Urinating on Life

The release of a video showing four US Marines urinating on the corpses of Afghan Taliban fighters shocks people, and for good reason. Such a display of dominance and disregard for the dead prompts questioning what the killing really meant. When a life extinguished forever is devalued in this way, one must ask where the process of devaluation began.

US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta quickly condemned the action caught on tape. Yet what shows a more callous disregard for life: What these Marines did or Panetta’s recent re-authorization of calculated drone strikes in Pakistan?

A detailed study by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism finds that between 391 and 780 civilians have been killed by drone strikes since 2004, including 175 children. Drone attacks have increased under US president Barack Obama’s command, with 259 strikes since he took office. Tariq Aziz, 16 years old, was killed by a drone within 72 hours after he attended an anti-drone strike conference. His 12-year-old cousin was also killed in the October 2011 attack (“Bureau reporter meets 16-year-old three days before US drone kills him,” November 4th, 2011).

This is not “Obama cleaning up the mess Bush got us in.” This is murder as a pillar of the Obama administration’s policy. Saying that it isn’t important or that it’s okay because these people might harbor militants is saying that the lives of the villagers are not important. If they are dismembered by explosions or crushed in their own homes after a nearby blast, that’s their problem. If they are terrorized by the constant prospect of sudden death from the sky, that’s just fine.

The drone attack policy treats the lives of bystanders as unimportant compared to any risk to American lives in missions that minimize the risks of those bystanders. Or maybe Pakistani lives are just less important than the resources such missions would require. It is a devaluing of the lives of people who happen to live elsewhere. This understandably stirs hatred toward the United States and the people who live here.

Nationalism and the operation of the state devalue human life. The “others” who aren’t supposed to matter are the ones violence is projected upon. In varying degrees, people attacked by police, immigrants who disappear into detention centers, and people in the way of military power projection are subject to violence the state regards as legitimate.

The desecration of corpses is an expression of disregard for human life that is not easy to hide or spin. Maybe that is why the government is investigating the men in this video, yet threatened to shoot the messenger when WikiLeaks released the Collateral Murder video. The pilots who giggled about shooting into a van being used to evacuate wounded people, showing complete disregard for the children they shot, have not been punished. But the soldier who allegedly leaked the video was put in solitary confinement for 10 months and threatened with execution.

The development of massive and diverse movements against established power is promising for the future of human life, liberty, and dignity. They can call out the crimes of governments and make the political environment less friendly toward oppression. They can undermine politicians’ sources of power by dispersing state power and developing and defending better options outside the system. The status quo is killing people.

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