For the better part of the past two centuries, military deserters and traitors were sent before a firing squad.
It was an admittedly messy proposition. The traitor was bound to a chair, behind him were sandbags to absorb the splattered blood. In front of him a row of five shooters took aim at the prisoner's heart, then discharged their weapons in unison. If they happened to miss the vital organ, the crumpled prisoner was left to slowly bleed to death.
Sometime after the Civil War, the firing squad began to fall out of favor in the United States. Critics denounced it as cruel, capricious and not suited to the civilized world.
You don't empathize with traitors to your country. You eviscerate them. I write this not as an expression of free-floating sadism, but because there seems a tendency in this country to empathize with our worst criminals - to romanticize their sense of oppression and struggle. From Tony Soprano to Clint Eastwood, to Ayn Rand's Howard Roark to Snoop Doggy Dog, there is no other cultural archetype that Americans react more readily to than the antihero who challenges some oppressive segment of society. Our capitalist myths have conditioned us to distrust fate and worship the individual - hence our cheery view of cowboys and gangsters.
This makes for good movies. It also betrays a sense of just how decadent our society has become. Especially in the post-Cold War era, our faith in the roaring engine of American society is complete. Our union hauls along the international economy and keeps the world safe.
It is a luxury of the American empire that we can whittle away our days romanticizing thugs, criminals and traitors. Removed from a sense of genuine threat, we can ponder their motivations and romanticize their daring. Sometimes we can even sympathize with the sense of oppression that led them to act against the common good.
I would suggest that this is a dangerous, decadent game. If we are not appalled by obvious acts against the common good, and if our response is not straightforward, then we may find that this glorious empire we inhabit could soon fall.
Specifically, I am referring to a recent strain of empathy that has led some "oppressed" Americans to identify with the Islamic extremists who have declared war on our way of life. Of late, I have heard much talk about a supposed brotherhood of color binding Islamic terrorists with black Americans. The point was played up on a recent episode of "BET Tonight," in which commentator Dr. Julianne Malveaux barked, "We have to decide whether the war on terrorism is our (black America's) war." She was joined on the show by political commentator Ron Walters, who suggested that the 9/11 attacks were payback for white America asserting it's masculine dominance over the oppressed people of color throughout the world. A visitor to BET.com added this to one of their message boards: "It ain't about Muslims, it's about people of color." (Somehow, all three managed to overlook the fact that the planes crashed into the World Trade Center were not aimed just at white people.)
Not long after, John Walker Lindh's parents were trotted out to tell the tale of their sensitive and misguided youth who left America to study religion abroad in 1997 and just happened to join forces with a group whose purpose is killing Americans. John regrets fighting alongside the enemy, his parents now tell us. (Most defeated soldiers do.)
It does not matter. Men like Lindh, or Zacarias Moussaoui or shoe bomber Richard Reid are quite capable of destroying our society. A few dirty bombs detonated in America's major economic centers would devastate our economy. That easily, our way of life would crumble. That should preclude any of us from romanticizing terrorists or their anti-human agenda. We do not owe terrorists our sympathy. They are not sensitive, misguided souls. They are not part of an oppressed black brotherhood. They are people dedicated to obliterating our way of life. They should be sent before a firing squad.
It is a dangerous, decadent game to act otherwise.