Jocasta: What means this shuddering, this averted glance?
Oedipus: I thought I heard thee say that Laius died,
Slain in a skirmish where the three roads meet?
There is a particular kind of tragedy in which a terrible effect is produced not by some vengeful God or natural force, but by the actions of people who set out to avoid that effect in the first place. These ironic causes of tragedy are certainly found in literature, first and most famously in Sophocles’ Oedipus the King, but also live somewhere deeper—in our bones, perhaps, or in the very structure of our minds. That we may fear something and let that fear drive us to act in ways that make the very thing we fear come to pass, may reveal a fatal flaw in how we make sense of the world.
What these tragedies require, more than anything else, is an aptitude for hiding our motives from ourselves, for having the capacity to avoid thinking through the otherwise clear consequences of our own actions. It would be superstitious to think that the very existence of our efforts somehow annoys the fates into turning the course of events against us, and is more correct to say that the chain of events, in each of its causes and effects, has always existed and has always been clear to those who would see it. The tragedy of our complicity is that we realize it has been so all along at the very moment it becomes too late.
The building, the Seventh Precinct station house, is also home to the department’s Club Enforcement Initiative . . . their goal was to hit Club Kalua, a topless bar at 143-08 94th Avenue in Jamaica. The team had been working together since August, when the initiative began in response to the murder of a woman who was kidnapped and killed in July after leaving a club in Chelsea.
Here we discover that the very presence of the team who killed Sean Bell on his wedding day was because another woman—a white woman—had been killed six months before, albeit in a very different neighborhood and under very different circumstances. There seems to be as little connection between the causes of the woman’s murder and the “response” of staking out the Club Kalua as there was between the threats of terrorism and WMD and the invasion of Iraq. The results, however, seem to be depressingly similar.
One might have even supposed that the Bush administration (that convenient euphemism for America) might be immune to any effects of tragic irony because of the bald way it embraced raw power and the use of violence in the wake of 9/11. Yet this only proves that the cold-blooded plans of “realists,” as much as any idealistic vision of world transformation, have ample room for the arrogance and self-deception that tragedy requires. The only difference being that the result may arouse an even greater sense of irony because the perils and contradictions of the violent show of power are so well-known and documented. The belief that one’s actions are not subject to these perils announces a new level of hubris indistinguishable from blank, feral stupidity.
Consider the now infamous quote from an “anonymous Bush staffer” who explained dismissively to the reporter Ron Suskind that he, as a journalist, was “part of the reality-based community”:
“That's not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. “We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”
Suskind’s article focused on how Bush’s “faith-based Presidency” relies on prayer and instinct over empirical evidence. But the quote and the administration’s actions actually show a clear, even cynical understanding of the exercise of power. For how does an empire create its own reality? By “acting.” And what actions, specifically? I thought about this for a long while, and the conclusion I came to was: violent acts, the use of force. Acts that erase or disfigure competing realities (which are inconveniently generated by brains, within skulls, that sit atop human beings, brains that can be crushed, blown apart, or fooled into thinking that they are being drowned).
We should all be alarmed when a Bush staffer begins to sound like “the judge” in Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. In that book, the judge—a hairless, gigantic satan who drowns puppies, dandles Indian children on his knee before scalping them, and gives learned and disturbing disquisitions around the campfire to his uncomprehending posse—provides his own take on how history, violence and war trump the belief systems of lesser types of men (including, one assumes, journalists):
Moral law is an invention of mankind for the disenfranchisement of the powerful in favor of the weak. Historical law subverts it at every turn. A man falling dead in a duel is not thought thereby to be proven in error as to his views. His very involvement in such a trial gives evidence of a new and broader view. The willingness of the principals to forego further argument as the triviality which it in fact is and to petition directly the chambers of the historical absolute clearly indicates of how little moment are the opinions and of what great moments the divergences thereof. Here are considerations of equity and rectitude and moral right rendered void and without warrant and here are the views of the litigants despised. Decisions of life and death, of what shall be and what shall not, beggar all question of right. In elections of these magnitudes are all lesser ones subsumed, moral, spiritual, natural.
The judge also says that
War is the ultimate game because war is at last a forcing of the unity of existence. War is god.
In other words, that pesky duality between how things are in man’s natural state of depravity, and how things should be through the intervention of “created” concepts of law, mercy, and justice, collapse when we just decide to kill one another. The unity the judge glorifies comes at the cost of a cynical, barbaric regression. Yet it provides the sense of purpose for every aggrieved nation that has ever embraced the concept of neverending war.
Blood Meridian, which is based on historical accounts, tells the story of a character named “the kid” who joins a gang of scalp-hunters on the border of Texas-Mexico border in the 1850s. The book features many disturbing soliloquies from the judge, each one the counterpoint to a relentless succession of atrocities. The descriptions of massacres, scalpings, and such horrific details as dead babies hanging from trees are shocking, flagrant, and sometimes chillingly gorgeous:
An old woman knelt at the blackened stones before her door and poked brush into the coals and blew back a flame from the ashes and began to right the overturned pots. All about her the dead lay with their peeled skulls like polyps bluely wet or luminescent melons on some mesa of the moon.
The sincere attempt to put all the power of prose behind depictions of brutality and horror is often seen as a humane project to witness, through as clear a lens as possible, the true reality of violence. The descriptions require extremity, the argument goes, first of all because the acts themselves are extreme—beyond the knowledge and experience of most readers—and second they need to balance the weight of what typically constitutes “history,” a relentless flood of politically scrubbed descriptions of the exercise of power. When re-reading Blood Meridian recently, I found myself recalling a number of statements that I’d come across in recent years.
The first is from a report by the U.S. military on the strafing of a wedding celebration in Afghanistan in July 2002. According to news reports, some people at the wedding were firing guns in the air, leading our soldiers to believe they were being fired upon by anti-aircraft guns:
The AC-130 was not able to observe the AAA weapon itself. Rather, the ground location of the source of the fire was identified and fires were directed to that area…consequently, personnel at the weapon’s location were the primary targets. Unfortunately, it is also not possible to distinguish men from women or adults from children. The dead and wounded later observed by coalition forces were mostly women and children….villagers had initially claimed 250 dead and 600 injured, but a village elder later admitted that the real numbers were only about 25% of those figures. The Afghan government presented a report listing 48 dead and 117 wounded. Coalition forces could only confirm 34 dead and approximately 50 wounded. An exact number will never be able to be confirmed.
This too is good writing, but of the most immoral kind. Notice how a clever sublot about an unreliable village elder helps minimize the “real numbers” of the dead, while the passive “fires were directed” paints a picture of our military meeting some gunfire out for an evening stroll, with the gunfire then asking directions to a wedding. How would our soldiers know at the time what that gunfire was going to do? (A Reuters graphic I found of the killing machine in question is so awesome that I am thinking of cutting it out and pasting it on the front of my Trapper Keeper: shovels for the shell casings—night vision radar—moving target indicator—the world’s largest airborne gun—twin 20-mm Vulcan rotary cannons (7,200 rounds per minute)—forward looking infra-red turret. The AC 130 can do everything but “distinguish men from women or adults from children.”)
Here is Central Command’s statement after one of the first checkpoint shootings in Iraq, in late March 2003:
JAMES WILKINSON, CENTCOM COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR: This is a sad and tragic incident, and it is really terrible that innocent people have died. I will point out that this is a by-product. The new security measures we've had to put in place are a by-product of the regime's tactics of terrorism. They have now called for terrorist attacks both in the United States and United Kingdom. They continue to, as the report said just before, they continue to attack their own citizens who try to flee. And so it's a sad and tragic incident. It's unfortunate that it had to happen, but all such incidents like this are the fault of the regime.
And here is the first statement made by the U.S. military about the massacre at the Iraqi town of Haditha:
A US Marine and 15 civilians were killed yesterday from the blast of a roadside bomb in Haditha. Immediately following the bombing, gunmen attacked the convoy with small arms fire. Iraqi Army soldiers and Marines returned fire killing eight insurgents and wounding another.
While the other quotes feature the cool, callous explanations for our imperial “acts,” with the words of the slaughterhouse like “byproduct,” the quote about Haditha also has the dubious aspect of being a baldfaced lie. The civilians were not killed by a roadside bomb, but by Marines on a rampage. This is the different account that soon emerged:
Then one of the Marines took charge, shouting, said Fahmi, who was watching from his roof. Fahmi said he saw the shouting Marine direct other Marines into the house closest to the blast, about 50 yards away.
It was the home of Abdul Hamid Hassan Ali, 76. Although he had used a wheelchair since diabetes forced a leg amputation years ago, Ali was always one of the first on his block to go out every morning, scattering scraps for his chickens and hosing the dust of the arid western town from his driveway, neighbors said.
In the house with Ali and his 66-year-old wife, Khamisa Tuma Ali, were three of the middle-aged men of their family, at least one daughter-in-law and four children—4-year-old Abdullah, 8-year-old Iman, 5-year-old Abdul Rahman, and 2-month-old Asia.
Marines entered, shooting, witnesses recalled. Most of the shots—in Ali's house and two others—were fired at such close range that they went through the bodies of the family members and plowed into walls or the floor, doctors at Haditha's hospital said.
A daughter-in-law, identified as Hibbah, escaped with Asia, survivors and neighbors said. Iman and Abdul Rahman were shot but survived. Four-year-old Abdullah, Ali and the rest died.
Ali took nine rounds in the chest and abdomen, according to his death certificate.
The Marines moved to the house next door, Fahmi said.
Inside were 43-year-old Khafif, 41-year-old Aeda Yasin Ahmed, an 8-year-old son, five young daughters, and a 1-year-old girl staying with the family, according to death certificates and neighbors.
The Marines shot them at close range and hurled grenades into the kitchen and bathroom, survivors and neighbors said later. Four of the girls died.
Only 13-year-old Safa Younis lived—saved, she said, because she had her mother's blood on her, making her look dead when she fell.
These marines are now on trial for murder. Yet from the perspective of their leader, Marine Staff Sergeant Frank Wuterich, after the IED hit his convoy he immediately identified 5 Iraqi men in a white car and had his squad kill all of them after they refused to drop to the ground. Then,
[he] went to his fallen Marines in the bombed Humvee. Lance Cpl. Miguel Terrazas, 20, from El Paso, Texas, was the driver. He describes what he saw.
“. . . basically a pile of flesh, in essence. That may be a sight I’ll never forget. He was missing one of his arms. His legs were completely severed from his body, but they were still attached because for some reason his Cami’s didn’t rip completely.”
He hears gunfire and decides to assault the houses where Abdul Hassan, who fed the chickens, and 2-month-old Asia lived because, in his words,
“That was the only logical place that the fire could come through seeing the environment there.”
His superior, Lt. William Kallop, arrives at the scene and gives his okay to assault the houses. Wuterich continues, “We cleared these houses the way they were supposed to be cleared.” According to 60 Minutes, “Wuterich finished his Iraq tour and, before he was charged, he was promoted by the Marine Corps.”
The Haditha incident is both an act of mass murder and the expression of the administration’s policy of preemption on an intimate scale. If there is only a superficial equivalence between finding no WMD in Iraq after the U.S. invasion, and there being no actual danger in those three houses in Haditha, what these occurrences definitively show is that an irrevocable step was taken into a domain where force—and not law or morality—is the primary arbiter of relations among human beings.
As we now know, as Sergeant Wuterich must as well, the taking of such a step leaves no room for error, and there is no going back. As we also know, accounts of how such steps are taken, and recollections of the decisions to knowingly take them, appear to vary dramatically.
One might even conclude that our shock and outrage over these incidents and others is at best simply insincere, because we already know what we are discovering. As Mark Danner writes about the American use of torture after 9/11, “what is difficult is separating what we now know from what we have long known but have mostly refused to admit.”
In David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence, Ed Harris, playing a mobster named Carl Fogarty, says with palpable disgust to Viggo Mortensen’s Tom Stall:
You almost believe your own crap, don’t you? You know, you’re trying so hard to be this other guy it’s almost painful to watch.
Tom Stall is really Joey Cusack, a Philadelphia mobster and cold-blooded killer who has fled his former life to create a zone of safety, peace, and devotion to family in rural Indiana. As his wife, Edie, learns who he actually is, she mirrors our own process of discovery: of what has been done for us, what has been done in our name.
When Tom finally admits to Edie that he is, indeed, “Joey,” she immediately vomits in a hospital bathroom. Though an unscripted flourish on the part of actress Maria Bello this is one of the truest moments in the movie; the reaction is not first betrayal or anger, but bodily disgust. The corruption of what she once thought was good and pure is literally sickening.
This is a movie not about the effect of violence on its victims, but about the effect on its perpetrators, and the measure of our own corruption is the extent to which we feel a similar disgust. The gross-out scenes in the film and the excessive brutality become somewhat more understandable in these terms (as much as Cronenberg has said that he wanted the violence to be clumsy and “real”, there is nothing real about the way Tom Stall can take out two, three or four men at a time, with his precision throat-crunches and noses-punched-up-into-the-brain); and the violent acts build in their outrageousness because Cronenberg requires that Tom Stall, at the end of the movie, return home and sit at the family dinner table, and that his sweet blonde-haired daughter set a place for him. The contrast between where he has been, what he has done, and who he now wishes to be, is so extreme that something like an abyss forms between them. And the wary stares of his family are swallowed up in it. This history has always been there, but now they know.
In fact, the killing spree he returns from at the end of the movie is arguably more violent than any of his others. He may have finally succeeded in wiping out everyone who may one day come after him, but the knowing look Edie gives him is one of fear. The very idea of violence becoming history is a convenient and dangerous fiction. Whether or not we admit it, we are sitting at the table with all that has been done for us, in our name.
Wallace Shawn’s one-man play The Fever ends with a different interruption of the domestic setting:
My own bed. My night table. And on the table—what? On the table—what? Blood—death—a fragment of bone—a fragment—a piece—of a human brain—a severed hand.
Shawn’s play is exhaustive in examining our complicity in the suffering of our fellow men. If liberal guilt were to become a religion this would be its catechism. Every facet of our complicity is repeatedly and frantically examined. Written before 9/11, the Iraq war, or Hurricane Katrina, The Fever displays the twisting, turning, agonized, and incredibly guilty ramblings of a character only known as the Traveler. He has been to an unnamed third-world country, seen pictures of people tortured and murdered, and is now unable to comfortably return to his upper-middle-class existence in New York. After cataloging the passionate beliefs of his friends (“Mario believes that social criticism in plays and films can be expressed most effectively through the use of humor”), he realizes that their different beliefs change nothing:
But the question —the question is—Would it really matter if it were Fred, rather than Bob, who believed that democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others? What if Fred were to wake up one morning and think he believed that, forgetting that that was actually the belief of his friend Bob?
. . . from the point of view of the ones who are poor, of course I’m the same as my neighbor Jean. I’m exactly the same, and I’m not on their side.
The Traveler begins to tell a new version of history to himself, one that echoes not only Blood Meridian’s subversion of the standard narrative of the settlement of the West and Tom Stall’s inability to leave behind his violent past, but also the belief shared by the judge and the “Bush staffer” that the violent exercise of power follows a critical sequence of events ending with the conceptual foundation for a new “reality,” a new “law”:
The voluptuous field that was given to me—how did I come to be given that one and not the one that was black and barren . . . The fields were pieced together one by one, by thieves, by killers. Over years, over centuries, night after night, knives glittering, throats cut, again and again, until the beautiful Christmas morning we woke up, and our proud parents showed us the gorgeous, shining, blood-soaked fields which now were ours. Cultivate, they said, husband everything you pull from the earth, guard, save, then give your own children the next hillside, the next valley . . . And the book runs on, years, centuries, till the moment comes when our parents say the time of apportionment is now over. We have what we need—our position well defended from every side. Now, finally, everything can be frozen, just as it is. The violence can stop. From now on, no more stealing, no more killing. From this moment, an eternal silence, the rule of law.
For the Traveler and the judge, these concepts only presume to define a truly ethical relationship with our fellows. The blood and violence they are founded upon—Oedipus’s place where the three roads meet—are perpetually corrupting. In reality, they are only a fiction we tell ourselves, a costume drama, a lame bureaucratic press release, a new identity, Joey Cusack’s “Tom Stall.” It does not matter so much what any of us believe. It is inevitable that someone will find us out.
Late in Blood Meridian, after his travels with the Glanton gang and many other years of wandering have passed, the kid comes across the massacre of a group of pilgrims and then finds an old woman presumably hiding in a cave.
He told her that he would convey her to a safe place, some party of her country people who would welcome her and that she should join them for he could not leave her in this place or she would surely die.
This offer stands out as one of the few compassionate gestures in the entire book. It is strange at this point in the novel to hear this tenderness come from the mouth of the kid, but we understand that only has its source in his having witnessed—and being a cause of and participant in—so many horrors. But the act, having been generated, comes too late. The kid reaches out to her and finds “she weighed nothing. She was just a dried shell and had been dead in that place for years.” In the book’s final pages, some years later on, the kid meets the judge at a saloon. When he goes to the outhouse he is killed by the judge, who perhaps sexually assaults him as well. Returning to the saloon to dance after the murder he “sashays backward and throws back his head and laughs deep in his throat and he is a great favorite, the judge.” McCarthy writes in the book’s last lines that “he never sleeps, the judge, he is dancing, dancing. He says that he will never die.”
Indeed, given our history, it is almost a miracle that we have ever been, and can still be, kind.
 Sophocles, Oedipus the King, translated by E. H. Plumptre, vol. 8 of The Harvard Classics (New York: P. F Collier & Son, 1909–1914).
 It is not only Oedipus who, wishing to avoid his own fate, seals its tragic end. His father Laius sets the entire story in motion by getting rid of Oedipus as a boy after hearing he will be slain by his son. He therefore makes his own death possible by ensuring that his son does not know him when they meet on the road.
 “50 Bullets, One Dead, and Many Questions,” New York Times, December 11, 2006.
 “Faith, Certainty, and the Presidency of George W. Bush,” Ron Suskind, New York Times Magazine, October 17, 2004.
 Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian (New York: Vintage International, 1992). All subsequent references to the novel are from this edition.
 Unclassified summary of the results of an investigation by the U.S. Military into the deaths of villagers at a wedding celebration in the Afghan village of Deh Rawud, U.S. Central Command News Release, September 26, 2002.
 See “Low, Slow, and Deadly: Behold the AC130 Gunship,” National Review Online, October 18, 2001.
 “Deadly Checkpoint Shooting, Reaction from Jordan,” transcript of a CNN broadcast, aired April 1, 2003.
 “In Haditha Killings, Details Came Slowly,” Thomas E. Ricks, Washington Post, June 4, 2006.
 “In Haditha, Memories of a Massacre,” Ellen Knickmeyer, Washington Post, May 27, 2006.
 “The Killings in Haditha,” 60 Minutes, March 15, 2007.
 “The Logic of Torture,” Mark Danner, New York Review of Books, June 24, 2004.
 A History of Violence, directed by David Cronenberg, released in 2005 by New Line Cinema.
 Wallace Shawn, The Fever (New York: Grove Press, 1991). All subsequent references to the play are from this edition.