My daughter Sandra is eight years old. She is a really funny girl. She comes up with weird ideas and delivers them with the straight face of a seasoned comedian. The other day, I don’t remember why (maybe I told her not to eat still another chocolate bar from her Halloween stash) she flared up in mock rage, pointed her finger at my face and fulminated: “You Evil Victim!” The words came out short and dry, with just the right Middle Eastern cartoon-character kind of accent: “iu ibl BICTM!”
From the start, the strange mixture of words struck me as something more than a joke (not that I didn’t laugh, though). How did she come up with such a concept? It’s true that there has been endless talk of evil and victims in the last few weeks, but one and the other usually stand at opposite ends of the spectrum. The notion of an evil victim seemed to imply an irreconcilable contradiction. But the more I thought about it, the less clear it became. For some reason, there doesn’t seem to be any conflict these days between being evil and being a victim. In fact, it’s telling the evildoers apart from the victims that is becoming harder and harder every day.
Take the U.S., for instance. It has doubtlessly been the victim of the greatest single act of terrorism of world history, but now it is bombing away at a miserable country, bringing death and destruction to countless innocent people. In a matter of weeks, it went from clear victim to not-so-sure status in the minds of a wide segment of the public. As for the thoroughly evil guys who destroyed the World Trade Center, they have a long list of grievances too: from captured or desecrated holy sites and famished Iraqi babies to the plight of the Palestinian people. The Palestinians, in turn, have a really sound claim to victimhood, one impossible to contest or to minimize. And yet, aren’t they also a tinsy bit evil? Don’t they set off bombs in pizza parlors and such? And then there are the Jewish people, the quintessential evil victims. A people whose documented sufferings have been so constant and so great that they have become emblematic of victimhood itself. And yet, here is Israel now, transformed into an often brutal occupying force. Some wonder Sandra gets her concepts a little mixed up.
In trying to figure out such a mess, some thoughtful analysts resort to a kind of macabre arithmetic: a few killings here counterbalance a few killings there. Of course, the numbers never quite add up, so some killings have to be more legitimate than others, they have to count a bit more on the balance sheet. Wealth, race, religion, and a long etcetera can grade the value of the dead up or down the scale according to some mind-boggling formulas. And thus the life of a bond trader in the World Trade Center can be seen as fair currency for the lives of a Vietnamese family burned to death by napalm in the sixties. Or for the extermination of an American Indian tribe two centuries ago. Next thing you know, people are explaining current carnage in light of the Roman’s destruction of the Second Temple, or the Spanish expulsion of the Arabs from Al-Andalus. Never mind that the people supposedly paying for the crimes are for the most part totally unrelated to those who committed them, never mind that the acts of violence are often useless in themselves or even counter-productive. The biggest problem with this argument is that it can very easily be applied to almost everybody. Put to the task, no one, be it personally, collectively or through heredity, or by deed, intent or omission, is going to be found free from sharing in the guilt for some atrocity committed in a near, distant or mythical past.
This moral confusion underlines the resurgence of greater uncertainties. There is nothing new, of course, in resorting to victimhood as a means to incite or to justify violence. What we haven’t seen for a while, though, are the strident religious overtones. For the last couple of centuries, wars have been fought in the name of History. Whether they implied the delivery of a social class or the fulfillment of the destiny of a nation, wars were mostly sold to the public as necessary shortcuts to a glorious future. God was present, if at all, on the sidelines, dutifully blessing the troops. In stark contrast, these new conflicts have God as the centerpiece and they are being fought in the name of the past. Their stated aim is to bring back mythical golden ages of God-sanctioned perfection. Religion has left the realm of the personal where it was wisely relegated by modernity, and is back in a more traditional (and usually deadly) role as nation builder, social engineer and political agitator.
Behind the revival of militant religion lies the collapse of the idea of progress in ample sections of the world. Central notions of modernity (an open society, freedom of speech, democratic rule, gender equality, the preeminence of secular law) have gone from being seen as unattainable dreams by growing numbers of people, to being identified as the very sources of their worse misfortunes. Siren songs meant to lure the unsuspecting into the deadly waters of corruption and oppression. Clever disguises for the forces that plunder their lands and reduce them to servitude. And it isn’t only the Taliban, and it isn’t only in the Arab world. In varying degrees and with different arguments all kinds of movements around the world—from the Zapatistas in Chiapas to the anarchists in Seattle—are questioning not only the pace or the road to modernization, but there is no question that a lot of people are listening. As much as we may cherish the principles that support a free society, we have to admit that they don’t really mean anything in themselves. And if they do, it better start to show. Freedom of speech is not helping the poor put a roof over the heads of their children. Freedom in general doesn’t mean much to people who can’t do anything or go anywhere. Maybe the ugly and the dispossessed can’t force the rich and the pretty to send them an invitation, but they sure have proven they can spoil the party.
And so we arrive at the point in the article where we are supposed to uncover and execrate the dark forces responsible for this sorry state of affairs. And then to propose a quick fix that is of course pretty obvious and should have been followed long ago by the people in power if they just weren’t so shortsighted and mean. Ready-made experts in imperial management spring up like mushrooms everywhere. Suddenly, everybody knows how to run the greatest power in the history of the world—exactly what it should have done instead. I’m not so sure myself. If anything, recent events have added to my already crowded collection of uncertainties. What is painfully clear in my mind is that mankind doesn’t seem to be moving, even erratically, towards a better future. At least not a better near future. At least not for everybody.
Since September 11 many Americans appear to have woken up to the sudden realization that they aren’t universally loved around the world. Since then, it has become fashionable to assert that they are heatedly hated everywhere and rightly accused of all sorts of crimes. (It has always been fashionable in my country, so there was nothing new in it for me.) I honestly don’t believe they have done any worse than other people in their position would have. Like a father, the U.S. is deemed capable of everything. Like a father, it is blamed for not making everybody happy. But the reins of history aren’t all in one hand, not even the mighty hand of the United States.
Indiscriminate violence has a way of changing the priorities of people. A country that boasted that keeping its government on a very tight leash has now gladly given it overwhelming powers. Hardly a voice has been raised, and those that have sound somewhat distant and out of place. Suddenly, the pen doesn’t seem to be all that mightier than the sword. In times of war, decisions taken by a handful of people carry a disproportionate weight. Like it or not, I see my life and the lives of those close to me hanging from the thin thread of their good judgment, and I can only hope that they make all the wise choices, whichever those happen to be.
HÉCTOR TOLEDANO is a Mexican writer and editor living in D.C.