Yesterday, friend and fellow blogster La_Rana wrote the following:
It is an abomination that so many in this country so callously disregard the lives of foreigners. It's cruel, inhumane, xenophobic, myopic, selfish and brutal. But good god, to actually walk among the Iraqis, other human beings, and kill them so callously is something I really cannot understand. It puts my neck hair on end. Whether it's their natural disposition or we made them that way, it doesn't quite matter now. These people are monsters.You'll note that La_Rana draws a fine but necessary moral distinction. On the one hand, he says, it's pretty awful that as an abstract matter we're willing to countenance--at least, to ignore--the deaths of foreigners. On the other hand, to actually kill them without cause or reason, to pull the trigger on innocents simply because they are there and you are armed, is to become a monster. These aren't complex moral sentiments, lord knows, but they're sure as shit true.
La_Rana's first commenter, YF, then swashbuckles in and begins dueling with the potted plants while the crowd looks on in wonder:
Did it ever occur to you that disregard for the lives of The Other might be the normal disposition of humans? That maybe an appreciation of foreigners' serious right to life is a triumph* of modern moral development, and not a necessary component of human nature?Other than mistaking La_Rana's kind of caveat for a thesis, and other than proposing a "triumph of modern moral development" in an era when the wholesale slaughter of foreigners has reached levels undreamed-of by the poor, dirty Romans who burned Carthage to the ground, and other than flying from "normal disposition" to "necessary component" in a high dander of folkway fantasy, it is a serious counterargument that deserves to be addressed.
It is undoubtedly true that casual disregard for the lives of foreigners is in a sense a steady feature of recorded human history, but only in a sense. It is true in the sense that when agents of the state are authorized by the state to kill people, especially foreigners, then citizens are authorized not to give a damn, or hell, to cheer the killing on. This is an important distinction, and I'll return to it. But first, and once again: On the other hand . . .
On the other hand, the majority of interactions between people of one country and people of another involve neither killing nor maiming nor raping nor pillaging nor the folks at home approving thereof. The majority of international interactions, both state-sanctioned and extralegal, involve mundane matters of commerce and tourism. These interactions may be fraught, or they may go smoothly, but by and large if an American pulls a gun on a Chinese and blows his head off because supply-chain negotiations aren't going his way, then everyone on every side will react with condemnation. I do not go on killing sprees when I visit France and expect pardon at home. Of course, there are gradations of outrage and horror that, regrettably, have largely to do with racism, and it's certainly true that a business executive who fucks and kills a 12-year-old in Thailand may be held in less horror than a business executive who fucks and kills an 18-year-old in, say, England. Nevertheless, in general and in principle, the point holds: that tolerance for brutality toward foreigners is not universal, but contextual.
As Sartwell notes, one of the central ironies--or, let's be charitable, paradoxes--of theories of the state as either an arbiter of justice or a guarantor of rights is that the state inevitably becomes the largest violator of its espoused principles of justice and subverter of rights. The state that claims it exists to protect the right to life arrogates itself of the right to take life, and so on. There are common good arguments here--that in order to protect the greatest number of lives, for instance, it's necessary to take a few; that agents of the state, conceived as essentially external to humanity and therefore immunized against the required protection of this or that right, must act in such capacity for the greater good. I find these arguments almost transparently silly, but I'm not going to address that here. The germane point is this: that violating human rights even up to the point of death, and that approving of or acceding to such violations are conditions authorized by states.
It may well be that if a state of war or conflict didn't exist between Iraq (or elements in Iraq) and the United States, then people would react with relative indifference to news of a crew of Americans massacring a lot of innocent Iraqis, but I think it's wrong to believe that there would be no outrage. In the absence of state sanction, such actions would rightly be seen as murder and condemned. In fact, we can see the operations of this very dynamic in the developing case of the Blackwater mercenaries. As the impression that their actions were sanctioned in war diminishes and the idea that they were acting outside of the violence permitted by our state grows, the domestic American reaction has increasingly been one of shock, horror, dismay, and disapproval--as if they had, indeed, committed murder. We might pause to note the sad supporting evidence that every day American troops, American pilots, American actions do kill dozens of innocents and otherwise violate their basic rights, and these actions are met with indifference or approval because they are state-sanctioned. And of course, it's worth noting that the very conditions which allowed the Blackwater guards to conduct themselves as they did--right or wrong--were 100% dependent on American state actions.
So to the relevant question of whether or not it is "human nature" to care little for the lives of "the other," I repeat that the question itself is a kind of category error. The truth is that callous indifference to foreign life is a facet of history under constituted authority when that authority expressly absolves--in fact, encourages--its people to disregard the lives of foreigners. The other is a construct of structures of authority, and our willingness to meet the other with brutality is a construct of those same structures. It isn't the state of nature that makes us monsters. The state is a monster.