While whiling away some time at the one remaining Blaggards in Midtown – after my favorite Fashion District dive succumbed to the incredible commercial rent speculation New York is currently experiencing – as I waited for the pro-Gaza protest to get under way in Times Square, I overheard a conversation, as one is wont to do in a bar, between three thickly-accented Brits about the nature of the Afghan Mujahideen.
One man who identified himself as a former soldier remarked that these men were particularly savage in their reprisals, referencing incidents wherein they actually crucified enemies and left them to die of exposure. He pointed out that in arming such people against the Soviets, Americans had created a monster.
His statements were of a bent that indicted America’s foreign policy, for which I was in agreement, but for a different reason: He argued in effect that we should not have armed what are obviously a savage, unreasoning people. I interjected that the veneer of civilization is thin indeed, and that our own actions are not so differentiated as he implied. He categorically disagreed with me on this issue, and stated that while we employed torture in order to gain information, they did so for sport, which was a fundamental and unbridgeable divide.
It was nearing my time to go don the Palestinian flag and march, so I did not continue the conversation but instead said my goodbyes and took my leave. However, this man’s remarks stayed on my mind. Forgetting, of course, the human piles and electrode-crucifixes that Abu Ghraib prison became infamous for under American authority, his stance that civilization was stronger and more insurmountable an edifice was a troubling one, for it meant not only that he believed these people could not be “saved,” with all the attendant implications therein, but also that western civilized folks would never fully embrace such “barbarism,” with all the attendant implications therein.
While walking to Times Square, I thought of two counter-examples. The first and most direct is that of Afghan society prior to the armament of the Mujahideen - from Soraya Tarzi to the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan, the politics were comparatively moderate as contrasted with what came after under the Taliban. Women in the cities were allowed to go to university and hold respectable public positions, and indeed wear more western fashions. The sorts of progresses America pushed for under the Karzai regime have pre-Taliban precedents.
The second and most telling counter-example is, of course, the single-generation Nazification and subsequent de-Nazification of Germany, an ostensibly “civilized” country where an entire culture was whipped into a fervor that saw the systematic deaths of millions by brutal means that would match or surpass medieval methods – with such activities as the skeet-shooting of Jewish babies, to say nothing of Mengele’s vivisectionists – and then, just as quickly, “cleansed” of such ill motives, where even referencing such a time in any but the most sober format is quickly censured if not outright censored.
If one can accept that a people can be “Nazified” or “de-Nazified” within a generation, then it logically follows that civilization’s hold on societal strictures is thin. If one cannot accept that a people can be “de-Nazified;” that the Germans (or indeed anybody else) had it in them to commit such acts all the time, and needed only the right catalyst – a view in line with Hannah Arendt’s treatise on the “banality of evil” – then civilization is merely a patina by which society collectively deludes itself.
That I was protesting against Israel’s excesses concerning the bombing and invasion of the Gaza strip – with its heavy civilian toll, especially concerning the deaths of well over a hundred children – and tacit American support of such actions, made this particular line of thinking quite pertinent. To listen to the Zionists on my Facebook feed, Israel’s right to such acts came down not only to the provocation of Hamas’ rocket attacks (forgetting the string of mutual provocations beforehand) but also that Israel was a functioning, western-style liberal democracy – in short, a civilized nation – whose motives were thus unassailable when viewed in comparison with its neighbors.
The protests and the international reaction are of course of mixed provenance – European protests, critics noted, were tinged with anti-Semitism (although conversely any American criticism is painted with the “anti-Semitism” brush even should it come from Jews) and indeed the state of Israel exists largely because western nations did not want a flood of Jewish refugees in their countries, not to mention the moral turpitude involved in granting a colonial possession against the wishes of its native population – but the underlying implication of Israel’s unchecked aggression is that civilization is not infallible, nor is it indisputable, should it even exist as a functioning concept at all.