Most violence we face we’ve provoked. Those confronting us with violence are exactly as wrong as if we hadn’t provoked them. But we are not as innocent as we like to imagine.
This seems like a simple concept awaiting only factual substantiation, but in fact it is dramatically at odds with most people’s ridiculously ill-conceived notion of how blame works. According to this common notion, blame is like a lump of clay. Whoever holds it is to blame. If they hand it to someone else, then that person is exclusively to blame. If they break it in half, then two people can each be half to blame. But blame is a finite quantity and the clay is very difficult to break. So once the clay is attached to one person, everybody else is pretty well blameless.
I faulted President Obama for instructing the Justice Department not to prosecute anyone in the CIA for torture, and someone told me that Attorney General Holder was in fact to blame, and therefore Obama was not. I faulted easy access to guns for mass shootings, and someone told me that antidepressant medications were to blame, and therefore gun laws were not. If you’re like me, these sorts of calculations will strike you as bizarrely stupid. The question of whether Obama is to blame is a question of what he has done or not done; Holder doesn’t enter into it at all. The question of whether Holder is to blame comes down to whether Holder acted against the interest of the greater good; it has nothing to do with Obama. One or both or neither of them could be to blame. Or they could both be to blame and 18 other people be to blame as well. We have problems with gun laws, psychiatric drugs, films, tv shows, video games, examples set by our government’s own violence, and many other elements of our culture; none of them erase any of the others.
Blame is unlimited. Rather than a finite lump of clay, blame should be pictured as water droplets condensing out of the air on a cold glass. There is no limit to them. They appear wherever another glass is cold. Their quantity bears no relation to the quantity of the harm done. A million people can carry the blame for a trivial harm, or one person can be alone to blame and to blame only slightly for a most horrible tragedy.
Another type of example may help explain where the common conception of blame comes from. A man convicted of murder is proven innocent, but loved ones of the victim want him punished anyway (and in proportion to the harm done). Another is proven insane or incompetent or underage, but he is punished just the same. Blame is perceived as a burning hot ball of clay that must be tossed from person to person desperately until it can be attached to someone deserving of it. Once that is done, there is no rush to find anyone (or anything) else who might also be to blame. Blame is a concept that is tied up in people’s muddled minds with the concept of revenge. It’s hard to seek revenge against numerous people or institutions all bearing different types and degrees of blame. It’s much easier to simplify. And once the demand for revenge is satisfied in the aggrieved, it ceases to search for new outlets.
When hijackers flew airplanes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, they were given blame. Anyone who helped them was given blame (after all, it’s hard to seek revenge against the dead). But anyone who provoked or accidentally permitted those crimes was deemed absolutely blameless. There wasn’t any more clay to go around. To blame the U.S. government for having spent years arming and training religious fanatics in Afghanistan and provoking them in Palestine and Saudi Arabia would mean unblaming the hijackers. To blame the U.S. government for not preventing the hijackings would mean unblaming the hijackers.
This kind of infantile thinking has prevented us from grasping anything like the true extent of blowback our nation has encountered.
There are individual encounters in which zero-sum blame thinking appears to work. Someone who kills in self-defense is given less blame than someone who kills an innocent victim. But translating this to the public or even international arena seems to me to fail. Violent social movements are wrong and to blame even when they are resisting injustice. Crimes of resistance by Native Americans and slaves can be seen as crimes even as we understand them as blowback. The World War II era crimes of Japan create a great deal of blame for Japan, and that is unchanged by understanding the history of how the United States brought war making and imperialism to the Japanese. Often in U.S. history we have been confronted by a Frankenstein monster of our own creation, and one intentionally provoked at that. This is different from the myth of our innocence and of the other’s irrational random aggression. A more informed understanding doesn’t excuse the aggression. It erases our (the U.S. government’s) innocence.
Saddam Hussein was our creature. So was Gadaffi. And Assad. “Intervene” is Pentagon-speak for “switch sides.” Our dictators remain guilty of their crimes when we learn that we funded them. Every graduate of the School of the Americas who heads off into the world to murder and torture is to blame for doing so, and so is the School of the Americas, and so are the taxpayers who fund it and the governments that send students to attend it.
We imagine that crazy irrational Iranians attacked us out of the blue in 1979, whereas the CIA’s coup of 1953 made the embassy takeover predictable — a completely different thing from justifiable.
Britain and its apprentice / master-to-be the United States long feared an alliance between Germany and Russia. This led to facilitation of the creation of the Soviet Union. And it led to support for the development of Nazism in Germany. The goal was Russian-German conflict, not peace. When war is imagined to be inevitable, the great question is where to create it, not whether. The post-World War I talks at Versailles laid the groundwork for World War II, helped along by the West’s financial and trade policies for decades to come.
Also at Versailles, President Wilson refused to meet with a young man named Ho Chi Minh — an initial bit contribution perhaps to a great deal of future blowback. The Cold War was of course provoked by lies, threats, and weapons development.
Even if you assume that the United States should dominate the globe militarily, some of the military bases being built right now are very hard to explain, except as thoughtless overreach or intentional provocation of China. One can guess how China is perceiving this. And yet, while the U.S. military spends many times the amount of money spent by China’s each year, Chinese increases provoked by U.S. troop deployments, are being used in the U.S. media to justify U.S. military spending. Most Americans have no more idea that their own government is provoking China than most Israelis have a remotely accurate conception of what their government does to Palestinians. Watch these young Israelis exposed for the first time to their nation’s occupation of Palestine. Their world is altered.
Imagine if people in the United States were to learn what their funding and weaponry are used for. U.S. weapons account for 85% of international weapons sales. While the NRA bought a political party, Lockheed Martin bought two. We don’t talk about it, but many U.S. wars have been fought against U.S. weapons. U.S. wars like the recent one in Libya result in more violence in places like Mali. U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen and Afghanistan are generating intense anger, and blowback that has already included the targeting and killing of drone pilots, as well as attempted acts of terrorism in the United States.
When will we ever learn? The hacker group Anonymous replaces government websites with video games to “avenge” Aaron Swartz, and we laugh. But vengeance is at the root of our inability to think sensibly about blame, which is in turn at the root of our inability to process what is being done to the people of the world in our name with our funding. Because war is not inevitable, everywhere we stir it up is somewhere that might have lived without it. We spend $170 billion per year on keeping U.S. troops in other people’s countries. Most people living near U.S. military bases do not want them there. Many are outraged by their presence. The blowback will keep coming. We should begin to understand that it is normal, that it is the theme of our entire history, that its predictability does not of course justify it, that we are to blame, and that there’s plenty of blame for anyone else who’s earned it.