The pictures are horrific, immolated flesh strung from bridge girders like charred meat in a butcher shop. No less horrifying, however, are the faces of the Iraqi lynch mob, grinning with imbecilic triumph over the murder of four Americans. By now, most of the world has seen these images and wondered--what kind of people are these? Even in the Middle East, where standards of brutality are lower and hatred for America higher, the Fallujahns’ deeds were shocking. What could motivate such frenzy? What, exactly, has the United States done to earn such hatred? How can anything explain this barbarism?
This winter, I made several trips into the so-called “Sunni Triangle,” that anti-American tranche of Iraq located north and west of Baghdad. Posing as a Yugoslavian journalist, I asked local residents in towns like Tikrit, Samarra, Fallujah and Ramadi for their opinion of the U.S—receiving, in return, a litany of complaints. American soldiers kill Iraqi civilians. They imprison Iraqis for no reason. They steal money and gold from Iraqi homes. They touch Iraqi women. They are foreigners, unbelievers, infidels. “There are 135 mosques in this city, this is Muslim territory. That is why the American Zionists are not wanted here—that is why we kill them,” remarked one Fallujahn. And he was a policeman.
I heard a lot of pro-Saddam comments, too--not surprising, considering that Saddam, a Sunni himself, showered the area with money, power and influential jobs. But with the tyrant’s overthrow, the Sunnis experienced a reversal of fortune they have so far refused to accept. “We want Saddam back, life was better when he was president,” a Ramadi shopkeeper said. “When Saddam was in power, we lived like kings—now we are poor,” the Fallujahn constable noted. “Bush is not worth Saddam’s shoes.”
The common wisdom is that these grievances have helped drive ex-Baathists and unemployed soldiers into an insurrection against America. But is that true? Under this rationale, one would expect the “insurgents” to outline their goals and objectives, or present a set of demands that the Coalition might use as a basis for political negotiations. No such demands—no such leaders—have yet emerged. When I asked people what kind of government they wanted, they commonly answered “Saddam Hussein,” as some magic of history would return him to power. More thoughtful Iraqis expressed a desire for a order-maintaining strongman like Saddam, “only more democratic.” Given the world’s shortage of enlightened despots these days, this fantasy is unlikely to be realized either. No leaders, no goals, no future—what do Sunnis hope to gain from the violence?
Honor. Forget political or social objectives—or even attempts to “drive out” the Coalition. By killing GIs and Iraqi civilians, Sunni terrorists feel they are reclaiming the pride they lost when the U.S. military juggernaut crushed their miserable fiefdom. This explains the sense of desperation one detects in their complaints about the U.S., as well as their lack of interest in ideology, propaganda, leadership or anything that normally characterizes a true “resistance movement.” The goal of these criminals is simply to kill: a non-negotiable position that allow an enemy no chance for accommodation or truce—only withdrawal or death.
Unable to grasp such irrationality, the press insists on bestowing a more acceptable motive to the death squads stalking the Sunni Triangle. They are “guerrillas,” we read, waging a war of “resistance” against Coalition “occupiers”—as if they were an Arab version of the French maquis or the Viet Cong. The gunmen are happy to have an obliging media grant them legitimacy and offer justification for their atrocities. As the Israelis discovered with the PLO—another humiliated bandit-gang transformed into a national liberation movement by the media—even a democracy can lose the moral high ground to corrupt insurgents posing as the representatives of an oppressed people..
The real resistance in Iraq are the countless individuals attempting to build democratic institutions in their nation. They are true revolutionaries, bringing unprecedented change to the Arab world. With their bellicose religion, feeble political structures and government-controlled press, Arab peoples have all too often used violence to signal their needs, desires and grievances: terrorism, rather than peaceful protest, cultural achievement or economic competition has become the means they assert their cultural identity. And the more violence, the truer, more authentic they feel in their deepest selves—leading to that pure form of nihilistic self-expression, the suicide bomber.
Which brings us back to Fallujah. Are the four American deaths worse than the hundreds of Iraqis killed by homicidal martyrs? No—the Blackwater men were security guards, after all, not innocent civilians. What’s different, though, is the graphicness of the glee those Iraqis expressed in the murders. What the mastermind of a suicide bombing feels when he hears the detonation of his latest handiwork, Fallujahns paraded on the streets: a primitive cruelty, a blood-lust that temporarily eases shame, alienation and self-loathing before demanding more lives, additional blood. We are on the edge of an endless cycle of violence here. Worse, if recent reports are accurate, and the Iraqi paramilitaries are inspiring their followers through a mixture of nationalism and Islamic extremism, more Fallujahs will almost certainly occur across Iraq—and beyond. The shame and resentment of the powerless are a major force of evil in this world. The blackened carcasses hung over the Euphrates River—once the birthplace of civilization—reminds us of this dreary fact.