I will resist the temptation to wax polemical, but the desecration of the bodies of dead Taliban fighters by U.S. Marines–and people’s reactions to the incident–invites analysis. For starters, there must be commentators in peace churches who are arguing that there’s a perverse irony at work in the U.S. government’s official condemnations of the incident: Dead bodies are sacred; living bodies are not. It’s acceptable for soldiers to destroy living people’s bodies; they risk getting in trouble, though, if afterwards they piss on what’s left. Many Americans who regard the latter as deplorable have no problem with the former–someone might suggest that reflects a warped set of values.
I’m reminded of how the military made a point of washing and enshrouding Osama bin Laden’s body, in accordance with Islamic custom, before disposing of it. Treating the bodies of dead enemies in a way that can be represented as respectful appears to be one of the ways that Americans cast themselves as good and honorable and thus legitimate their use of violence.
Pamela Geller interpreted the urination as a parody of “the Islamic ritual of washing and preparing the body for burial.” I doubt–no, hope that the Marines involved hadn’t thought through the semiotics of what they were doing that far. But it’s striking that Geller is prepared to applaud an action that she understands as a literal desecration. The military institutions that the United States has charged with actually carrying out the killing of enemy Muslims at least make a show of treating Islam as sacred; Geller feels no compunctions on that count. Even knowing how vehemently anti-Muslim she is, I confess to being surprised. I would have thought that the forces of pluralism would exert enough of a gravitational pull on her that she would find it prudent to keep her approval of this particular incident out of the public eye. The fact that she doesn’t feel that need is a sign of how tolerated antipathy to Islam has become in American culture. I hadn’t realized our situation was quite that bad. It’s one thing to see outrageously Islamophobic statements being made by local officials somewhere, because you can chalk it up to provinciality; I didn’t realize that people like Geller felt sufficiently emboldened to approve an act of desecration on the national stage.
A similar observation can be made about the fact that the Marines involved seem to have felt so justified in the act that they saw nothing wrong with uploading the video to show a potentially global public what they had done. (I’m assuming that’s the scenario, i.e., that the video wasn’t uploaded by a whistleblower.) What does that tell us about the culture the American Marines in Afghanistan have created among themselves? The U.S. government wants, of course, to represent this incident as an aberration; but it’s not difficult to see why Marines whose lives are constantly endangered by the Taliban would develop a culture of disdain and loathing for the Taliban and their religion. Wouldn’t you have to, to psychologically survive that situation? Americans want to imagine that their soldiers can go to war with Islamic extremists while retaining high ideals of “respect” for Islam and Muslims and human rights in general–because that will make for an “honorable” war, true to American values. I find that an unrealistic expectation to place on people we’re sending out to kill or be killed, and I’m therefore not surprised to find evidence that soldiers don’t live up to it. But as long as Americans imagine it can be done, and is being done, they’ll feel fewer qualms about sending their soldiers off to war.
Okay, so I didn’t stay as neutrally analytical as I’d intended at the outset.