A white male in a uniform brandishes an assault rifle, pointing it directly at peaceful protesters and journalists: “I will fucking kill you!” When asked his name, he responds “Go fuck yourself” earning himself the hashtag #OfficerGoFuckYourself
No one threatens the policeman, but his stance and his wide eyes betray his hyper-alert state. People stroll behind him without offering any sign of confrontation, but his adrenaline is pumping. He is in the grips of Usanity, and for him the world is suddenly full of threats and offenses.
Usanity is like a weaponized version of aggrieved white male entitlement syndrome. #OfficerGoFuckYourself has clear symptoms of both conditions. But Usanity is broader and more profound. Usanity is that syndrome which grips an entire diverse nation, the most heavily armed on the planet, and turns it into that cop with his rolling eyes and gun pointed: “I will fucking kill you!”
Lots of people are writing about the militarization of the US police, but the focus has often been on hardware. The police in the US, and many other countries, have also been induced to feel that violence is the appropriate response to an ever growing number of situations. Any challenge to authority, including questioning orders, is treated as grounds for physical coercion.
This actually follows a similar transformation in US military personnel. Some former military are pointing to the ways in which the police in Missouri and elsewhere are far less disciplined than they. But their own record of killing civilians in in similar encounters is astounding and shocking – yet it is almost entirely ignored and unknown.
Like the police and the military, the wider US population has been subjected to the forces that breed Usanity. It is a powerful mix of a sense of fear, a sense of being besieged, and a special sense of grievance. The grievance is that of a giant attacked by vicious, irrational, fanatical imps, but also that of a father facing defiance that cannot be ignored. Bill Maher exactly embodied the attititude with a special misogynistic twist when he tweeted: “Dealing w/ Hamas is like dealing w/ a crazy woman who’s trying to kill u – u can only hold her wrists so long before you have to slap her.”
A Nation of Cowards?
In the book Mainstreaming Torture Rebecca Gordon asks if if the US has become a “nation of cowards”. Allowing that the US is too diverse “in all its multicultural, polyglot glory” to be categorized so unitarily, Gordon goes on to discuss the growing tendency to accept and approve of torture, assassination and surveillance as ways of combating the threat of terrorism. Those who thought that waterboarding suspected terrorists was wrong dropped from 82 percent in 2005 to 55 percent in 2012. Those who thought that assassinating suspected terrorists was wrong dropped from 33 percent in 2005 to a mere 12 percent in 2012.
Fear of terrorists is only one aspect of this. People who visit the US are often struck by how fearful people are of many things – strangers, criminals, germs, and their own government to name but a few. More than other Western countries, people in the US have been bombarded with a sense of peril. This sense of endangerment is good for selling drama and it is good for selling newspapers, but it is even better for selling domestic and foreign policy.
The extravagant fears of the Cold War sold both authoritarianism at home and intervention abroad, and so it has remained to this day. People were told that the US was fighting in Viet Nam so that they wouldn’t have to fight in San Francisco. Then people were told that Cuban tanks would roll across the Rio Grande and, finally, that the smoking gun could come in the form of a mushroom cloud.
In a way, these ridiculous hyperboles are really a way of convincing people that the act of exaggeration implies that there is a real threat. As Robert Fisk points out this is why there is now such silly talk about ISIS: “Apocalyptic.” “End-of-days strategic vision.” “Beyond anything we have ever seen.” “An imminent threat to every interest we have.” “Beyond just a terrorist group.” “We must prepare for everything.”
At the same time that fear was becoming such a crucial political tool for supporting repression at home and oppression abroad, fear was also becoming entrenched in the US military. In World War II US military authorities had taken the unusual decision to be permissive of fear, rather than to try to encourage fearlessness. Over the coming decades, though, this attitude would be exploited and twisted. US personnel were deliberately made fearful and that fear was weaponized. The fear became a major tool to break that barrier which stops ordinary people from becoming killers.
Circle the Wagons!
In both Viet Nam and in Iraq US personnel were made to feel that they were surrounded by a hostile and dangerous population. They built massive military bases that were like self-contained towns or cities. They were made to feel that there was a constant risk of attack outside of these zones of safety.
In Viet Nam, some areas were bad enough to be considered “Injun country”, but even in places like Saigon there was a sense that any Vietnamese could potentially be a source of sudden violent death. From reading dozens of personal accounts, most GIs seem to have heard and believed stories of young children killing US soldiers. They were constantly told that you couldn’t tell who was an enemy and who was a civilian. Most still believe to this day that the “Viet Cong” didn’t have uniforms. They thought that the guys in uniforms were all North Vietnamese “invaders” and that the VC wore the “black pajamas” which all of the rural population wore.
As it happens, local militias on both sides did wear the normal black farmers clothes. Sometimes local allies were killed when US personnel who were new to the country mistook them for the enemy. More often, however, this led to the deaths of rural civilians. Admittedly, most US personnel in Viet Nam never saw, let alone partook in, a lethal atrocity or even the accidental killing of civilians. The bulk of civilian deaths in Viet Nam were caused by US shelling and bombing. However, there were also many thousands killed by US small arms. Nick Turse’s book Kill Anything that Moves establishes without any doubt that massacres by US personnel were appallingly common. Many more will have died when GIs reacted out of panic – reacted out of that sense that everyone was the enemy.
The sense of vulnerability among US infantry must have been horribly exacerbated by the common tactic of sending patrols out in the deliberate hope that they would be ambushed which would then allow the enemy to be attacked by artillery. There are claims that this practice saved US lives, but it made the men on patrols feel like live bait and ultimately meant that the enemy always chose when and where to engage. It meant that booby traps became one of the leading causes of casualties, which caused huge anger because GIs knew that locals must often have known the location of the traps – once again increasing the sense that they were at war with an entire people and the sense that they must always be on guard. GIs were being trained in what was called “reactive firing”, where they were conditioned to pull the trigger in certain circumstances as an automatic process – without cognition.
In Iraq, there were less massacres than there were in Viet Nam. Fewer people would have been killed by bombing and shelling. And there is no doubt that many civilians lost their lives to the actions of enemies of the Coalition forces. But indications are that an absolutely extraordinary number of Iraqis were killed by US small arms fire. The numbers are so high that they demand consideration.
In 2006 a mortality study was published in the Lancet estimated excess deaths in Iraq based on cluster sampling. The furor over the estimation of total excess deaths through violence has prevented us from coming to grips with what the study indicated. The most common cause of violent death (56%) was gunfire. Where known, the cause of violent death originated from Coalition forces 57% of the time. Given that hundreds of thousands died of violent causes, this means that at the very least tens of thousands of Iraqis were shot dead by Coalition troops.
Many accounts from Iraq, both from US personnel and from Iraqis, highlight the risk to civilians of being killed due to the paranoia, confusion and insecurity of US personnel. This has become normalized in the sense that people tend to think of this as being in the nature of military occupations. That is not the case. When the Germans occupied France they were very ruthless and brutal, but they didn’t kill ordinary people going about their daily business. Children could go to school and adults could go to work. Workers would not be shot for failing to stop at an unmarked “traffic control point” that had been set up without their foreknowledge. Farmers wouldn’t be killed for carrying shovels.
By official doctrine the US (openly flouting international humanitarian law) deliberately displaced the risks of violence onto the civilian population of Iraq. Under the doctrine of “Force Protection” personnel were encouraged to ensure their own safety at any cost. Even the Rules of Engagement (which were uncertain, contingent and subject to frequent change up until 2007) were undermined by the final proviso that the ROE did not in any way prevent a GI from taking lethal action if they felt threatened. Even though it fomented hostility and, in the long-term, greater overall danger to US forces, personnel early on the the occupation were all but officially told to shoot first and ask questions later. Many people commented at the time that US forces making a very dubious short-term gain in security were killing innocent people, committing war crimes, and ultimately ensuring that more, not less, US personnel would die.
Moreover, in Iraq, even more so than in Viet Nam, there was often no real attempt to create secure areas. Instead of pacifying and securing areas, the US was in both cases obsessed with finding, fixing and killing enemies. This effective made both countries into giant battlefields with no frontline. Then they would send their own people out into this environment, having assured them that the populace hated them and that half of them were actively trying to kill them.
When Iraqis were killed because they did not know that they were supposed to stop some arbitrary point or in some other way violate unknown rules supposedly designed to protect US personnel, those who killed them would, quite naturally, place the onus of responsibility on the victims themselves for having undertaken the acts which forced the GIs to shoot them. Logically, they should really have been blaming the military and political leaders who had just used them as a weapon with which to murder civilians, but what would you expect people to tell themselves and each other when they have just killed innocent people? Of course they are going to remind themselves that they had no choice but to shoot, that it was the victims’ actions which forced their hand. But then, there were those who were callous about such things, such as the officer who proclaimed after the a family was killed for approaching a checkpoint too quickly: “If these fucking hajis learned to drive, this shit wouldn’t happen”; or the helicopter gunner on the infamous Collateral Murder footage who, having shot two children, said: “Well it’s their fault for bringing their kids into a battle.”
The situation for the broader US population is also one of feeling besieged. Successive governments in the US have gone beyond the cartoonish vilification of Soviet Communism and the Global Communist Conspiracy. Now they like to suggest that everyone hates or potentially hates the US, and they try to make it come true by their actions. Under the Bush administration, especially in the immediate aftermath of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, US citizens all throughout the world were met with hostility.
We’re Number One!
Without a doubt the ugliest side of US culture is their collective sense of superiority. But it also the most pitiable in some respects. The US is the wealthiest and most powerful country in the history of humanity. Its contributions to literature, music, arts and the sciences cannot be denied. There must barely be any people on the planet who have not derived pleasure from US films. Yet there is a sense of insecurity about their strident pride, as if they have something to prove. They fear that they might be, in Richard Nixon’s words, a “helpless giant”, and feel that those who are defy them are deserving of violent correction. But the real trap of Usanity is not just that sense of righteous fury, it is the sense that you cannot just walk away – you can’t let go of the crazy woman’s wrists or she will attack.
Once again, there is a direct parallel between the indoctrination and situational emplacement of the police, the military, and the entire country. In the military, once upon a time when an army captured enemies they might march them in columns with a guard for every ten prisoners or more. To secure them they might simply take their weapons and make them walk with their hands on their heads. I sometimes wonder if young people seeing seeing such scenes in a World War II film would think that they are inauthentic and somehow anticlimactic.
Of course imperialist wars are a little different and far less humane. In Korea, US troops felt that for security reasons captured guerrillas had to be stripped naked (or nearly naked if they were women) and marched though town. In Viet Nam it became imperative that the diminutive and unarmed captives have their hands tied and be blindfolded. In Iraq zip-ties and hoods were considered utterly indispensable. It is as if you need to be sure that your trained and heavily armed men aren’t attacked by unarmed prisoners because, as we all know, life is so cheap to these people that they will sacrifice their own lives to attack even if there is only a minute chance of inflicting damage on their captors.
Partly these processes of stripping, blindfolding or hooding were designed to dehumanize the captives. One of the most important ways of maintaining psychological distance is to prevent eye contact. When you are committing unjust acts, it is quite important that your victims be dehumanized. If US personnel in Iraq were constantly confronted with the fear, confusion and grief of their captives it would have broken down barriers and caused much larger numbers to question the rightness of their actions in Iraq.
More importantly these procedures are part of a system of exerting control. In Iraq prisoners were actually referred to as “persons under control” or “PUCs”. The emphasis on control was to make the GIs feel that everything that they did not control was a hazard. They were sometimes ordered to effect very close control over the movements of PUCs even down to such things as which way their heads were facing.
Sometimes the procedures used on PUCs as supposed security measures were simply ways of instituting positional torture, forcing the captives into positions that can often quickly become agonising and beating them for moving out of those positions. Even if this were not the case, the very situation is almost guaranteed to cause abusive treatment. If a GI who does not speak Arabic is to force a captive to take comply to close control, they must almost certainly use physical coercion – especially if gestures are unavailable because the captive is hooded. Repeated deviations from the requirements will be met with increasing levels of violence. Even though the GI might rationally understand that the PUC might not comply for perfectly innocent reasons, they have been so situated that in emotional terms every deviation feels like an act of deliberate defiance that requires, as well as justifies, violent correction.
Of course, how could the US authorities have foreseen that referring to people as PUCs, hooding them, and sending them along chains of custody like anonymous punching bags would lead to incidents of abuse referred to as “PUC-fucking”? I mean, who would guess? All I can say is that if you wanted to design a system which would encourage the maximum level of abuse, torture and murder without actually having to order personnel to commit those acts – this is exactly what it would look like.
Increasingly the US police are subject to similar pressures. They already have a common indoctrinated sense of being rightful and righteous authorities who, by nature of their very vocation, must restrict the actions of the citizenry. They are trained to feel apart from others, and to view them with suspicion. When they too are filled with the paranoid fear and the sense of being besieged then their need to control can become manic and violent.
Cops have always struck out at those who defy them, but now things are becoming far more lethal due to new ways in which they are trained and deployed. The ever growing number number of armed raids in the US are now mostly (70%) conducted to serve search warrants for suspected drug offenses. In these “SWAT” raids there is very little discrimination in the way the police treat people – be they suspects, victims, bystanders young, elderly, ill, or disabled. They must be made compliant and controlled. Just as with the Iraqi PUCs, any deviance is treated as dangerous. This attitude has spread to daily policing activities when officers feel confronted.
It is true that like military personnel, the police are often endangered. But once again these procedures are not specifically discriminating, so they are not aimed at those who pose a danger, but at those who are not compliant. The police often think highly of themselves, they are the authorities, and they are armed and dangerous – people must comply. People must comply without delay and without question. To do otherwise is to invite violence.
Only 4 miles from where Michael Brown was killed Kajieme Powell was also killed. He was shot dead 15 seconds after police encountered him as he paced agitatedly near them with his hands at his sides telling the police to shoot him. To the shock of onlookers, they handcuffed him after he was dead. They kept guns trained on him after he was dead and in handcuffs. The man who filmed everything with his phone didn’t feel threatened by Powell at all, but the police by their acts are suggesting that even dead and in handcuffs Powell is some form of peril – a supernatural unrealistic threat.
The entire US is subject to the same horrified fantasy. The “war on terror” has made them into the self-appointed world police. They are not being allowed to turn and walk away from Iraq.
People generally don’t want the US to send troops, but they seem to think that dropping bombs on people is almost the equivalent of doing nothing. It is funny, because when one bomb went off at the Boston marathon it was quite a big deal to people in the US, but dropping hundreds on other people is apparently nothing of particular note. In the US media discourse it is almost as if bombing is a minor and reluctant act of charity: “We are not saying we’re responsible for the rise of ISIS, but we feel bad for the Iraqi people and so we are prepared to drop bombs on people in order to help them out at this difficult time.”
But ISIS has shown themselves only too willing to play the role of the crazed violent woman that needs slapping. Just when it seemed that nothing could get people in the US to back another major action in the Middle East, ISIS decides to stiffen US resolve by releasing a video showing the beheading of a US journalist and threatening to bathe the US in blood.
Now the people in the US are suddenly in that #OfficerGoFuckYourself headspace. They are angry that someone defies and mocks their beloved country, but also offended and belittled by the failure of ISIS to recognise their ability to unleash a fury of violence. Suddenly the “liberals” are writing and liking comments about how they need to finally kick that al-Baghdadi’s ass once and for all. And when they say “kick al-Baghdadi’s ass” they must know that that will mean killing lots and lots of people who are not al-Baghdadi.
The US people have their gun raised, will they shoot? I would not be the first to say that once again US violence can only give the illusion of greater security, but it will visit suffering and death and only increase the insecurity in the long term. Yes, they are armed, and yes, they are being defied, but pulling the trigger will not help. Sometimes you just have to accept doing nothing.
After this many repetitions of the same pattern, how can people continue falling for the same tricks? What good came from killing Ghadaffi, or Saddam Hussein, or arresting Milosevic? But we have been here before. The US media picks a Hitler-of-the-month and whips up the fury of anger over their defiance. The country staggers and swaggers in wide-eyed mania: “We will fucking KILL YOU!”. And eventually they get their guy. Months or years later. After how many deaths? Thousands? Tens of thousands? Hundreds of thousands? Millions?
And then, mission accomplished, they all chant “U S A! U S A!” And the world waits for the next bout of Usanity.