I haven’t fully digested the disgusting news that U.S. Marines have been caught on video urinating on dead Taliban fighters in Afghanistan, so this post is not offered as a coherent think-piece. But what is there to think about, anyway? What is there to say, really, except that there’s absolutely no excuse? No excuse for the policy makers and officers, but neither is there one for the brutalized young perpetrators. Their lowly enlisted status doesn’t excuse them; we should offer them compassion, but not absolution, for the guilt they carry. The next time I’m in a U.S. airport and the passengers break out in applause when the gate agent or flight attendant congratulates “our men and women in uniform,” I’ll remember this incident.
In keeping with its maddening, self-regarding role as the American Pravda, a hand-wringing New York Times “analysis” worries that “the images could incite anti-American sentiment at a particularly delicate moment in the decade-old Afghan war.” Well, how could they not have that effect? And why shouldn’t they?
Jafar “Jeff” Siddiqui, a Pakistani-American acquaintance of mine who lives near Seattle, where I live, writes a reliably candid blog called “PenJihad.” In his latest installment, aptly titled “Marines Urinating on Dead Muslims,” Jeff offers this challenge to his fellow American Muslims: “There is no action against the anti-Muslim hate-mongering climate in this country because we Muslims do not do anything to make ourselves politically significant so, why should anyone care about us?” This echoes my own 2010 article“Muslims in America: Time for a Movement?” The question mark is important, because I’m not a Muslim, and I won’t presume to tell people who are more vulnerable in American society than I am what they should do. But I am an American, and I still believe, as I wrote in that article, that “Muslims have a historic opportunity to play an important leadership role in American society today” – not only for their own sake, but for the sake of our politically rudderless and morally feckless society as a whole.
I happen to have just this week submitted to the “Books & Authors” section of the Pakistani newspaperDawn my long-overdue review of a powerful book, a collection of writings from Indian periodicals and websites compiled and edited by Sanjay Kak, titled Until My Freedom Has Come: The New Intifada in Kashmir. Congratulations to Penguin India for publishing such a book. In one piece, “Kashmir’s Abu Ghraib?”, contributor Shuddhabrata Sengupta describes an appalling YouTube video tagged “brothers watch, sisters please do not watch” and popularly known as the “Kashmir Naked Parade Video,” apparently shot by an offending Indian soldier himself with a cell phone. There’s no need for me to describe the video; you get the picture. “At least in the pitched street battles, we see adversaries, albeit unequal adversaries, policemen, paramilitaries, soldiers one side, and the angry tide of stone-pelters on the other,” writes Sengupta.
Here, there are no adversaries. Prisoners are not in a position to be adversarial when surrounded by heavily armed men in uniform. What we see instead are unarmed captives, people who are in no position to threaten or endanger the security forces. That such people should be made to undergo a humiliation such as this is proof of the extent to which the forces of the Indian state in Kashmir have become brutalized by the experience of serving in Kashmir.
Ultimately it’s not – and shouldn’t be seen as – being about what Americans or Indians do to Muslims, but what any of us are willing to do, and be seen doing, to each other, and – framed more constructively – what we might still do to reclaim our humanity. I have some thoughts on that, which will need to wait for another time (soon). For now, here are some of the extremely hard questions that Sengupta raises:
While the making of atrocity images such as these have for long been a part of the apparatus of violence, the ubiquity of mobile phones as recording devices, and of internet-based social networking sites as vectors of circulation has taken the phenomenon to a new level. We have no clear understanding of what motivates the making of these images. Are they meant as evidence of a “job well done” – to be shown to superiors who actually sanction torture and humiliation but have no way of assessing their effectiveness or actual operation because of the legal difficulty involved in maintaining official records of “unofficial” secrets? Or, are they simply testosterone-fuelled perversities, operating in the same sphere as MMS messages of pornographic sadism?
Sengupta also asserts that
There is need for further research on questions such as whether or not the makers of these atrocity images are also consciously seeking each other out, both as audiences and as competitors, in a new economy of prestige linked to the capacity to represent and circulate one’s own cruelty. In other words, are the makers of the videos in Kashmir, or in the Jaffna peninsula, aware of, and in some senses seeking to out-do the actions of their peers and predecessors in Abu Ghraib? Also, is there an informal network of know-how, pertaining to techniques for torture and humiliation that lubricates the virtual matrix inhabited by the protagonists of the so-called “global war on terror”, that operates in much the same way as the networks that bring together paedophiles and sex offenders on online platforms in the darker parts of the internet? Finally, how and why do these videos leak out of these networks into the wider public domain? Are there weak, conscience-stricken, anonymous whistle-blowing links at the fringes of even the darkest recesses of power (as is evident from the centre of the WikiLeaks storm) that cannot bear the burden of carrying power’s dirtiest secrets?
But here’s something for Muslims to reflect on: a video of Pakistani soldiers killing captives in the Swat valley was briefly circulated on Facebook as one of Indians killing Kashmiris. Sengupta points out, all too rightly:
The irony of a Pakistani atrocity being briefly misattributed as an Indian one only underscores the fact that when it comes to the everyday operationalization of state terror, the security apparatuses of India and Pakistan aspire to the same low standards, which make it quite possible for those seeking to score a few cheap propaganda points on either side to – deliberately or otherwise – confuse one perpetrator for another.
It goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway, that the U.S. military and security apparatuses obviously aspire to, or at least achieve, the same low standard.