Paul Mason has this to say over at The Guardian about the future mercilessness of war currently on display in Syria, but also in Yemen and elsewhere:
To understand the renewed popularity of killing sick people in hospital beds, it’s not enough to point – as MSF does – to the new techniques of war, such as drones and special forces. Something has been eroded about our perception of humanitarian principles.
The Red Cross was, at its inception, both a global humanitarian movement and an alliance of national, military-aligned volunteer units. The two did not seem contradictory. As long as a nation’s army’s hospitals obeyed the Geneva strictures – separating themselves from defensive military positions – civilian medics could volunteer on the understanding they would not be deliberately harmed.
That could not be further from the ideological framework under which modern wars are fought. Since the Rwandan and Bosnian genocides, and with the fragmentation of numerous states along religious or ethnic lines, the essential story of modern conflict has become “we, the normal folk, against an inhuman, alien and irrational foe”.
I think that pretty well describes what politics has descended to in the United States as well — a contest not of fellow citizens who see that shared citizenship with each other even as they compete, but rather, a no-holds barred contest for victory and supremacy against an “inhuman, alien and irrational foe.”
Who must be defeated at all costs. Who is worthy neither of consideration nor consideration, and who deserves no mercy.
It isn’t that civilization is at stake. It’s more primal than that. We, the tribe, are at stake.
While tribalism has always been with us, one of the reasons it is becoming so intense is because the order created by modernity is so fundamentally alienating for so many people. Whether it succeeds or fails in its promises (such as consumerist individualism, or equal national citizenship and accountable governance), modernity destroys the very flesh and blood connections that make it possible for us to really be human and see the humanity even in others, and even in the stranger.
To borrow a Qur’anic concept, tribalism, a sense of us as a separate and unique people, makes it possible for us see the human in the other.
O’ Mankind! We have created you from a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes that you may know one another. (4:39 Khan & Al-Hilali)
But if our humanity is constantly threatened, so much that we are hard pressed even to see ourselves as human, then it becomes difficult — perhaps impossible — to see others as anything more than alien and irrational.
And the web of tribal organization that thrived in mid-century America — Churches, families (often extended), neighborhoods, civic associations — that made it possible for people to be embedded in a web of human relationships, are gone. This was a often not an ideal web, and it could frequently suffocate (though big cities often provided space for nonconformists to find their way), but it worked for most people and it gave their lives shape, meaning, and purpose.
It made them intelligibly human to themselves. And that gave them a fighting chance of seeing, truly seeing, the human in the other, the stranger, the alien. Of seeing the reason in the irrational.
As Andrew Bacevich writes over at Commonweal in his review of Sebastian Junger’s book Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, about soldiers returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan:
Members of a squad or platoon form a tribe of sorts, linked to one another by bonds that Junger believes have otherwise all but vanished from our hyper-individualistic, consumer-oriented society. For boys grasping at maturity, in other words, war offers a rite of initiation, all the more alluring given that elsewhere in American society such rites have fallen out of fashion.
In place of communities, ours is a society consisting of market segments, delineated by personal consumer preferences. So when present-day veterans return from Iraq or Afghanistan, they are duly welcomed and then duly expected to repair to their assigned niche in the marketplace. Thank you for your service. Now shut up and shop.
We aren’t in this together. We were once, but not anymore. A sense of shared obligation and responsibility is gone — everyone, but especially the wealthy and the successful, are angry and entitled, convinced the only people they owe are themselves. The aspiration for absolute equality and absolute freedom — both false and dreadful promises made by modernity — destroy any sense that anyone has a duty or responsibility to another. To their safety or their wellbeing.
This doesn’t get better. It gets worse. None of our institutions is set up to foster this sense of obligation and responsibility, to promote mutual self-giving and mutual self-surrender within a social hierarchy. Between the statism and the libertarianism of the age, we are incapable of even conceiving how a good life could be made when we live together, obligated by ties of kinship and faith and closeness that we didn’t choose. We are spinning, whirring, exhausting ourselves in a fit of unfocused rage that can only end in sorrow and suffering and possibly even destruction.
The desire to belong, however, to be part of something, to owe others as one is owed, is there, it just doesn’t know what to do or how to express itself right now. It will out at some point, when there’s little left, when we have been atomized and consumerized into almost non-existence. When we have become such strangers to ourselves that we aren’t sure we see human beings in the mirror anymore.