Borat and the Cycle of Hate and Violence

How quickly is the cycle of hate and violence exposed and exploited? Could what we see happening in countries all around the world, when the cycle of violence turns neighbors against each other so viciously and so bloodily, happen here? Often when talking about this all too common and easily occurring phenomenon I refer to the below video where British comedian and satirist Sacha Baron Cohen‘s Borat character whips a live and unscripted crowd in Arizona into a frenzied passion of anti-Semitism. It is horrifyingly fascinating and shows, at our base level, we are no different than people elsewhere.

From Wikipedia:

The Borat character has been accused of anti-Semitism but Baron Cohen, himself an Orthodox Jew, has explained that the segments are a “dramatic demonstration of how racism feeds on dumb conformity, as much as rabid bigotry.” Borat essentially works a tool. By himself pretending to be anti-Semitic, he lets people lower their guard and expose their own prejudice,” Baron Cohen explained to Rolling Stone. Baron Cohen, the grandson of a Holocaust survivor, says he wishes in particular to expose the role of indifference:

When I was in university, there was this major historian of the Third Reich, Ian Kershaw, who said, ‘The path to Auschwitz was paved with indifference.’ I know it’s not very funny being a comedian talking about the Holocaust, but it’s an interesting idea that not everyone in Germany had to be a raving anti-Semite. They just had to be apathetic

 

Ida and the Cycles of Violence and Forgiveness

Have you seen the film Ida?

It is a Polish film from last year that is a powerful, brilliant piece of filmmaking. I use those words powerful and brilliant, because, 48 hours later, I am still contemplating and dissecting the movie; I am still in meditation over its meaning and in awe at how the film has stimulated my own thoughts and tested my beliefs.

The story is a road trip in the early 1960s in Poland between a young woman, brought up in a convent and on the verge of taking her vows to become a nun, and her aunt, a once leading figure in Poland’s post war Communist Party and now a judge. The young woman has no worldly or sensual experiences and is about to begin her adult life by joining the once almighty, but now politically bankrupt, morally spent, and intellectually disregarded Church. The older woman with her life ending professionally, and judging by her alcohol consumption, physically and emotionally as well, belongs to the new order, the new way of the world, the post war communist party promising brotherhood, meaning and purpose in the years after the cataclysms and holocausts of WWI and WWII. It is a political and philosophical movie, but it is also a deeply personal movie, as two individual life stories, differentiated by commitments to competing ideologies and life’s purpose, commitments that dominate and control their lives because of circumstance and history, more than by individual choice, are forced to look past the veneer and trappings of their costumes and titles, to examine who they are and why they are.

As I watched Ida the same challenges arose in me, and as a testament to the great storytelling of the film, are still resident with me. Most concerning, about 2/3rds through the film, I said to my girlfriend, “if I were them, I’d take that shovel and split his head”. It was an honest and true feeling. I was not acting or parading as some phony tough guy or a has-been Marine, but my visceral, gut reaction at that time, during that scene, was that I would commit violence and I would revel in it to assuage my anger and celebrate revenge. But, as the film went on, and as I reflected on those emotions, spurned by the actions of the characters, I realized how wrong, how foolish and how weak such a sentiment and desire was and how embarrassing my utterance.

In the scheme of the movie, killing the man would have been possible and it would have fulfilled some form of duty or obligation to my family, my community and my people, as well as fulfilling a duty to my own image of myself and my need for vengeance; vengeance based on personal, cultural and institutional values. However, taking myself away from that scene, watching the characters and applying my own life’s experience participating in and around the violence of war, I grudgingly recognize and must accept the futility of such violence. I say grudgingly, because violence and revenge is such a part of our identity and our culture that I am loathe to give it up, I am afraid to move on, and to recognize the myth of redemptive violence, as exactly that, a myth constructed primarily for the purposes of national, ethnic, sectarian or religious hegemony, dominance and absolution.

But if I had killed that man, if I had split his head with that shovel, seen death overcome him and gain the satisfaction of such grisly passage of state, what would come of it, what events would I now own? His wife and children, as innocent of crimes as those in whose name I murdered, would be widowed and orphaned on a struggling farm. His sons, would they not seek revenge and in time come for me and my family? Would not the children of my family, the next generation, be butchered in turn? My actions, murder and the infliction of suffering on the innocent, would begin a cycle of violence, an uncontrollable, bloody cycle without end, the likes of which we see in our wars overseas and in the wars in our own cities. And for me? My own experiences in war, my own and personal struggles with moral injury, is that not instructive to me? What would become of my mind and my soul after killing the man?

To move on and say nothing to the man is an option and a better one than violence. However, it is an incomplete option, leaving a chapter of life open ended and without closure, in essence running from a problem and not attempting a resolution, but it does not require the strength needed for a third, and rightful, option. Imagine saying to the man: “I forgive you” and giving him your hand and your blessing. How hard that would be! It seems nearly impossible to me and such a thought, such an option, which leads to an involuntary reflex and rejection within me, would stop the cycle of violence and lead to peace, both within me and my community.

The choice of mercy, of forgiveness, is anathema to my sense of manhood and my obligation for revenge and justice; but what would come of such forgiveness, besides a rejection of cultural and institutionalized violence and loss of personal pride, if I had the courage to enact it? A man would be given mercy and his family spared, and perhaps nothing more than that, but, with deep consideration, is anything else truly necessary? Breaking the cycle of violence is enough. Quite possibly, and maybe very likely, the man would be changed and his family enlightened, hell, maybe his daughter would grow to be the second coming of Mother Theresa, but such achievements or results would not be necessary to validate or vindicate the forgiveness proffered to the man. Stopping the cycle of violence is enough, the peace that would come to my mind and to my community would be enough.

I like to say that one of my favorite quotes is from Saint Francis de SalesNothing is so strong as gentleness, nothing so gentle as real strength. Yet, how difficult to turn such an outlook into an attribute, even when through personal experience you have seen the glaring failure and horrific counter-production of violence and have been affected so forcibly by grace, kindness and forgiveness as I have.

So please give Ida a watch. It’s a wonderful, well done, contemplative film and I trust it will challenge something in you.

*For another excellent film that takes on the myth of redemptive violence and exposes it for the tragedy it really is, please watch Blue Ruin. Both films are available on Netflix.

With American Help Iraq’s Cycle of Violence Spirals

I published this last week in the Huffington Post:

Amnesty International published a report yesterday on Iraqi Government and Shia militia war crimes against Sunni populations in Iraq. This important piece of documentation helps to illustrate the cycle of violence that has been devastating the people of Iraq for 11 years and why US military intervention, on behalf of the Shia government and against the Sunni population, is not working, will not work, and will only prolong the suffering of millions of Iraqis.

Over the last several years, since the US military withdrew in late 2011*, the Shia government in Baghdad has persecuted the Sunni minority population relentlessly. Persecution against Sunnis has included killings, disappearances, mass arrests, indefinite detainment without charges or trial, torture, and exclusion from national, provincial and local political, security and revenue structures.

The result has been Sunni alignment with the Islamic State and organized revolution against the Shia dominated government in Baghdad with the all too predictable accompanying sectarian slaughter. Mass Sunni retaliation against non-Sunnis, led by the Islamic State, highlighted the news cycle this summer, although this type of bloodshed was nothing unique or new to the people of Iraq. The cycle of violence continues as Shia forces, now with American military support, engage in retribution against Sunni civilians.

This cycle of violence started with our invasion of Iraq in 2003, and while it diminished for a period of time from 2007-2011, it has since been progressing steadily. Nearly 10,000 Iraqis were killed in sectarian violence in 2013, and, if nothing changes, at the current rate, nearly 20,000 Iraqis, maybe more, will die this year.

What can and should be done?

Address the political grievances of the Sunni population. Give the Sunnis a reason not to support the Islamic State. Right now the Sunni population of Iraq is choosing to side with the Islamic State because that is a better option than to further acquiesce to the Shia government in Baghdad. To accomplish Sunni rejection of the Islamic State pressure must be put on the government in Baghdad to reform by incorporating Sunnis back into the security forces, into the political system and into the revenue streams, as well as removing Shia dominated security forces from Sunni areas. Greater autonomy must be given to Sunni areas; note this is not a Sunni only demand, but the government in Baghdad is so corrupt, that the Shia province of Basra in southern Iraq wants autonomy too.

The government in Baghdad will not reform or stop its persecution of Sunnis while we provide it with unconditional support through weapons sales and the use of the American air force or while we allow the continued sale of Iraqi oil. With no reform and no negotiation the Sunnis will remain attached to the Islamic State. With no political efforts the Islamic State will continue to grow stronger.

Sound familiar? Like our misadventure in Afghanistan? The greater we supported the corrupt government in Kabul and the more American troops we sent, the more the Taliban prospered. A similar dynamic is at play in Iraq. Consequently, without a change in American policy the cycle of violence in Iraq will continue its ghastly spiral, Amnesty International will find cause and need to publish more reports, and parasites of war, like the Islamic State and American defense companies will be the sole beneficiaries.

You may find the Amnesty International report here.

*This is not an endorsement for US forces to have remained in Iraq, but rather acknowledgment of one of the consequences of massive policy folly and foolishness. Despite a revisionist view currently circulated by hawks in D.C. and on TV, the prospect of American troops staying in Iraq past 2011 was wildly unpopular with a majority of Iraqis and would have led to a re-opening of the Iraq Civil War, including Muqtada al-Sadr’s forces once again killing American troops in large numbers. One of the foremost lessons that somehow, amazingly, we have not learned as Americans, is that once war has begun, war is impossible to control and there may be no options that result in anything other than death, maiming and destruction.