The United States’ war on sexual violence, mass murder and religious persecution should begin at home.
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Without question, ISIS is an abomination. However, it is unclear whether America is the right agent to see this through. Part of the trouble relates to the Obama administration’s strategy, which seems likely to empower ISIS even as it undermines the security and interests of the Unted States and its allies – but there is an ethical dimension as well.
While ISIS poses a serious (although likely overstated) threat to the governments of Iraq and Syria, over the last two administrations, the United States has itself forcibly overthrown the governments of Iraq and Libya – each time in defiance of international law. And along with ISIS, the United States has spent the last three years seeking to undermine the Syrian government. Additionally, it has sheltered Israel from meaningful accountability to the international community, allowing the crisis in Palestine to fester.
It would not be a stretch to say that the United States is actually a greater threat to peace and stability in the region than ISIS – not least because US policies in Iraq, Libya and Syria have largely paved the way for ISIS’s emergence as a major regional actor.
But perhaps more disturbingly, many of the same behaviors condemned by the Obama administration and used to justify its most recent campaign into Iraq and Syria are commonly perpetrated by US troops and are ubiquitous in the broader American society. Until these problems are better addressed, United States’ efforts to undermine ISIS will be akin to using a dirty rag to clean an infected wound.
The initial driver of US involvement was the outrage over ISIS’ capture of thousands of Yazidi women and the sexual violence subsequently exercised against them – horrors which provided moral credence to the war against ISIS in much the same way that the 2001 US war against the Taliban was justified in part by highlighting the plight of Afghan women living under their rule.
However, over the course of that war, and the subsequent 2003 war in Iraq, US soldiers and contractors repeatedly used rape as a weapon of war, both against prisoners and the local civilian population. But perhaps more disturbing than the crimes committed by US personnel against Iraqis and Afghans were the atrocities committed by servicemen against their fellow soldiers.
As many as one out of three female soldiers are raped over the course of their military careers. Up to 80 percent of these assaults go unreported, in large part because reported cases rarely result in convictions or proportional punishment. In fact, the victims are frequently punished socially and professionally for reporting abuse, and they are barred from suing the government for reparations even when wrongdoing is proven.
The stats are not much better in the broader population. As many as one in five women who attend college in America are sexually assaulted over the course of their academic career, often with no justice even when the crimes are reported. This is commensurate with the broader trend in America – according to White House estimates, roughly a fifth of all American women are raped at some point in their lives.
As in the military, most of these crimes are not reported to the police, and most reported rapes are never prosecuted – let alone result in convictions for the perpetrators.
If the crimes against thousands of women in Iraq and Syria justify a US mobilization that costs nearly $10 million per day, how much more militant should Americans be about resolving the tens of thousands of cases of sexual violence that go unpunished and largely unnoticed in the United States each year?
In addition to sexual violence, there was widespread outrage over ISIS’s uncompromising brutality and the pornographic way they record and broadcast these acts – which include beheadings, crucifixions, and occasional incidences of cannibalism.
Of course, US soldiers and contractors have and continue to torture their enemies, often taking obscene photos to brag about and reminisce upon their acts. The contractors who were implicated in these abuses have never been prosecuted. Instead, one whistleblower who initially exposed these crimes, Chelsea Manning, has been sentenced to 35 years in prison.
There are further reports of US servicemen committing massacres, desecrating the corpses of their enemies, or even hunting the locals for sport while collecting photos, and even body parts, as trophies. And these are just a sampling of the acts which have been picked up by war correspondents and detailed in the media – many more crimes have never received exposure abroad, with crimes committed against Iraqis and Afghans by US servicemen going largely under-prosecuted or altogether unprosecuted.
Because these atrocities are not sufficiently dealt with by the United States, the governments of Iraq and Afghanistan have demanded the right to try Americans in their own courts. However, as protecting US politicians and soldiers from international accountability formed the basis of US opposition to establishing or joining the International Criminal Court, the Obama Administration refused to cede anything to these nascent states. As a result, concerns about accountability proved to be the main obstacle in the US reaching a security agreement with Afghanistan – and Iraq’s refusal to grant US soldiers immunity was the reason the US ultimately abandoned the pursuit of a status of forces agreement there, contributing significantly to the security vacuum that allowed ISIS to rebuild in Iraq and expand into Syria. That is, ISIS’s crimes were largely enabled by America’s refusal to face up to its own.
Americans should bear this in mind as the Obama Administration loosens its already overly permissive standards vis à vis collateral damage and targeting civilians in its current campaign. The killing of innocents is not somehow morally superior if committed remotely by a drone or missile rather than the tools at ISIS’ disposal.
Finally, many Westerners have been horrified by ISIS’s persecution of religious minorities (especially crimes against Christians). However, the United States is complicit in this as well: US policies in Iraq helped spark this cycle of sectarian violence.
Meanwhile, its own armed forces were indoctrinated with anti-Muslim propaganda – complete with recommendations for servicemen to resort to “Hiroshima tactics,” in a “total war against Islam,” in which protections for civilians were “no longer relevant.” Reflective of this mentality, the armed forces have been heavily infiltrated by white-supremacists, neo-Nazis and other hate groups who believe and act as though they are engaged in a holy war to begin in the Middle East and then be carried back into America. This institutionalized misrepresentation of Islam and dehumanization of Muslims probably played a significant role in the aforementioned atrocities.
However, this is hardly just an issue in the Army. Anti-Muslim discrimination and hate crimes are pervasive in America, from the classroom to the boardroom. In the popular culture, Islamophobia transcends the political spectrum and is fairly mainstream – to the point where pundits and politicians can openly call for Muslim internment camps, or push for laws restricting or altogether banning Muslims from practicing their faith, even as many of these same people work to obliterate the lines between the (Christian) church and state.
Muslim voices which could unapologetically challenge these tropes are largely excluded from the public discourse in favor of “house-Muslims” who will nod their heads in condemnation of terrorism (emphasizing that most Muslims are “moderates“) while uncritically calling for (liberal) reform and revolution in Muslim lands of which they are no longer residents (if they ever were) – and all without voicing much (if any) substantive criticism of the Western countries in which they reside, beyond the narrow concerns about discrimination and persecution.
And yet despite these compliant spokespeople, and the fact that only 6 percent of terror incidents in the United States have been carried out by Muslims over the last 30 years (and the threat of terrorism is itself overblown), Muslims are frequently subjected to arbitrary surveillance and detention, as well as legal entrapment. All of these practices are considered crimes against humanity according to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which the US ostensibly champions everywhere else in the world . . . perhaps nowhere more than in Muslim-majority countries – seven of which the US has bombed in the last 6 years, almost always under the auspices of “humanitarian intervention.”
Authentic Outrage, Authentic Patriotism
Criticisms like these invariably evoke charges of anti-Americanism among reactionary readers – unduly. If one were truly committed to defending America and promoting its values, if sincerely outraged by the sorts of atrocities committed by ISIS – rather than sanctioning condescending and counterproductive incursions abroad, Americans should dedicate much more time and energy to responding to these same problems within the United States and its institutions abroad. In this way, the United States could respond to the ISIS challenge by growing better and stronger, rather than undermining American’s interests and freedoms in the name of “security.”