It should be clarified, first, that I am not literally calling Theodore Van Kirk a murderer in the sense that he alone was responsible for the deaths of 140,000 people, most of them civilians. He was merely one in a crew of people, acting under the orders of a commander commissioned by the United States.
I also do not wish to imply that Theodore Van Kirk’s moral character is comparable to that of Joseph Wood.
Nonetheless, had Theodore Van Kirk decided, at the last minute, to disobey the orders given to him, the lives of 140,000 people would have been spared, if only temporarily.
My accusation does not lay at the feet of a dead veteran. It lays at the steps of the country which created him.
Why is killing two people in cold blood a capital crime, and killing thousands heroism?
Who is anyone to decide when one killing is justified and another is not?
Why is James Wood “bad” enough that we can judge him as so evil he must be destroyed, but the United States is “good” enough that it can murder civilians in the hundreds of thousands with impunity?
Individuals can be held accountable. Even some countries can be held accountable; at least, attempts are made to hold them accountable.
Yet, it is undeniable that some countries are more accountable than others. If you are large enough, prosperous enough, powerful enough, you are immune. Even if other countries, “enemy” and “ally” alike, publicly condemn such a country, they do nothing. There is no accountability; there is only tacit acceptance.
Why is that?
Murder is the ultimate affront to freedom. A blind, deaf, and mute paraplegic still has a chance at pursuing a full life. Victims of torture, false imprisonment, slavery, and abuse have turned their struggles into triumphs. Although inspiring success stories in that vein are hardly the norm, the fact remains they are a possibility at all because the people affected are still alive. A person who is dead has lost their freedom. They cannot think, they cannot hope, they cannot strive to accomplish anything. They existed once, they exhibited their potential, and until the moment of their death that potential remained theirs to seize.
Once dead, that possibility no longer exists. That is why murder is so horrifying.
Americans obsess over freedom. Anymore, it’s a sound-byte, a mere keyword, trite and cliche, something so pervasive in the language and culture of everything from political rhetoric to entertainment that the word itself is now taken for granted. And yet while we cherish freedom at home, where one death is worth an article in the local paper, how have we come to a point where a hundred people in another country can die and Americans can frown for a moment, then go back to their daily lives, feeling nothing?
I believe it’s the same reason we enshrine and immortalize war heroes, fetishize violence, and crank out video games every year where the primary objective is to kill.
Despite the conscious insistence on equality, before the law, before humanity, before any god, human beings do not fundamentally believe in equality. There is one axis along which all are judged: sympathetic, and “other.”
The English are “sympathetic” to us. When an English soldier dies in our war on Afghanistan we may see it on the news, we may stir and groan in sympathy and commend them for their sacrifice. The compassion is felt on a deep, primal level, even if it is fleeting.
Yet when a Syrian rebel dies it’s a non-event. In many ways a Syrian rebel (presuming they are not affiliated with an Islamist extremist group and indeed combat Bashar Al-Assad’s abusive regime) has more in common with an American than any native British soldier, who still to some extent serves a monarch. America’s existence and identity is founded on its resistance to oppression by a despot; a Syrian rebel fights for similar reasons. And yet, they are cast as an “other.” They can die in droves, and if the news week is slow they might get a segment on CNN, but it would be unusual if any individual is eulogized.
The easy answer is that Syrians aren’t “white,” and “we” are, but that’s not strictly true. “Otherness” is cast along far more obscure lines. It’s why perfectly blonde-haired, blue-eyed specimens of the “Aryan Race” can be mowed down in the thousands in the latest WWII first-person shooter, simply because they happen to have a Swastika on their arm.
Someone cast as an “other” is not merely someone who looks different. An “other” is someone we choose not to understand.
This choice is not strictly personal. It’s a calculated result, produced by a political mechanism that tells us who is sympathetic and who is not. The “Yella Colored Fellas marched our Marines to death at Bataan and attacked our boys Pearl Harbor,” they’re “monsters,” they’re “evil.” “Japs,” they were also called, “Nips,” “Nippers.”
To call them Japanese would be to acknowledge the sovereignty of their government and regard them, at least in part, as a parallel nation of people. And “people,” “human beings:” calling them those, that’s out of the question.
You do not rally a country to war by reassuring them they will be killing the elderly, or mothers and children. You rally a country to war by defining a group as “other.”
“Others” are not perceived as human. They often take on nicknames, like “Gook,” or “Hadji,” to reduce them to being less-than-human. If they happen to look different all the better, but they could just as well be a “Commie,” or a “Red.”
Or a “Jew.”
You will find monuments to the way that America has chosen to define otherness all over the world. They are in the death tolls in Japan, in Korea, in Vietnam. There are “others” from Europe to Africa to South America. They are even found at home.
Even the same group of people can go from being “sympathetic” to “others” within a matter of years. The definition is arbitrary.
These “others” have nothing in common, except that a nation has defined them as killable, as people against whom violence is justified and even encouraged. This is not new. It’s been part of every government’s political arsenal since the beginning of civilization.
What’s new is that we believe ourselves to be immune from it. We predicate our choices and our actions, justify our killings, on the idea that our morality is superior; we acknowledge equality, freedom, and democracy, and that is precisely what gives us the authority to say who deserves to be spared, and who is an acceptable loss.
Again, I have to ask, from where does that authority derive? Should any individual, or group of individuals, or government, have that power?
I say no. To murder 140,000 people for any reason is wrong, just as wrong as it is to murder 2 unsuspecting people. If you compromise on that point, if you accept any justification for such deaths, you are committing your allegiance to an authority completely distinct from the value of human life.
If your values do not include human life, it seriously begs the question of what your values are, and who determines them.