Can you imagine if such a thing were to happen again in the next few months in Boston? How many police officials would lose their jobs? How much righteous outrage would well up among us? And how else but through such comparisons can Americans begin to imagine what it must feel like for Iraqis to grieve thousands upon thousands of civilian deaths?
The mainstream American media have shown few images of either coalition or Iraqi casualties, including Iraqi civilians. Indeed, the number of stories about dead Iraqi civilians pales when compared to the energy, investment and ink spilled on the horse-race aspects of the recent presidential campaign.
Our media shield us from the realities of war, making it seem as if the suffering caused by the war is something we have the luxury of pondering and debating from a safe distance. Nauseated or outraged responses to the occasional image of the dead or wounded are the exceptions that prove the rule: most of us are purposefully cordoned off from the suffering.
This has occurred despite the large numbers. Estimates range from 15,000 Iraqi civilians dead (from www.iraqbodycount.net) to more than 100,000 (according to a recent study by Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, Columbia University School of Nursing and Al-Mustansiriya University in Baghdad), as well as thousands of othersincluding, as of this writing, nearly 1,200 American and scores more coalition fighters dead. This massive suffering, a direct result of the U.S.-financed and directed war, has thus far failed to register as a profound interruption of the lives and identities of Americans, including American Christians.
One reason it is possible for so many of us to imagine that we are only marginally related to this war is that our perceptions of it are so deeply structured by our economic practices. Our present brand economy, focused on the promise of a lifestyle or identity accessible through purchases, systematically keeps us from seeing the bodies of others affected by our purchases. Your local branded coffee shop most likely does not want you even to picture the faces of those who harvest your coffee, nor do the companies who produce most of your shirts, pants and shoes.
In this regard, Christians can learn from the Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas. He argued that to be human is to be responsible for the person whose well-being our very existence may be threatening. This obligation to others is encountered and symbolized in a unique way in the face-to-face relationship. The faces of others are persons genuinely different from us, but also exposed to us. The vulnerability of the human face presents us with an appeal: do not kill me. In a sense, Levinas says, the bare face of another says, Do not deface me. Allow me, it says, my otherness without violation, shame or indifference.
Wherever we are kept from seeing the face of the other, whether it is the person who stitches our clothing or who dies from our taxpayer-supported bombs, we make it easier for ourselves to act as if we, too, are not responsible for that other. It is an option only the privileged have.
Would we not think of our brands differently if we had in view the faces of those who make our stuff? Likewise, would our outrage and shame not be provoked, our consciences startled more directly into judgment and action, if we were confronted with the faces of suffering Iraqi civilians and all the combatants? Whatever one thinks of the politics of the documentaries Fahrenheit 9/11 and Control Room, their most powerful claims are not theories about American guilt or innocence, but stark images: what wounded, dying and dead soldiers and parents, women and children actually look like.
Dealing with the faces of suffering in Iraq is a necessary condition for allowing the dead, as the theologian Johann Baptist Metz has proposed, to interrupt our falsely consoled distance from the war. It would force us to ask: what kind of Christian experience allows us to keep this interruption at arm’s length?
Living alienated from the faces to whom we are in relation through this war further confirms the imperial psychology into which our economy tempts us. This imperial psychology, a state of soul, prevents many of us from accepting personal responsibility for the suffering caused by this war, and thus from experiencing the outrage that would lead to greater and more varied demonstrations against the war by Christians and other people of conscience. Imperial psychology is the seductive idea that one is not finally dependent on others. It manifests itself in reluctance to question the sociocultural barriers that keep us from experiencing the suffering of those affected by the global implications of our political, economic and military decisions.
Imperial psychology also assumes that the suffering of Americans is of greater spiritual significance than anyone else’s. It has the privilege of choosing not to care about people who might teach us about ourselves, who might interrupt the security of our American and Christian identity. Thus, imperial psychology lacks interest in Iraqi body counts, European attitudes toward the United States or in seeing itself as one member among many of a global community. This state of soul thinks that American security and freedom are the highest forms possible to usespecially because we have worked so hard for them. From this position, no room can be allowed for any ambiguity in our own motives or any vulnerability that we might share with those who threaten our way of life.
In true Ignatian fashion, one important way to make a spiritual exercise of our temptation to an imperial psychology is through our imaginations. We can begin by asking: What sort of imaginations about the other, about Christian patriotism and about American exceptionalism are we already using?
And if we cannot imaginatively empathize with Iraqi civilian deaths, do we have the courage to imagine at least the American soldiers who are mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, who die almost every single dayto imagine that these military personnel are other people’s dearest relationships, catastrophically ended?
If we can enter into such a contemporary spiritual exercisethe courage to be responsible to the dead by being accountable to their dearest relativesthen we may be led to the following conclusion: No one has a right to claim that they support this war unless, in good conscience, they would volunteer to send their most beloved family member over there to die. That is, after all, what we noncombatants are demanding of our soldiers’ families.
As the recent presidential election showed us, the cultural landscape of the United States is populated with Christian moral obsessions aplenty. But because imperial psychology is not one moral topic among others, but lies so deeply within us, it is a more profound threat and thus a proper object for Christian concern. Even after this war ends, dealing with this part of ourselves may become one of the most demanding American spiritual exercises of the 21st century.