Tuesday, June 28, 2005

BTK & USA: Crimes High and Low

Serial killers and war crimes, what's the dif?

We've all heard of "high crimes and misdemeanors," often alluding to the alleged misdeeds of public officials. Those would be high crimes because they're high up the food chain, as it were.

Then there are low crimes, lower down on the food chain, we feel, so base we think the perps aren't even "human." Oh, they're human alright, though they may be a bit lacking in the 'humane' department.

The public seems to be more mezmerized by and interested in the detailed confessions of the BTK killer than they are in the highest crimes in the land - in all lands - war crimes. Even the thought of American war crimes makes a lot of smirky and incredulous eyes roll, even as the heads roll.

We're not 'close' to war crimes, and no matter how sad it is, military personnel had some notion of what the hell they were getting themselves mixed up in. Can't expect safety when, no matter how high tech or well-trained, you are using a weapon, and so is the other guy. Even if the other guy (let's not call him a "patriot," let's call him an "insurgent") is only holding a metal pipe or a malatov cocktail, all hell can break loose. But those confrontations and killings are unusually far away, shrouded in such thick layers of "honor" and "nationalism" propaganda that many don't get a gut wrenching feeling about it, even if thousands die in weeks.

Viscerally, we feel closer to the serial killer. He's dressed as a civilian, maybe even, in court, a well-dressed civilian. (Cream-colored suit, anyone?) He could be our neighbor, and we must still feel, in our gut, that it's a lot more likely we live just down the street from a serial killer than we do a terrorist.

As if the serial killer weren't a terrorist. He is, and it's always a he, isn't it? And usually a he with a sexual kink that's downright hard to imagine.

No, it's not kinky to go overseas and get dressed up in grease paint and camouflage to go kill people you've never met. You shouldn't have to fear reprisals; you're a professional.

And in this society, as in most, being a "professional" gives one creedance, gives one legitimacy, even gives one heroism and a saintly honor.

No such accolades for the lowly, lonely serial killer. He's not even a hit man for the mafia. There's no honor in it, no score to settle, at least no score we can fathom. Or is it just that we don't want to have to think about conjuring what the score might be, the thing gone wrong in that fellow human being, the crux that makes him at once seem so unlike us and then again sort of like us?

That's where the visceral feeling of dread comes from. "But for the grace of god..." so the saying goes. No, but for the grace of humanity, and humanity can certainly have its grace.

And we'd even like to think, a la Hollywood, a la some great literature, that even war is a stage for grace. Maybe a few times it is. But most of the time, it's angry and terror-ridden and brutal if not downright savage - a savagery we all too often glorify and even, amazingly, make gratuitous - thus, vicariously, making ourselves the serial killers, watching again and again from a safe distance but wanting to feel that connection to the struggles in which life and death will be decided in seconds, not years and decades, the rush of the instant, crack decision, the cracked decision. We want to feel what it's like without having to clean up the mess or face the consequences of our sinister spectatorship.

And another thing: The connections we may feel with crimes is often counter to our responsibility for those crimes.

None (or not many) of us are responsible for the crimes of a man like Dennis Raider. But I propose that, however indirectly or inadvertantly, we are responsible for the war crimes of our elected leaders - and our military leaders, who, just to be clear, are not elected - they're careerists. Bodies buried in basements in Wichita or Wisconsin aren't our responsibility, personally. A few rare people are homicidal sociopaths and miscreants. We'll always have those. But bodies in body bags, flown home and "laid to rest" under U.S. flags are our responsibility, not just collectively but individually as well. That's what being represented means.

And far from the imperial honor of those flags, no matter how foreign, bodies in the back alleyways of Beirut and Baghdad - these, as well, are our collective responsibility.


At 6/29/2005 10:52 AM, Anonymous John Miller said...

When I visited Baghdad in 1965 (long before Saddam) there were Sunnis and Shi'ites living together in what appeared to me to be harmony. I see no reason why civil war should result if the Americans leave, and even if it does, is that our problem?

At 6/29/2005 11:12 PM, Blogger Lawrence said...

I'll be commenting more directly about our exit strategy (or no-exit strategy, as the case may be) and the chances of civil war and other repercussions in a future post to ABN.


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