One of the first songs taken off U.S. radio playlists in the run up to the Iraq war was The Cure’s “Killing an Arab.” Far from an incitement to hatred, the 1980s hit is a tribute to Albert Camus’ book L’ Etranger, The Outsider. In the book, the main character, alienated in society and in his own skin, shoots an Arab without being quite sure why. What made the U.S. reach for its gun and go to Iraq has been over-analyzed by now. Your guess is as good as mine. But Camus offers an interesting analogy for those who are interested in the existential side of things.
The Outsider is set in French Algeria. The book begins: “My mother died today… or maybe yesterday. I don’t know.” Blundering through a series of seemingly unconnected and insignificant events, the main character finds himself—in the words of The Cure—”standing on a beach with a gun in my hand … Staring down the barrel at the Arab on the ground … I’m the stranger killing an Arab.” He feels no guilt for the crime he could have avoided. To him, the sun rising is as much to blame for the Arab’s death as he is. His later harsh judgement comes as a complete surprise.
Before jihadists turned on the United States, the last super power standing was in a phase of soul searching. As former President George Bush might have put it, “the Cold War ended today … or maybe yesterday. I don’t know.” The unipolar moment at the end of the Cold War had not brought the expected sense of closure. What was to become of the liberator after liberation? Think tanks sought to define the next national project. Sept. 11 put an end to the debate. The next project defining America would be the War against Terror. Arab terrorists were cast in the role of the evil empire, and the U.S. was once again the defender of freedom.
Most agreed that instead of waiting for another home-visit, the U.S. should go out and rid the world of terror. Then things became complicated. Terrorism is a method; it is not the name of a country one can invade. Iraq, meanwhile, is the name of a country—an ill-governed country. What was intended to be a “splendid little war” turned into a brutish guerrilla conflict with razed cities, flag draped coffins, and a lot of dead civilians. Operation Iraqi Freedom began to look like a dismal failure.
“Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists.” We define ourselves in relation to others, often by projecting unsavory traits we do not subscribe onto those people whom we know the least about. Fear of the stranger is as deeply ingrained in us as sympathy for those we know. Nazi propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels threw up his hands at Germans trying to save Jewish friends: “everybody seems to know an A1 Jew.” He worried that if all the “good” Jews were taken off the lists, there would be precious few left to persecute. It is somehow harder to kill people you know.
Perhaps since they have not formed dominant immigrant communities in most western countries, we know little about Arabs. And the Arab street knows little about the West. What we all do know is that cultural exchange through military occupation can go both ways. One man’s occupier is another man’s liberator; one man’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter.
The infidels that the jihadists vow to put to the sword are curiously similar to the terrorists President Bush promises to smoke out. Both are malignant caricatures that say as much about the hand holding the pen as the motif. Camus’ Outsider tries to escape questions regarding his own identity by lashing out. When listening to the rhetoric of Al Jazeera and the Bush administration, it sounds as if values can be affirmed by hunting down those who do not subscribe to them, that the hole in a culture can be filled by killing an American—or an Arab.
Published in Columbia Spectator Issue date: 1/19/05