One consequence of the Iraq war is to expose (once again) the false divide between "civilized" and "barbarous" nations. The United States seems as capable of barbarism as anyone else, as the abuses at the Abu Ghraib prison make clear. Much of the time the barbarism in Iraq goes unrecorded, as when American tanks sweep into Iraqi neighborhoods and kill dozens of innocents in the name of fighting "insurgents." But barbarism is found in many quarters, as the grisly beheading of an American hostage made clear.
Every society, under certain conditions, is vulnerable to a descent into barbarism. Many historians have argued that German society under Hitler was somehow uniquely evil. False. Germany was destabilized by defeat in World War I, a harsh peace in 1919, hyperinflation in the 1920's, and the Great Depression of the 1930's, but was otherwise not uniquely barbarous. On the contrary, in the early part of the twentieth century, Germany was one of the world's richest countries, with enviably high education levels and scientific prowess. Hannah Arendt was closer to the mark when she wrote about the "banality of evil," not its uniqueness.
There seem to be two common characteristics of the descent into barbarism. The first is the relentless human tendency to classify the world as "us" versus "them," and then to reduce "them" to sub-human status. Such classifications probably evolved because they strengthened the cohesion of the "in" group, facilitating cooperation by harnessing hatred for those outside.
Hatred and violence against "others" seem to be manifested most powerfully as the result of fear: they are survival reactions. The descent into barbarism generally occurs in the midst of economic crisis or when localized violence has already flared. Fear leads one group to coalesce in order to protect itself, perhaps by attacking a competing group.
This pattern was evident in Yugoslavia's wars of the 1990's, where ethnic communities that had lived together more or less peacefully became enmeshed in civil war in the midst of a deep economic crisis. Similarly, Israelis and Palestinians have both engaged in barbaric acts in a tragic interplay of mutual fear that empowers extremists in both communities. There is no glory on either side of the Israel-Palestine debacle. But Israel, with its vastly stronger army, could and should have taken much wiser political decisions than occupying the West Bank with settlers.
American reactions to the Abu Ghraib torture scenes, followed by the beheading of the American hostage Nicholas Berg, show clearly the route to barbarism in a supposedly civilized country. In May 2004, The New York Times polled readers in a city in the US heartland, Oswego, Illinois. One retired businessman said, "Let's kill them all. Let's wipe them off the face of the earth." A Nazi leader would not have said it differently.
A tow truck driver said that the beheading "just affirms what I thought before. We're not being tough enough. This is something that we've got to do. We should attack our enemies directly and not back off till we succeed." A third respondent said something similar. "There was so much outrage about the prisoner abuse, which I certainly don't approve of, but this was much worse," she said, referring to the Berg murder. "What it tells me is that we can't let this kind of evil put down roots. We have to fight it decisively right now, or else we'll never be able to stamp it out."
Barbarous thinking comes easily, and right-wingers fuel the fervor, as when Rush Limbaugh said on his radio program "They're the ones who are perverted. They're the ones who are dangerous. They're the ones who are subhuman. They're the ones who are human debris, not the United States of America and not our soldiers and our prison guards."
I am not saying that the US is more depraved than other countries. What I am saying is that human society, even in the twenty-first century, is capable of sliding into barbaric thinking and action, no matter the level of "development."
The idea that any nation is morally superior, or that it has been divinely chosen as a leader of nations, is dangerous. Once we recognize how vulnerable all of the world is to this kind of descent into violence, the importance of international law and international institutions such as the United Nations become all the more obvious. The UN successfully resisted the powerful pressures of the US to condone a war with Iraq despite repeated US claims, now known to be false, that Iraq was in possession of weapons of mass destruction. The UN process worked. It was US policy that failed.
The events at Abu Ghraib underscore why international rules such as the Geneva Conventions on the treatment of combatants are so vital. By putting itself above the law, America allowed itself to succumb to barbaric behavior. Similarly, these events prove why the new International Criminal Court (ICC) is vital. The US strongly resisted the jurisdiction of the ICC, but American abuses at Abu Ghraib show why the US, should be subject to international law.
Perhaps that lesson - the need to subject even the most powerful country to international law - will be one benefit of the otherwise disastrous war that the US launched in Iraq. If this lesson is learned, the world will be far safer. America itself will be safer, in part because it will be less likely in the future to unleash a spiral of violence fueled by its own irrational fears and misunderstandings of the world.