These days we are asked — or more accurately coerced — to give our assent to some strange things. Take the recent adventure of Richard Phillips, Captain of the USS Maersk Alabama
, held hostage by Somali pirates off the Horn of Africa, in the spring of 2009, for five days. Rescued, he wanted none of the fanfare and accolades usually conferred on a courageous and selfless captain of a ship but, instead, asked the country to turn its admiring eye on three sharpshooters from the Navy SEALs. Standing on the shifting fantail of their Navy destroyer, the USS Bainbridge
, the snipers drew a bead on the pirates, who were themselves bobbing up and down in their lifeboat and, from a distance of several hundred yards, killed all three pirates instantaneously with a single shot apiece.
Extraordinary marksmanship — a near impossibility — but the SEALs miraculously pulled it off: death with precision, assassination with magic. Upon his homecoming in Vermont, Phillips announced to the waiting and adoring crowd: "They're the superheroes. They're the titans. They're impossible men doing an impossible job, and they did the impossible with me. They're at the point of the sword every day, doing an impossible job every day."
A part of me does indeed think those three Navy SEALs accomplished something remarkable. I believe in them, above all else, as superb professionals — deep resolve coupled with deadly aims. They are highly trained assassins and they performed their job profoundly well — so well that in just a few minutes time Captain Phillips used the word impossible four times — three times in a single sentence. Virtually every news account entices us — instructs us — to admire the heroics of those shooters. But, should we admire them? Do we really have to? Should we really be in awe of their ability to do with such brilliant efficiency and precision what is most abhorrent to civilized people: the extermination of another human being? I could not find a single dissenting voice in the print media, not a letter to any editor or an op-ed piece in any major newspaper that questioned the killing of those pirates.
Those snipers offered Americans a glimpse of the real — no special effects aboard those ships, no CGI in play on those vessels. No simulacrum there or cowardly inaction or intellectual procrastination: the order is given, the execution executed. This was highfaluting stuff, with enough of the real to make Jean Beaudrillard proud. After all, the authorization to shoot to kill came from the highest authority — nearly — from the President of the United States himself. The vignette seems to say, if you just put your mind to it, if you just allow yourself to enter wholly into the Zen of revenge — or worse yet, move beyond it so that no other human beings exist — you, too, can achieve greatness. All of which leaves me with a powerfully disturbing and fundamental question: what do we turn ourselves into — what do we become — when, even begrudgingly, we grant those assassins our admiration, even our awe for killing, especially in such a storied way?
I can hear the critics: What would you have the SEALs do? Let the captain die an agonizingly slow and stupid death? Besides which, those SEALs put an end to Somali piracy for more than just the moment; their swift action will reverberate for years and years, letting other pirates know that this country, at least, will not stand for such blatant lawlessness. The world simply cannot condone piracy and encourage such flagrant examples of anarchy on the high seas. The SEALs pulled the trigger for law and order around the world.
But the issues are not that simple. We cannot count the pirates as the purely bad guys and the SEALs and the captain as the solidly good guys. For one thing, we, the United States, have to share a good deal of the responsibility for the creation of those modern pirates. From the moment of our military intervention in Mogadishu, in 1993, when we massacred some 1,000 Somalis in a single firefight — lots of them women and children — the Somalis fought us off in the most ferocious manner as the unwelcome invaders. (Most people probably know this episode in failed American intervention from the Ridley Scott film that dramatized the invasion, Black Hawk Down.) That African nation has now endured civil war for nearly 20 years, leaving Somalis with no food and no water and no hope and little governmental infrastructure. When people face the horror of starvation, they will do anything to survive, including stealing from stores. When there are no stores, they will steal from the wealthy — in this case, huge American container ships loaded with goods they can sell for money, or people they can hold hostage in exchange for money.
This is not, of course, the first time that, in the midst of killing and assassination, death and maiming, Americans have been asked to applaud the killers. I think of the most obvious recent examples of heavy-duty killing: war. By some counts, the United States has killed upwards of one million men, women, and children in the war in Iraq (not counting those killed or maimed in Afghanistan). Some of those dead we even considered the enemy. We invaded Iraq, as everyone but the most ideologically blinded now knows, without justifiable provocation or any truly compelling reason — not compelling enough, certainly, to justify such enormous loss of life on both sides.
Very quickly after Shock and Awe, the insurgency grew in number and ferocity, maiming or killing thousands of GIs. Those so-called insurgents desperately wanted America out of their country; polls conducted of Iraqi citizens revealed the same desire — America be gone! Indeed, as U.S. troops began withdrawing from the major cities, on July 1, 2009, Iraqis couldn't wait to celebrate with parties and fireworks. Deep down in the recesses of the collective American heart — that is, stored away as a terrible and frightening secret — many people cheered the insurgency on, hoping they would indeed drive America out of their country sooner rather than later. A great many did not support the troops. They never supported the troops. Bumper stickers instructing us all to do just that angered a great many people, who did not want to see soldiers die in battle, but who flatly could not support them or their mission.
Nonetheless, because of that stance, a great many Americans tacitly condoned the killing of young American men and women in uniform. In their minds, every death took the country a step closer to declaring an end to the stupidity that was Iraq. One of the major reasons the Vietnam War slowly lost steam is that Americans came to believe that too many young men and women were dying halfway around the world in a place that those