy? who’s innocent? — rather than as an occurrence within a larger, dysfunctional system as deep as human history and as wide as planetary politics.

This war, and the nine or 10 other armed conflicts officially classified as wars that are going on right now — including wars in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (4 million dead since 1997), Darfur-Sudan (500,000 dead since 2003), Somalia (400,000 dead since 1988), Sri Lanka (80,000 dead since 1983), and of course Iraq (possibly a million or more dead) and Afghanistan (35,000 dead) — whatever they are on their own terms, are also symptoms of a human syndrome of self-destruction.

So are the local conflicts on city streets and other jungles that are too small to be called wars. So are the horrific aftermaths of conflicts that have officially ended, including poisoned environments, the ruined health of participants and bystanders, unexploded mines and bombs, the psycho-spiritual traumas that never go away, and the grievances that fester from generation to generation.

What links them in an immediate way is the global arms industry, as corrupt as it is invisible, which does a trillion dollars worth of business annually worldwide, is crucial to every major economy and is therefore served, either with overt collusion or discreet silence, by governments and the mass media.

But the problem is bigger than mere greed. The business of war, like war itself, defies rational control and containment because it is fed by the paradox of human fear. As we arm to protect ourselves and fight back, our enemy also arms, and thus is born, over and over again, the cycle of escalation, from which the cynical can profit handsomely. The industry of war is self-perpetuating.

It should come as no surprise, therefore, that, as Anup Shah noted recently in an essay on the arms industry for, “The top five countries profiting from the arms trade are the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council: the U.S.A., U.K., France, Russia and China.”

Thus world peace — at least the sort of peace that most of us envision, which is sustained by international cooperation and universal disarmament rather than subjugation and the capacity for hair-trigger retaliation — would challenge the status quo of the world’s largest economies, as they have come to constitute themselves.

As long as we stay trapped in the paradox of fear, we can’t even use our intelligence to save ourselves. We have employed it to serve only our self-destruction. The ultimate paradox is that the military industrial complex, that highest of high-tech human endeavors, about which Dwight Eisenhower sounded the alarm nearly half a century ago, is wedded to the most primitive of human emotions. We have become trapped in our collective reptile brain.