November 30, 2004
As I write, the radio, television and newspapers are consumed by an incident that occurred in Detroit, a large city in America’s Middle West. As a professional basketball game between the Detroit Pistons and the Indiana Pacers was entering its final minute, a hard foul by an Indiana player named Ron Artest led to a reprisal by the Detroit player he fouled. Ben Wallace reached out, shoved his hand to Artest’s neck, and half throttled half pushed his opponent. A fight between the two teams broke out. Artest stepped back, ostentatiously trying to show he would not become involved by lying down on the long table at which scorers and reporters sit. Shouting and physical confrontation ensued; as it died down, a fan in the stands threw a cup of ice at the prone Artest.
Artest, enraged, jumped up and climbed four rows into the stands to confront the fan. He pushed the fan, and other fans pushed him, punching him from behind. Several of Artest’s teammates followed him into the stands, trying to protect their teammate. Fights broke out, and as the players finally returned to the court, other fans confronted them and the fighting continued. As the players finally left the court, they were assaulted by cups of beer, soda bottles and screaming fans. A chair was thrown, and several fans were injured as the police and security seemed incapable of controlling the small-scale riot.
I go on at length not because I am a basketball fan – which I am – or because I think this event is a sign of the “undoing” of American civility, although the incident certainly testifies to the rage and violence which lie beneath the surface of American life. There is certainly more rage and more incipient violence than most commentators, or most Americans for that matter, acknowledge. In part, the re-election of President Bush was fuelled and made possible by that rage. People angry that their jobs had been lost, their retirement pensions imperiled, their access to health insurance rendered ever more fragile; people pushed by longer working hours, by increasing amounts of personal debt, by families which statistics tell us tend to split apart as often as they stay together: these Americans carry a load of anger. And the task, successfully accomplished, of the Bush re-election campaign was to channel that anger, on one level channelling fear of all sorts into the specifiable fear of “terrorists”, on a deeper level channelling those angers into a rage against the homosexual who might move in next door with his partner and unabashedly call their relationship a “marriage”.
But such an analysis of the violence which erupted in a basketball game would, while apt, miss the deepest truth which underlies the event which has captured much of the American nation’s attention.
In what most literary critics regard as the second “detective” story ever written, Edgar Allen Poe’s The Purloined Letter (his Murders in the Rue Morgue, published four years earlier in 1841, was the first), the detective C Auguste Dupin is set the task of finding a letter, used for blackmail, which the police have been unable to locate. He discovers it in the most unlikely place – in plain view, on the suspect’s desk, but turned inside out and addressed to a different recipient, so that it is “camouflaged” to look like a different letter. What Poe teaches all who seek to solve mysteries of any variety is that, sometimes, the “answer” is right before us, if we but have the capacity to see the hidden truth that masquerades in the obvious.
Here is the truth which lies open hidden in the incident on the basketball court. The USA is a nation at war. Over 1,200 American soldiers have died in Iraq. The official count of the wounded is 8,956, though unofficial estimates almost double this, putting the total at between 15,000 and 17,000. The Iraqi casualties, of course, are far higher. A group of independent American and British researchers, Iraq Body Count, having collated published figures, puts the number of Iraqi dead between 14,454 and 16,604, but acknowledges that since they require stringent proof for every mortality, their total “is certain to be an underestimate.” The renowned British medical journal The Lancet published a study estimating civilian deaths at over 1,00,000. That study was conducted by researchers at Johns Hopkins University in Maryland and the College of Medicine at Al Mustansiriya University in Baghdad, using sophisticated modern statistical sampling of overall mortality figures.
How is it, one might ask that the American media is outraged over a fight at a basketball game, while it largely ignores the violence that has levelled much of Fallujah in Iraq? Why is what seems like largely symbolic violence – no one was seriously injured in the melee in Detroit – treated as a catastrophe, while catastrophic violence in Iraq seems so ordinary that it passes with little notice?
It is not that Fallujah goes unreported in the American media. But the American entry into the Iraqi city, the levelling of much of it, is not seen as an instance of modern violence. Quite the contrary: it masquerades as “pacification”. While I myself have seen the fight at the basketball court replayed on television close to a dozen times in the past few days, in the past several weeks I and my fellow Americans have seen very, very few pictures of wounded children in Falljuah, or the corpses which apparently lie unburied on many of that city’s streets. Surprisingly, even dead or wounded American soldiers are seldom seen in the stream of images which flicker across the television screens of the USA.
The war hides in public sight, while the USA wrings its hands over “declining moral values” that seem to allow a basketball player to punch a fan at a basketball game. The events of the fracas in Detroit receive far more attention than the mourning of families in Iraq or the destroyed neighborhoods of Iraq’s cities. The penalties handed out to the players involved in the melee on that basketball court are front page news, while the newspapers ignore the amputees both American and Iraqi who have been devastated by the process of a war to… to what? Abolish terrorism? (In any case, terrorism is more entrenched than ever.) Remove Saddam Hussein from power and establish democracy? (Iraq is currently in chaos, its primary “order” is that of paramilitary thugs.) Eliminate weapons of mass destruction? (There were none in Iraq.) Democratise West Asia? (A non-negotiable polarisation seems regnant, not democracy.)
While in the week before the war in Iraq began, a majority of Americans believed force was justified in removing Saddam, a majority at that time also believed that the USA should not invade until the United Nations sanctioned military action. At that time, almost a third of Americans opposed military action. A year later, a majority disapproved of the invasion: only 47 per cent of Americans thought “the USA had done the right thing in taking military action against Iraq.”
Yet, the strong undertow of resistance to the war receives almost no public acknowledgement. Nor does the media report on the reality of warfare in Iraq for fear that such reports might further erode what public support there is for the war, and thus subject the media to the disapproval of the Bush administration. The television networks show few casualties, the newspapers print few photographs of the dead. Meanwhile, in the USA flags are everywhere, de rigeur as a backdrop for televised newscasts, hoisted in every corner of every community: Patriotism is in, dissent is out. As James Boswell reported Samuel Johnson observing on 7 April 1775, over two centuries ago (it was true then, and it is true today), “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.”
So while the eruption of violence on a basketball court obsesses journalists and dominates the American nation’s attention, the ongoing violence in Iraq is portrayed as a side-product of war, not worth paying attention to (unless one of the dead lives in the local community, in which case the death is a item of local interest). War is a matter of notching up victories – which have been, to acknowledge the truth, rather few in the past eight months for the US forces – and lamenting the “lawlessness” that enables localised resistance to spring up in city after city in Iraq.
For a period of 40 years, television made the casualties of war more and more visible. The American presence in Vietnam, the Russian presence in Afghanistan, were shaped by video broadcasts of the wounded – both those of the invading nation, and those of the resisting Viet Cong and Taliban. But with the American incursion into Iraq, a new way of “packaging” violence has emerged, one which sanitises the images which show the brutality of war, and in many cases banishes them from public view.
In today’s American media, violence erupts on basketball courts, while corpses and hospital wards slip quickly and quietly into a haze of unseeing. We in the USA do not see what is happening right in front of us. We see what television wants us to see, the stylised violence in movies, the pretend violence of commentators shouting at one another in spurious political debates, the small-scale violence of a couple of basketball players accosting some basketball fans.
The dead are mourned only by their families. The wounded forgotten. That is how war is packaged in the post-modern era.
Huck Gutman was Fulbright Visiting Professor at Calcutta University. He teaches at the University of Vermont, USA.