Why did “the terrorists” assassinate “the cartoonists” in Paris? Why do most Americans get their news from entertainments sources like Fox News and Comedy Central? How seriously should we take satire?
We are the country of the “Piss Christ.” Imagine the uproar if, in the near future, a young Iraqi (or American) were to laminate a portrait of Muhammad with urine. In a globalized free-market economy, our most dangerous export may well be our sense of humor.
Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the “Mastermind” of 9/11, the most prolific murderer of our time, received his entire exposure to America in North Carolina. He went to school here in Greensboro and graduated from North Carolina A&T with a degree in mechanical engineering in 1987. According to a classmate, Babi Ali, Mohammed was not a flat, one-dimensional man, a mere terrorist. Instead, Ali said: “Here is this man who used to be very spiritual. The only unique thing about him was that he had a sense of humor.”
Mohammed was known by his friends as “Baluchi,” a double entendre referring to the comedian, John Belushi, and KSM’s homeland, Baluchistan. On Friday nights, KSM and his Muslim classmates would get together at the Colonial Apartments in Greensboro and do skits that they called “Friday Night Live.” KSM, apparently, was a great American impersonator.
All of this begs the question: how far are we, civilians, from the mind of a man like this, a terrorist? An elderly public school teacher recently said to me: “I would’ve taken The Twin Towers down myself if I could’ve been sure there was nobody in them.” What do you think? Is it scary to hear Americans talk like that? Was the attack on the World Trade Center just an amplification of the anger expressed by the American protesters who rioted on the streets of Seattle outside the meeting of the World Trade Organization in 1999? Is symbolic violence okay?
World trade is here to stay. We’re all under the dome. World trade—globalization—continues to “move forward.” Our most dynamic export, the American sense of humor, is everywhere now. But what makes American/western comedy so potent that some theorists believe we may be “entertaining ourselves to death”? Is it because there’s so much that goes unsaid in this country, so much secrecy and shame? Whereas “the terrorists” murder “the cartoonists” in Paris (i.e.Youtube), we blow their media personnel (think Samir Khan, another dark North Carolinian) to bits via a classified drone strike in Yemen.
Which death is more barbaric—the public or the private?
The following is an excerpt from a novel that imagines where we’ll stand in the Global War on Terror fifty years after 9/11. This is the voice of a multi-national journalist named Abed:
It is hard to say whether Islam is the path forward or backwards. It all depends on whether you believe in the sincere, something beyond the clever, the game, the surface, the image. For a long time Muslims were not permitted to share your American sensibility, your sense of humor, to participate in your fake empire. Just as you so often noticed, we weren’t like you, America. We really weren’t. We were not allowed to laugh at the things that made us cry. We could not joke about Israel. We could not put war crimes in air quotes. We could not talk about skull-fucking our leaders, putting uzis into the mouths of our enemies or else our enemies (our leaders) might just put a real uzi in OUR mouths. For a long time, in many Muslim countries, if you mocked your leader, you would disappear, no second act, baby. So, if there is one true freedom that America possessed and has now passed onto us, it is the freedom to laugh at oppression, and what is strange and kind of funny about this is you motherfuckers gave it to us through your bombs and drones and the reckless slaughter of our civilian populations because yes, in killing so many of us, America, you also “shook things up.”
Like a can of Coke.
Yes, you cleared out our old world leaders and ushered in the ones who behave more like you, the ones who not only tolerate laughter at their own expense, but also know, deep down, that laughter, that essential freedom that the pagans called the language of the gods, is the thing for which the common people will sacrifice all other freedoms. Yes, if you let them entertain themselves to death, the people, for awhile, will, indeed, entertain themselves to death, and if your politicians and newsmen take on the voice of the entertainer, then the people will purchase slash elect their new entertainments and they will forget all about other old world notions like, oh, I don’t know—what shall we call it, America—truth? Of course, deep down, we’re all suckers for “the truth.” This is an American saying, being a “sucker” for the truth. It suggests that the people who go for the truth are the true fools.
What does the satirist have in common with the terrorist? Perhaps it’s the tendency to put human beings in air quotes. Satire and terror both trivialize the human experience, and in that sense, they have a great deal in common with global capitalism. Empathy—understanding the complexity of the condition of others—is not the dominant interest of the dominant forces shaping the world we’re creating. In this world, you’re a “radical” or an “atheist,” a “towel head” or a “redneck,” an “American Idiot” or a “camel jockey,” a “consumer” or a “human shield,” a “patriot” or a “high value target,” a “sand nigger” or a “tea bagger.” You’re a playing card in a deck we hand out to drone pilots who execute you from game consoles in Las Vegas.
One of the journalists I admire most, George Packer, recently wrote in The New Yorker about the costs of free speech in a world where terror plays an increasingly important role. He described the recent attack on Washir Rahman, a Bangladeshi blogger who was hacked to death with machetes by two Muslims who didn’t even know Rahman, but were responding to the lectures of a teacher at a madrassa who claimed that Rahman was “an anti-Islamic person.”
Rahman wrote about Islam, but Packer makes the point that the killers didn’t read Rahman’s fair-minded blog or even know exactly what blogging was. They knew nothing about the man they killed, just as we know so little about men like Khalid Sheikh Mohammmed and his fellow detainees down in Guantanamo Bay. They are “the terrorists” and we are “the Americans.” We are “The Great Satan” and they are “the crazies.”
Packer wonders about the future of intellectual freedom. He raises this simple provocative question in the context of Rahman, a blogger who wrote about provocative topics: “Why be provocative?”
If suggesting that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed may be a human being and have a few things in common with you and me is provocative, my answer to Packer’s question is simple: a world of drone assassinations and secret prisons and writers getting murdered in the streets by people who don’t read is not just “unsustainable,” to use a favorite term of the left. This world we’re creating may be “unsustainable,” but its atrocities make total sense to me in terms of the values we’re exporting to the world. If I provoke in the name of recognizing the connections between “us” and “them” it’s because I’ve grown up in the Global War on Terror, a conflict that profits on the divisions between “us” and “them.” I can’t speak to the motives of Andres Serrano, the painter who doused a picture of a crucifix in piss, but maybe what Serrano was trying to say is that Jesus, as a man, peed from time to time. After all, he was a man. Thus, if he’s holy, isn’t his penis and what comes from it also holy? Is it possible that we minimize and desecrate him by ignoring his most powerful quality, his human nature?
George W. Bush has spent a good portion of his post-presidential years drawing cartoons. After “leading” us into The Global War on Terror, he now seems to find sustenance in art, colorful portraits of people like Vladimir Putin and Ellen DeGeneres. For those of us who were horrified by his actions in Iraq, Bush’s paintings can, at times, be unsettling reminders of that thing that made us feel like we could “sit down and have a beer” with the guy. But maybe we need to be unsettled in this world we’re creating. Maybe we need to have that beer with both Bush and Mohammed.
Packer argues: “in some ways, an even greater danger than violence or jail is the internal mute button known as self-censorship. Once it’s activated, governments and armed groups don’t have to bother with threats. Here self-censorship is on the rise out of people’s fear of being pilloried on social media.” Why be provocative in the land of cat videos and baby pictures? For me, the answer is simple. The world we’re creating doesn’t work and, therefore, needs to change. The psychology we’re creating in this surveillance state is a spirit of fear and tribalism, dehumanization, us versus them. I want to hear from Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and George W. Bush. I want to know the truth. I want to know why these men chose such violent versions of Islam and Christianity. I want them both to have their day in court.