The Lesson of 2 Photos

In February 2010 paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne Division were assigned to check out reports that Afghan police had recovered the mangled remains of an insurgent suicide bomber. They were ordered to get iris scans and fingerprints for identification. 

 

Soldiers arrived at the police station in Afghanistan’s Zabol province in February 2010. They inspected the body parts.

 

God knows I can’t imagine what it’s like to be on such a mission, to deal with the gruesome aftermath of a heinous act.  I know someone has to do such things, I’m just glad it’s not me. It’s one of the many modern parts of warfare, logging iris scans of the dead.

 

After the paratroopers did their work, something happened.  Some deep vortex opened amongst this forensic team.  They decided it would be fun – how else can I put it? – to desecrate the suicide bomber’s corpse.  They posed for photos next to Afghan police, grinning, I might add while some held – and others squatted beside – the corpse’s severed legs.  They next took the upper torso and posed with it, too.

 

Twelve of the pictures from that day were sent to the LA Times, where 2 of them were published.  I saw the photos, and they are horrible on several different levels.  Morally and legally and professionally they are despicable. 

 

These two photos are actually the most graphic anti-war statements I’ve seen in a long time.  They depict what war and hatred do to people, who are not otherwise sociopathic or psychopathic.  The photos depict what happens when the ‘Other’, the enemy, is no longer determined as human at all, but rather as an object. 

 

War and hatred dehumanize us, make us susceptible to our basest instincts.  It can make people mad with power, can twist and distort their ethics.  The poison that ran through the souls of those paratroopers smiling beside a pair of severed legs is a derivative of the same poison that moved a suicide bomber to kill innocent people.

 

The great Jewish ethics battle is essentially acknowledging the battle between the yetzer tov and the yetzer ha-ra: the impulse for good and the impulse for evil.  As opposed to many forms of Christian ethics, Jewish ethics doesn’t posit evil to be some independent force that’s outside of us, seeking to break in. The yetzer tov and the yetzer ha-ra are both occupants deep inside of us.  We don’t seek to remove the yetzer ha-ra; we can’t remove it.  We seek to master it by appealing to the yetzer tov and subduing our evil impulse.  The struggle between the yetzer tov and the yetzer ha-ra is a daily one.  We cannot be perfect; we strive only to be strong enough to let the inner mensch win out.

 

It all begins in acknowledging the sacredness of life itself, the notion that every man, woman, and child is endowed with the divine spark.  It is all based on the remarkably trite and true Jewish teaching that we are all God’s children, that when we look at another human being we are not looking at an ‘Other’; we are looking at an extension of our selves.  How we treat the dead, particularly if they are our enemy, is a true moral test.  It is an indication as to the integrity of our yetzer tov.

 

Those 2 photos are a lasting reminder of how war and prolonged hatred can strengthen the yetzer ha-ra.  They are a sad testimony as to what violence does to the yetzer tov.  Because there is no ‘Other’.  It’s all us.  

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