Killing off the extras

It is such fun to watch a plane drop an eight-ton bomb in a Hollywood action movie. But the inhabitants of Madu, a tiny village huddled on the slopes of Tora Bora, were not sitting comfortably in an air- conditioned movie theatre when the bomb fell. Their village was flattened. Their lives were cut short or wrecked forever. Madu was only one of many villages that provided the backdrop for America’s real life blockbuster, the Afghan thriller that came complete with “dead or alive” leaflets. And no one is counting the dead. In action movies you don’t do that. You just keep your eyes on the lead actors.

Cinema audiences have long been accustomed to regarding everyone but the protagonist as dispensable — scenery at best, or worthless cannon fodder. But the men and women of Madu and a host of other Afghan villages — the “collateral damage” US troops caused — were real, not extras. They were not paid for their parts. They did not see the entire show. They just died.

And everything was more important than their lives. The visit by Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld played like the brief appearance of the chief inspector on the scene of a minor crime. A few words exchanged with the detectives, a curt remark to the media, and cut. Pervez Musharraf and Northern Alliance officials also made symbolic appearances, adding a dash of local colour.

Everything was picturesque: an action-packed movie unfolding in foreign climes, good guys fighting bad guys and the natives running amok — except that most of the extras would have preferred to go about their normal lives instead. Ordinary Afghans, exhausted and impoverished, were not thrilled to be featuring in another thriller. They had been through enough war long before the Taliban’s rigorous morality appeared on the scene, and long before the Americans flew in with the special effects. They just want to stay alive.

For the young journalists of the free world, however, the career opportunity was irresistible. Donning safari suits and hiking boots, flinging cameras over shoulders, they hit the road in search of sound bites, and found them. The “liberated” Afghans obliged with a flurry of insults to Bin Laden and the Arab fighters. Front page news: Afghans shaving. Inside page news: bombs straying into villages and homes. The sickening massacre of Taliban POWs made it, reluctantly, into the front pages, on account of excessive gore, which always sells well.

The rugged young journalists, emissaries of the mighty Western media, sauntered among the POWs’ corpses; but why were they there? The media are not watchdogs of democracy and human rights — not anymore. If there is room in the media for human rights and democracy, it is tailored to suit the political fashion. If there is a measure of probity in the media, it has been reduced to match that of politics. East and West may not be about to meet; but the media and politics have converged comfortably. And places such as Madu are outside the realm of either.

The Taliban wanted to take Afghanistan outside history and politics. US planes brought it firmly back, into the international fold, into a world where people can be cast as extras and made dispensable. Will the death toll be counted retroactively? Will anyone bring Rumsfeld and his officers to account for the massacres in villages and on distant mountain tops? Will anyone pay attention to the Northern Alliance’s crimes? No one, mind you, paid much attention to the Taliban’s crimes until suicide attackers disrupted the American way of life. Northern Alliance thugs are dragging bodies through Afghan streets, dismembering them, and the world is not protesting. It’s just another scene in an action-filled drama, after all.

It is true that Western public opinion is not happy with NA brutality. But it won’t say a word as long as that brutality is convenient to the “good guys.” How will the criminals be brought to account when the dead are not even being counted? The Afghan militias are dirtying their own hands, sparing the civilised West the bother and mess. The West prefers to fire remote-controlled missiles. It does not mind its soldiers killing, but it does not want them to come home with their hands drenched in blood. The extras can do that too.

Since the invention of modern warfare, psychologists have been aware that killing someone with a knife takes more nerve than killing numerous people from afar. This is true for everyone — the shabbily dressed, poorly trained Afghan militiamen and the professionally equipped Americans, trained to within an inch of their humanity. If the murderer takes a good look at the victim, hears her begging for mercy, trauma must ensue. No one wishes to summon the killer instinct from the depths of the human psyche, at least not as an up-close-and-personal task. This is why it has been sterilised, distanced and sequestrated. Hand-to-hand combat, if necessary, is left to the locals. This way, not only the lives of US soldiers but their souls too, their “civilised” demeanour, are safe. They stick to their eight-ton bombs, to their Tomahawk missiles, and they feel fine.

This has worked for the United States so far, but it is not working for Israel, its Middle East ally. Israel cannot bomb the Palestinians from the sky and rely on collaborators to clean up the mess. No organised Palestinian political force is ready to do that. The Palestinian people are fighting the occupation desperately. The Israelis have, therefore, to confine themselves to attacks by Apache helicopter (how ironic that this weapon should be named after one of colonial America’s first victims), assassinations carried out from a distance, shelling of civilian areas, and beating up teenagers at roadblocks.

The Zionist left has always worried that its soldiers would turn into thugs if their hands were stained with human blood. Golda Meir, hardly a leftist, should win a Guinness Book of Records entry for one of the most absurd, arrogant, and conceited utterances ever made: “We will never forgive the Arabs for forcing our soldiers to kill them.” The more modest Shimon Peres claims that the survival of the Jewish state in this region depends on three things: (1) Jewish majority; (2) moral superiority; and (3) technological superiority.

The Israelis have an impressive array of psychological self-defence mechanisms that allow them to avoid seeing the truth. In this case, the truth is: (1) Peres is lying; (2) the Israelis are not the victims; and (3) Israeli soldiers do more than piloting Apache choppers. They are adept at humiliating and insulting people, beating them to death — after arresting them, and shooting their victims in the head. They do so systematically, conscientiously, and with a motive provided by Sharon and Peres (aided by a host of media cronies): such actions are necessary for Israel’s survival.

As long as Israel cannot recruit Palestinians to do its dirty work, the Palestinians will remain morally superior to the Israelis. I am not talking about a nation of good guys in conflict with one of bad guys; that is a nonsensical dichotomy. I am simply referring to the fact that the Palestinians are a people who live under occupation. As such, they are morally superior to their occupiers. Occupation is a morally untenable act of persecution, and people who live under occupation are by definition morally superior to those who attempt, through coercion, to perpetuate the occupation.

The Palestinian people are engaged in a struggle for liberation, and this is their main strength. This is what they stand to lose if their cause is reduced to one of defending the security of their occupiers. The Palestinian cause is about winning freedom for the dispossessed, not security for the occupiers. The Palestinian cause is not about terror. It is about the violence of occupation. The source of Palestinian strength is the fight for liberation, and the Palestinians should only give it up in return for liberation. The Palestinians should see themselves and behave as people who live under occupation, until occupation ends.

The writer is a Palestinian Israeli and member of the Knesset.