On the 11th September 2001 Americans lost 5,000 of their civilian compatriots and saw symbols of their way of life come crashing down. The need to hold up (at best) evidence of or (at worst) a trophy signifying triumph over an enemy that they’ve been hunting down for almost ten years is not only understandable. It is consistent with a tradition of warfare as old as humanity itself (perhaps as old as the hominid genus that our species belong to).
Had Medieval European armies or the Roman Legions not been as bloodthirsty as their Mongol and Hun attackers, perhaps the Dark Ages may have been even darker and longer. If our allies’ “boys” hadn’t been molded into finely-tuned killing machines by years of basic and special training before they were sent off to kill German and Japanese soliders, our world today would have likely been vastly different. If Filipino men straight out of fashion school were sent to the Philippine hinterlands to fight off various rebel armies, we’d probably be a nation ruled today by Joma Sison or named after an ancient Indo-Malay sultanate instead of a Spanish King of the Inquisition.
Even then, the question remains debatable:
Should the United States Government share photos of a dead Osama Bin Laden with the public?
We seem to have a biological predisposition to find pleasure in the sight of the corpses of our enemies. There is some scientific evidence pointing to clear evolutionary advantages in animals that effect “vengeful” behaviours on their enemies. Nature is an economic system. And as such we see the behaviours we evolve as outcomes of economic pressures — i.e., costs and benefits. Exacting revenge from your enemy is in the cold economic terms of nature “imposing costs on individuals that have imposed costs on you”. These behaviours create a deterrence against other individuals who intend to do you harm. It makes them think twice about doing so — which has some obvious benefits to you, like getting laid at some future time and spawning carriers of your genetic code.
The way revenge seems to operate in our minds today really does have a functional ring to it.
The loudest way to exact revenge is to make a person’s gains less profitable. You have reached into their accounting system and changed what they’ve gained from harming you.
The interesting thing is that the desire for revenge goes up if there are people who have watched you be mistreated, because in that case, the costs have gotten bigger. If you don’t take revenge, there’s a chance that people will learn that you are the type of person who will put up with mistreatment. That is the kind of phenomenon that you would expect if there is a functional logic underlying the system that produces revenge. This is a well-tuned system that’s highly specific in what it cares about and the kinds of responses that it generates.
Wars fought in the past were always and in most cases necessarily brutal. Victorious armies would slaughter the remaining civilians of the villages and cities they’ve sacked, rape their enemy soldiers’ women, mount the heads of their slain foes high on stakes, and kill every male child they could find lest they grow up to be their future killers. Then they’d go and enslave every other person who does not fit these categories.
Quite understandable, considering that even victorious armies will have gained said victory at enormous cost themselves — in lives and state resources. So it is in their interest to send a strong message that antagonising them quite simply does not pay.
Still, the new political correctness of the affluent world have in principle shed the more reptilian aspects of their respective martial traditions. The advanced weapon systems and tactics of the West and Northeast Asia are now designed for “surgical strikes” that allow goal specificity and execution with “minimal civilian casualty”. Indeed, the assault on Bin Laden’s hideout in Pakistan was one fine specimen of execution along the lines of such modern military doctrines.
In short, the cost of victory of the armies of the “free” and affluent democratic world had gone down drammatically over the last hundred years while the cost of victory of the “axis” — such as today’s terrorists of various schools of thought (not just Islamic) — have remained pretty much the same over the last thousand-odd years.
By no means does all this information make answering the question of whether or not photos of the Bin Laden stiff should be published (whether as “evidence” or as a trophy) any easier. But it provides some context to frame any pompous or self-righteous posturing on the matter coming from a people who lack the slightest trace of a martial tradition in their cultural DNA, possess not a single military victory as an organised state or kingdom in their history, and hardly exhibit any capacity to win should a conflict requiring state-sanctioned deadly force erupt in the foreseeable future.
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