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ISIL, Pancho Villa and the Centipedes: the Politics of Imperial Over-reach and Outrage Porn

In David Cronenberg’s film adaptation of Naked Lunch our junkie-hero, William Lee attempts to steal his sleeping co-worker’s tank of pyrethrum insecticide in a desperate attempt to get high. But his coworker awakens and grabs hold of his tank and begins questioning Lee about his motives for stealing it, “Is that why you tried to lift mine,” he asks Bill, having correctly divined his motives. “That’s unkind, Edwin. ‘Lift’ is unkind. No… I’m doing a job for a friend. You see… it’s the centipedes. Yes, the Centipedes are becoming downright arrogant. They’ve started attacking his children!

In many ways, this scene is a microcosm of the whole film. It is about the collision between the Freudian uncanny and Americanism. No matter how depleted out hero becomes, not matter how bizarre and alien the landscape in which he finds himself, his responses, whether bewildered or heroic, remain those of an American interloper.

As America begins its next quixotic foray into the lands between the Levant and Persia, graveyard of occidental empires, this seems as good a starting point as any for understanding how it is that the president who came into office to pull American soldiers out of the Middle East will leave office as the commander of yet another American war effort in the region.

As William Lee illustrates, Americans are suckers for outrage porn. Theatrical gestures designed to generate outrage capitalize on one of the most important aspects of the American psyche. Republican apostate Kevin Philips, creator of Richard Nixon’s Southern Strategy and the associated book The Emerging Republican Majority, argued in his 2006 American Theocracy that one of the most important aspects of imperial culture is the capacity to become offended very easily. Comparing modern US senatorial debates with those of republican Rome, he observed that in order to constantly mobilize expansionist war efforts, an empire’s political consciousness must be extraordinarily sensitive to offense. In the public discourse of the Roman Republic, the state was constantly being threatened and insulted and its citizens abused in foreign lands; the republic’s honour demanded swift and devastating responses to these insults.

But if there were one form of political theatre more capable of mobilizing Rome’s lethal force, it was the public theatre of moral offense. Rome became an empire because of its capacity to continue mobilizing against the rival empire of Carthage for centuries. More than avenging the deaths of Roman soldiers in prior battles or protecting Rome’s expanding Mediterranean trade, what formed the backbone of war propaganda during the Punic Wars, was the sacrifice of babies to the Phoenician god Baal. While these sacrifices were not of Roman children, nor especially numerous, they inspired consul after consul to send legion after legion to war in North Africa.

It is in this context that we must understand the genius behind ISIS’s provocation of the United States. ISIS’s burnings and beheadings represent a tiny proportion of the death toll inflicted by the incipient Caliphate; most deaths are like those caused by its adversaries: deaths associated with seizing, sacking and occupying cities, deaths associated with conflicts between fighting men in planes, tanks and body armour. But is the ritualized, public executions that are galvanizing US opinion to the point where even the Bernie Sanders neo-isolationist presidential bid is becoming equivocal about the war.

Imperialists cannot bear to watch public acts that defy the moral code they understand their hegemony to uphold. Not only is inhumane suffering publicly dramatized and celebrated; so is the flouting of the empire’s power to impose its theory of the good upon the world. Theatrically-staged burnings and beheadings are not merely atrocious in humanitarian terms; they throw down a gauntlet and they shame the empire that will not challenge them. That would be like letting the Centipedes rip a man’s children limb from limb.

To some of my readers, it might seem surprising that Barack Obama would be, in the last full year of his mandate, so susceptible to this kind of challenge. Didn’t he come to power to end American imperialism? Such a view fundamentally misunderstands Obama and his foreign policy agenda. If George W. Bush was America’s Theodosius I, the emperor who ended the empire’s religious pluralism, closed its academies and sent its scholars to work as apologists for a nationalized Christianity, Obama is its Julian the Apostate, a man who understood himself not to be a destroyer of the empire but its restorer. Julian reopened the academies, re-legalized paganism and set Rome back on its pluralistic course. Like Obama, he was a personal beneficiary of the empire at its best, a winner in the pluralistic global order of Kennedy and Johnson, at the noontide not only of imperial power but of its original liberal ideals through the Alliance for Progress and the Second Reconstruction. Men like Kennedy and Johnson were so committed to liberal ideals that not only were they willing to send the army to Saigon; they were willing to send it to Selma.

The Obama presidency’s foreign policy has been about rebuilding the ruins of an empire, in a desperate attempt to prevent it from being overtaken by the harbingers of decline: ignorance, fundamentalism and a disregard for its plebians. Obama and Hilary Clinton will never receive the credit due them for the Honduran coup, when the first new US-backed military junta took power in decades took power in Latin America and ended the expansion of the Chavista bloc. Similarly, Obama’s policies in Iraq and Afghanistan have been policies of rationalization, resource and expectation management. Obama’s policies are those of retrenchment project: federal efforts to limit the power of states to enact the New Jim Crow, universalization of basic material rights like health care, reinforcement of the Munro Doctrine after a decade of neglect and the rebuilding of America’s multilateral military coalition through cooperative efforts with its NATO allies. This is a presidency committed to restoring the empire to the greatness it possessed when it welcomed his father Kenyan father into a vast, pluralistic, liberal global order.

Would LBJ or Kennedy have been able to tolerate the theatrical provocations of ISIL? Not on your life; compared to the great, presidents of muscular liberalism, he is really being quite restrained. But the atrocity porn continues to stream out of Syria and Iraq, making a lie of the Pax Americana.

But behind that humiliation is another, deeper humiliation awaiting the American Empire. This theatre of outrage has been the means by which men have made themselves national and global heroes, the means by which movements and states have rebounded from torpor and irrelevance.

Caliph Ibrahim of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant joins a venerable tradition of men who have made themselves and their ideas powerful and relevant on a global scale by mobilizing American outrage against them, a tradition whose hundredth anniversary we will be celebrating on March, 9th, 2016.

This tradition is one that the US would do well to remember, were such a thing permitted by the deep structures of American historical memory. In 1916, Pancho Villa’s fortunes in the Mexican Revolution were in decline; first battling the regime of German and US-backed conservative usurper Victoriano Huerta, Villa had come to personally command an army of tens of thousands of Mexicans seeking land reform, democracy and an end to neocolonialism. But infighting had broken out amongst the revolutionaries and the moderates, led by Venustiano Carranza, had reduced Villa’s army to less than five hundred men, hiding out in Mexico’s northern borderlands. It seemed that all was lost for the Villistas until Villa hit upon an idea that would, indeed, turn the war around and inspire tens of thousands of new recruits to flock to his banner.

He staged a quixotic attack on the United States of America. Crossing the border into New Mexico, he attacked an armoury of the Thirteenth Cavalry in the small town of Columbus. While the initial attack took place on the pretext of replenishing his badly-depleted supply of arms, Villa’s inspired choice allowed him to reap far more than he, and the hundred men who joined in the attack, could carry off.

America had been humiliated, by a brown-skinned “bandit” and his handful of followers, its storied southwestern cavalry shown up as unprepared, weak and untrained. There was simply no way American could do anything other than make Villa into the titanic figure he remains in the mythology of the Mexican Revolution.

As we saw eight-six years later, America has no choice but to respond to the taunts of a guerrilla leader hiding in the hinterland of an arid, mountainous, impoverished state with population deeply resentful of the US and sympathetic to the guerrillas: send in a of fifteen thousand men to look for that one guy, to storm around the countryside pissing off the locals, searching dwellings and caves and asking for news of the fugitive in some kind of heavily-accented, ungrammatical version of the local language. While these responses never seem to work out that well for the US, even when they end up catching the guy—no thanks to the column of fifteen thousand troops turning over larger rocks—but they do work out awfully well for the movement that makes the successful provocation.

There is a grandeur and heroism that accrues naturally to the out-gunned ragtag band of guerrilla fighters or terrorists—and Villa was certainly called a terrorist—that dares to challenge the hegemony of a world-spanning imperium. This vast, heroic stature only a massive imperial punitive expedition can confer takes on an existence that mere military defeat cannot erase. Simon bar Kokhba, Pancho Villa: this is the league that Caliph Ibrahim seeks to enter. As has been the case since the Muslim armies first broke out of the Arabian Peninsula and tore Egypt away from its Byzantine overlords, one can only be a true Caliph if so recognized by one’s opposite, by the Pope, or better, by the Byzantine Emperor or Holy Roman Emperor.

Since George W. Bush’s shift in the legitimating discourse of American imperialism from anti-communism to militant Christianity through his appropriation of the power to pronounce national benedictions, as God’s vicegerent on earth, “may God continue to bless America,” the possibility of reconstituting an Islamic Caliphate through American aggression has grown. The more effectively the US can be provoked to send the armies of Christendom to fight ISIL, the more this war will resemble a Crusade, and the more it resembles a Crusade, the clearer it will be for all to see that Ibrahim must really be the Caliph. While Islamic jurists, political leaders and scholars will dispute that claim, the imperial response to these acts of public shaming and provocation will make a far more powerful argument to the contrary.

Whereas groups like Boko Haram focus their terror into striking fear into the people of Nigeria, Niger and Chad through atrocities staged for the benefit of local villagers, ISIL has been far more focused on and effective in its efforts at cultural translation. The kidnappings and murders of West African women and children by Boko Haram are not staged as outrage porn for Americans but as direct threats to West Africans. And in this way, they do not become America’s business.

It turns out that the problem with the Centipedes is not simply that they are attacking children. The problem with them is that they are becoming “downright arrogant;” the attacks on children are a necessary but insufficient condition for vengeful imperial ire; atrocities, acts that are beyond the moral pale of the hegemon, must not merely take place; they must be staged, with defiant pride, shaming the empire into its own quixotic, pride-driven retaliation.

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