The real barbarians!: “What’s Left?” July 2011, MRR #338

“U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A!”

Crowds chant in front of the White House, at Ground Zero in New York City, in various sports arenas around the country in response to the news that US military Special Forces have found and killed Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan on May 1, 2011. They are exuberant, and joyful. Yet there is a frenzy to their celebration, even a touch of desperation, a gloating that masks a sense of helplessness and impotence.

I don’t hold to the bullshit that all human life is precious, that each and every individual death diminishes us. Nor do I believe that it isn’t right to rejoice at the death of another human being, no matter how heinous or criminal that person’s actions have been. There are plenty of folks I would give three hearty cheers to see strung up, beginning with war criminal Henry Kissinger, and running through any number of Wall Street CEOs. Yet there is something rather pathetic about the jubilation displayed by Americans over the announcement of Osama bin Laden’s death, beginning with the contemptible assertion that “justice was done” with the Al Qaeda leader’s assassination.

Even the most rudimentary form of justice would have required bin Laden’s capture and trial, instead of his summary execution, which many in the Obama administration concede was planned from the start of the operation. Thus, those who castigate the US government and American people for engaging in vengeance rather than justice are correct, even while their moral outrage is misplaced. Justice is a cornerstone of the mythology underpinning democratic republics, whereas vengeance historically is the stock in trade of empires.

When Julius Caesar attempted to wrap up Rome’s conquest of Gaul, a number of Gallic leaders rose in revolt against the Roman Empire, among them Ambiorix, Commius, and Vercingetorix. Vercingetorix is perhaps the best known of the Gauls to resist the Romans, and the French have made him over into a minor proto-nationalist hero. Aside from uniting most of the Gallic tribes against Rome, he engaged the Roman legions with conventional military tactics and strategy, and harassed them with what we now call asymmetrical warfare (e.g. guerrilla warfare), retreating to natural fortifications whenever possible. But Vercingetorix was not a nice guy. He ruled with an iron discipline, and enforced his will by murdering his opposition and taking hostages to guarantee compliance. In order to prevent Caesar’s armies from gathering supplies and living off the land, Vercingetorix adopted a scorched earth strategy, particularly in retreat, in which his forces burned Gallic villages and towns.

Vercingetorix surrendered to Julius Caesar after the battle of Alesia in 52 bce. Due to the Roman civil war however, Caesar did not deal immediately with the rebel leader. Instead, Vercingetorix was imprisoned in the Tullianum in Rome before being publicly displayed through the streets in a celebration of Caesar’s triumph in the Gallic War in 46 bce, and then strangled in prison in 45 bce. Thus, this quintessential act of personal and martial vengeance also symbolically marked Rome’s transition from a republic to an empire.

Contrast this with the killing of Osama bin Laden, a half-assed act of vengeance by a desultory American empire. The United States couldn’t afford to capture and publicly try the Al Qaeda leader, for fear that this might provoke adverse reactions from Muslims around the world. The Obama administration was scared of even releasing pictures of bin Laden’s dead body, afraid that such an act would incite retaliation from Islamic extremists. Behind a smokescreen declaring that “justice was served” and that “bin Laden got what he deserved,” there was a sense of anxiety and panic unbecoming a great power. Oh, for the days when empire bestrode the globe like a colossus. Whatever one thinks of the ancient Roman empire, or say, the more recently deceased British empire, at least they suffered from the sin of hubris, not of chickenshit cowardice. Better the arrogance of raw power than the disingenuousness of euphemism and platitude.

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