‘Radicalisation’ is our new dirty word in the US and UK, yet radical change is needed. Here’s an idea: stop trying to fix the world with high explosives
An icon for killing dozens of Iraqis … Bradley Cooper as Chris Kyle in American Sniper. Photograph: Allstar
I suppose that whether this article prompted by the Charleston shootings feels topical enough will depend on whether America has another mass shooting before it goes to print. If you’re in the US, there’s a fair chance it will seem dated because you are actually being gunned down as you read it, so I’ll try to get straight to the point. It’s surely worth wondering whether it’s time to retire the flag that has for so long been a rallying point for racists and murderers, the stars and stripes. There’s a genuine question to be asked here: what responsibility does the US state bear for the Charleston shootings when racist murder seems to be part of its policing strategy and most of its foreign policy?
Occasionally I wonder whether at some point in the past 100 years the US gave the rest of the world a safe word and we’ve simply forgotten it. Or maybe we’re just saying it wrong (Aluminium? I’m sure you said it was aluminium ...) Hillary Clinton has been speaking out against the “racist terrorism” of Dylann Roof despite being the architect of the US military intervention in Libya. The US’s record of invasions, assassinations and government overthrows is racist, I think. Imagining that you can kill people and seize control of their resources without believing them to be inferior requires a certain amount of intellectual flexibility. The same sort of intellectual flexibility that allows people to express grief for the migrants who drown in the Mediterranean and hatred for the ones who survive.
Part of the American mindset comes from the fact that the US was formed through the racist murder of indigenous people. The reason that whole country is such a horror story is that the entire thing is built on an Old Indian Graveyard. I worry that perhaps white America wants to believe that its racial fault lines only run as deep as the Confederate flag. Hence the current uproar at names of southern civil-war generals being on street signs while the faces of slave owners are still on the currency.
Of course not everybody gets behind the US’s view of itself, which is why it is the world’s largest producer of propaganda. Last year’s biggest movie, American Sniper, was billed as the story of the US army’s deadliest soldier, which must have felt pretty galling for the guy who dropped the bomb on Hiroshima. It was basically Star Wars from the point of view of one of the stormtroopers, and the director (Clint Eastwood – I’m not even joking) encouraged us to get behind the idea that you should take moral decisions when women and children are in your crosshairs, rather than long, long before. You got the feeling that the clunky scene explaining that sniper Chris Kyle’s unit painted skulls on their gear as a tribute to the Punisher was necessary in case viewers made the more logical supposition that it was a tribute to the Waffen-SS.
There are many indicators of advanced civilisations, but unthinking hero worship of the military isn’t one of them. The US, like the UK, has been forced to move away from a conscription army and now has a mercenary army. It’s the reason you don’t get war poets any more.
Indeed, before Britain feels too superior, we should perhaps remember that Roof’s main problem here would have been feeling torn between quite a few of the main parties at the last election. We live in a country where posting “Let’s riot or something bruv!” on Facebook will get you a couple of years in prison, while writing a column saying we should bomb Syria is practically an entrance exam for public intellectuals. Of course, it’s never phrased as a plea to kill shepherds in pursuit of our geopolitical interests. By the time it hits the broadsheets, it’s a plea to arm moderate rebels (they’ve got a moderate vision of the country’s future and they’re going to kill until they get it!). It’s a humanitarian intervention. We’re not fighting wars for control of resources. We’re not the aggressor in countries such as Iraq, we’re actually defending Iraq. From the Iraqis. The most obvious anti-war argument that none of this has ever worked just doesn’t seem to come up.
Of course our governments are just trying to protect us from terror. In the same way that someone banging a hornets’ nest with a stick is trying to protect us from hornets. Maybe I’ll even give them the benefit of the doubt and concede that they are just naive do-gooders trying to bring the world peace and stability through the medium of high explosives. What gets me is that the new dirty word in the west is “radicalisation”, as if radical change wasn’t obviously needed; as if the status quo has any decency, or is even survivable. It’s not actually difficult to see solutions to the US’s problems: children can do it, until we educate them out of it. Internationally, I propose the radical step of not trying to solve complex political problems with 1,000lb bombs; domestically, I propose they start addressing inequality by paying reparations for slavery. I’m well aware that in a society where war and discrimination are now almost entirely normalised, both options sound like madness.