The Global North had a habit of explicitly using atrocities to terrorize resisting Global South populations into submission. Violence not primarily designed to defeat an opponent but to strike lasting fear into civilians. To cause mass trauma in order to dominate, not only “rapidly” but lastingly.
Tarik Cyril Amar (@TarikCyrilAmar) is a historian from Germany, currently at Koç University, Istanbul, expert on Ukraine, Russia, and Europe, and the author of “The Paradox of Ukrainian Lviv. A Borderland City between Stalinists, Nazis, and Nationalists.”
Cross-posted from Tarik’s Substack Blog
In US military doctrine there is a special term, introduced in the 1990s, for using so much brutal force that an enemy – or, more usually, a victim – of the American military will be pulverized not only physically but psychologically. That approach is known semi-colloquially as “shock and awe” and, more officially, as “rapid dominance.” The doctrine is a little – but only a little – coy about it, but it really depends on committing war crimes from the get-go, by killing civilians on purpose, directly and by destroying everything they need to live, from water mains via power lines to vital communications.
What Israel has been doing to the Palestinians is, of course, an open-and-shut case of genocide. As has been noted repeatedly, what is usually most hard to do about making a genocide charge stick, namely proving intention, is a no-brainer in this case: Israeli officials (and also representatives of what must count as the most genuinely barbaric “civil society” in the world at this point) have gone out of their way to announce and boast about their genocide. They are mass murderers and they’re loving it.
Indeed, the Zionist compulsion to let it all hang out and the record of the crimes committed are so overwhelming, they themselves constitute another kind of “shock and awe.” Add the response of the Western political elites and the psychological effect gets even more stunning. And that is a point worth paying close attention to. Here’s why:
Among those still endowed with functioning minds and non-psychopathic personalities, one question has come up over and over again: What is this all about? Or, put differently, we are not naïve. We have long known how aggressive and hypocritical the (mostly) Euro-Atlantic West is. And yet, there is something that feels new, another – high – threshold crossed. That feeling stems from three things: the utter, unhinged violence that manages to recreate the effects of two Hiroshima bombs with “conventional” arms within a few weeks and commit the worst, most high-intensity slaughter of civilians, especially children, in recent memory; the brazen openness with which the Israeli perpetrators go about their crime against humanity; and, last but not least, the breathtaking complicity in the West.
That last fact especially has still managed to astound: We know our elites are opportunists and cynics. We understand that their talk about “rules” and “values” is Orwellian trash. But how come they commit with such fervor to siding with the perpetrators of a genocide? Why are they so pro-active and not simply their usual cowardly, adaptive selves?
There are several plausible explanations: For some, psychological and ideological bigotry and racism may go a long way; many others are obeying the US leadership as is their wont; blackmail and bribery (pardon, “lobbying”) are certain to play a role as well; others are utterly cynical and, at the same time, stupid enough to believe a policy that has the whole world against it except a declining West is a “smart” move; and, finally, never underestimate the sheer pleasure powerful men (and women, of course) derive from sadism and duper’s delight.
Joe Biden, Antony Blinken, Olaf Scholz, Ursula von der Leyen – and the list goes on and on: Let’s not waste time on trying to figure out the precise mix of evil in each of these perpetrators and accomplices.
Instead, let’s focus on something else that is in danger of being overlooked. This is an effect that cannot be captured by simple terms of premeditation and intention. But, at the same time, we can discern a pattern. What if the slaughter in Gaza is also the equivalent of a colonial punishment expedition? Just on a much larger, global scale.
Recall that in the not-so-bygone age of colonialism and imperialism, what we now call the Global North had a habit of explicitly using atrocities to terrorize resisting Global South populations into submission. The British, Germans, Dutch, French, Americans – and, again, the list goes on – all used to engage in campaigns of violence not primarily designed to defeat an opponent but to strike lasting fear into civilians. To cause, as we would now say, mass trauma in order to dominate, not only “rapidly” but lastingly.
Shock and awe, in other words, the original version in all its ugliness. We know that the Israeli perpetrators want to do exactly that. At the cutting edge of their genocide, they seek ethnic cleansing and the imposition of terror. They’ve told us often enough.
But what about that Western complicity in word and deed? Is it also about sending a signal to the non-Western majority of humanity? Are we telling them how far we will go when challenged in our undeserved, much abused, and declining position of hegemony? Are we really signaling the price anyone who will get too serious about making our loss of power have real effects will have to pay? Are we showing we are fine with genocide again to teach the Global South a lesson if need be? If not, we are certainly doing our best to give precisely that impression. And that, of course, in a world inevitably entering multipolarity now, is a behavior that is not only abject but that we, in the morally decrepit West, will come to regret. As we should.