There has been a flurry of attention and even upheaval regarding the publication of cartoons satirizing Islam in a Danish newspaper. I do not mean to strip all the dark humor from a rage of protests fueled by rather bad and silly cartoons, but we should be wary of our tendency toward the kind of mild self-deprecation that takes pleasure in our own capacity to transform another’s international indignation into a pleasant snicker: “Ah, the Muslim instigators are at it again. Haven’t they learned to take these things easy?” Such a tinge of condescension might seem harmless, but it betrays a pleasant amusement at how “those people” are proving to the West that they are too backward to embrace “modernity.” In this way, seemingly moderate responses serve to strengthen the perceived differences between Muslims and Europeans or Americans that give way to atrocity. They forget that we are, in the end, mere people, mere flesh and blood.
Several recent developments serve to illustrate the context in which this cartoon silliness became outrage. A new video that shows British troops brutally beating several Iraqi kids has been brought to light by the British newspaper The News of the World. This video is not only disturbing in the cold and ruthless manner in which British soldiers drag captured kids behind the secrecy of concrete walls, only to rain down helmeted head-butts, blows with batons and savage kicks to victims who merely plead for mercy. But perhaps even more brutal than the physical abuse is the cameraman’s vicious commentary accompanying the action: “Oh yes, oh yes, you’re gonna get it! Naughty little boys. You little f–ers, you little f–: DIE!” These words are groaned with an almost sexual glee that gives us an inkling of what the lost soundtrack to the Abu Ghraib pictures must have been like.
Last week, new pictures from Abu Ghraib were released in spite of staunch opposition from the U.S. government, which argued that it would add to the flames after the cartoon controversy. That these pictures had not been shown sooner, and would not be — were it up to the current administration — highlights how the “free press” functions. It is a conceit by which the rich and powerful moralize over those who can only promote their “interests” not by access to huge media corporations or by making campaign contributions, but by taking to the streets with stones. Many of these pictures, once again, are characterized by a compulsion to humiliate prisoners by arranging them in sexually demeaning ways. Others show brutal blood splatters, or a prisoner banging his head repeatedly against a metal surface.
This man was allegedly a mentally disturbed captive, whom guards used for amusement and for practicing immobilization techniques. These gut-wrenching pictures lend credence to a newly leaked 40-page U.N. report that condemns activities in the Guantanamo Bay prison as torture and calls for its expeditious closure. The U.S. government, of course, denies all allegations. The American people, so it seems, have either no opinion with regard to these machinations of its government or have lost all rein on what its rulers do. Instead they endure silently in fear of evil bogeymen who might jump out of closets, for which they forsake right after right.
The ongoing invasion in Iraq and even the more intangible and apparently eternal war on terror has produced not only death, horror and the proliferation of terrorism — it also has set a tumult of essentialisms on both sides that only make the prospect of further conflict more plausible: Men have been reduced to the cartoonish straw man of Bush’s and bin Laden’s rhetoric. For this reason, cartoons are anything but trivial. This most recent mockery of Muslims, no matter how lighthearted, comes at a time when many people are fed up at reports of human rights abuses in places like Guantanamo Bay or Abu Ghraib. The joyously free press of the free world continues to manufacture a sludge of fear, crystallizing around specters like the Muslim terrorist or the still-at-large bin Laden.
The stories that buzz around in our television sets, newspapers and radios are hardly ever as important as the landscape of the world that they serve to create in our minds. This landscape is more a video game than anything else — evil terrorists want to destroy “America’s” way of life. This Hollywood-style national myth has yielded a chilling destructive power, as well as robust political capital for an encroaching right: It has spurred two invasions, made a series of draconian policies law, got half of the American people agreeing to be spied upon by its government, secured immunity enough to torture people in Guantanamo, and still has a bit of kick left to have people foaming over Iran. This is the legacy of the Bush administration and of all of us who let it happen. All paid for by the gospel of fear, the true currency of this democracy — if we still have the persistence, faith or innocence to call it that. This generalized fear feeds off essentialist views of East and West, American and Iraqi, even Christian and Muslim.
We should strive to uproot talk of “terrorists” and Muslims that functions at the level of the cartoonish, by which the other becomes deprived of his humanity and made easier to kill. And here I do not mean to suggest centralized censorship, but rather that we actively search our media for these myths and expose them, rather than indulge in a snort and chuckle. It is in this subtle way that we are as guilty as those who have the mindless courage to detonate themselves in a crowd of their enemies: not people, but cartoons of people. Or as guilty as those who have the mindless cowardice to manipulate and pervert the American government to condone torture, espionage and other instincts of a latent fascism eager to inscribe its interests onto its betrayed electorate and the larger miserables of the world. To people who have suffered and raged, people who have seen photographs of fellow humans forced to masturbate by grinning American soldiers in Abu Ghraib, or more sinister pictures of blood splatters; to those who have seen the newest video of British troops savagely beating Iraqi boys, mocking them and mimicking them, even silly cartoons are not just silly. They are a little bit of mocking mirth stapled onto a mass of agonizing flesh: a “f– you” with the two-faced courtesy to add “and have a nice day.”
Jordan Trevino is a junior in Trumbull College.