Preying on the prayerful

Killings in the US are condemned, while American violence abroad is ignored or glorified.

People & Power - Attack of the Drones
In May, a US drone strike hit a mosque in rural Pakistan, killing at least 10 people [GALLO/GETTY]

Los Angeles, CA – The attack came early. Like any coward, the killer wasn’t interested in a fair fight, and chances are he didn’t even know whom he was killing. Having stalked his prey for reasons that even now aren’t entirely clear, he struck when his victims were most vulnerable: as they prayed in their house of worship. Within minutes, a once-peaceful place became a war zone, blood-smeared floors littered with the lifeless bodies of worshipers. And for what?

But Sarah Palin didn’t tweet about it. No major-league sporting events were interrupted with a moment of silence. Barack Obama didn’t issue a statement expressing his sorrow. Mitt Romney didn’t try to out-sorrow him. If anything, when reports of the carnage hit Washington, it only served as that famously overcompensating town’s afternoon Cialis. No flags were at half-staff, but something else was.

That’s because the victims of this particular massacre made the dubious decision to be born and raised in a suspicious land called Somewhere Else, a strange and often swarthy place where moral principles like “hey, try not to kill people, yeah?” need not apply to the natives.

 People & Power – Attack of the Drones

“The drone fired two missiles and hit the village mosque where a number of people were offering Fajr (morning) prayer,” Roashan Din, a village elder in the rural Pakistani town where the strike took place, explained to NBC News. At least 10 bodies were pulled from the wreckage, a direct consequence of President Obama’s decision to dramatically escalate the wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Here and there

Being suspiciously foreign – who would live in northwest Pakistan anyway? – those bodies aren’t associated with any names or faces or families or lovers. They’re just bodies, statistically better off dead than alive based on an algorithm developed by the CIA. And we sure as hell don’t mourn them.

What difference an arbitrary political border makes. And how glaring the hypocrisy of American elites – pundits, politicians and their corporate backers – when one of their discarded products does the same thing at home.

Three months after the country’s role-model-in-chief carried out that particular mass murder in Pakistan, a former US soldier, Wade Michael Page, opened fire on a Sikh temple in Wisconsin, killing a half-dozen defenceless worshippers. If he’d done the same thing overseas, you’d be lucky to get a surrogate for the president or his challenger to comment. He might even get a medal and a Senate seat.

But the incident happened within US borders, not Over There, so the condemnation was swift. In a statement, President Obama said he was “deeply saddened” by the shooting, emphasising – because it was a shame? – that it “took place at a house of worship”. Just so we’re clear: this is the same person who but a few months earlier authorised the missile strike that took out that Pakistani town’s place of worship. But that’s okay: he also emphasised that this crime was different because the victims were part of “our broader American family”.

For his part, Mitt Romney, the Republican challenger in this year’s tediously dull, let-us-just-crash-into-the-sun-already presidential campaign, issued a statement lamenting “a tragedy that should never befall any house of worship”. He’ll walk that statement back once an adviser informs him that Iran has those too.

Marketing militarism

The varying responses to mass murder – sad if it happens here, rad if it happens there – are the predictable result of a militarised popular culture that celebrates a willingness to partake in mass murder as heroism, with no regard for the justness of one’s cause. Teach that morality is determined by geography and you’ll end up with the spectacle of a mass murderer condemning mass murder; teach soldiers that it’s honourable to take human life in the name of defending against a vaguely defined, largely imagined threat, and don’t act surprised when some of them keep doing it when they get back.

Of the more than 2,500 people killed in the Bush-Obama war in Pakistan, we only know the names of about 500 of them.

“The military breaks you down, but they only build certain parts of you that they need,” says Jayel Aheram, a 28-year-old veteran of the war in Iraq. “After they are done with you – or you with them – you return to the world with pieces missing.”

The US military trains people to kill, which requires discouraging empathy and encouraging the dehumanisation of the “enemy”. That is what it does and it is very good at it. And it does it to people who have been convinced, by liberals and conservatives alike, that killing can be a fun, zesty enterprise, provided someone in uniform orders you to do it. That message – that murder can be justified; that it can even be honourable – isn’t lost on the civilian population, either.

Now that’s not so fair, is it? The difference between a US soldier committing mass murder here and doing it in Pakistan or Yemen or wherever they’re doing it this week is that the military is not just killing random people as part of a vain, irrational lashing out at the world that clearly spawns from an insatiable lust for blood. We’re killing terrorists, probably, well not really.

In most cases, the identities of those killed in state-sanctioned foreign massacres aren’t any more known to the perpetrator than they are state-side. Of the more than 2,500 people killed in the Bush-Obama war in Pakistan, we only know the names of about 500 of them. We have to take the word of some government official who will only speak under the condition of anonymity that they were “militants”, possession of a firearm obviously treated very differently when it’s not in the hands of a white American.

The recent string of mass shootings have triggered a discussion about gun violence in the US, which is of course all well and good. But if we’re to get to the root of the problem, we need to examine why we in the United States so often need the word “senseless” to precede “violence” in order to condemn it. Perhaps when the US quits engaging in so much sensible violence abroad, we’ll start to see less of it at home.

Charles Davis is a writer currently based in Los Angeles.