Is Our Empathy Killing Us?

How we may be encouraging insurgents' bloody tactics


All of us, if we're honest, are perplexed by the insurgents in Iraq. Yes, America and Britain launched an invasion that was—in my and many other people's views—a bloody disaster. But why hasn't it given rise to a national liberation movement that targets the occupying forces and makes the case for Iraqi independence, instead of these faceless killers who incinerate worshippers or blow up kids taking sweets from a U.S. soldier?

Radical leftists argue this is the price of war and occupation. Tariq Ali even compared the insurgents to the French resistance against the fascist Vichy regime; yet those noble resistors never filmed themselves cutting people's throats. The pro-war right can only say the insurgents are "pure evil." That is no rational explanation, either.

Both sides try to force the insurgency into categories where it doesn't fit, in a bid to render explicable what seems like inexplicable behaviour. At times, though, they will admit to being "baffled" by the rebels. In a New York Times article headlined "Iraq Insurgency Displaying Little Rhyme, Reason," counterinsurgency experts said they were thrown by the "wanton violence."

Why do these rebels revel in killing civilians? I think they are exploiting a cultural obsession with death that has its origins very much in the West. Indeed, they seem to define themselves in direct opposition to what they perceive as a cowardly Coalition. The Coalition tries to avoid risky operations; the insurgents take outrageous risks. The Coalition promises to avoid taking casualties; the insurgents kill as many as they can. The Coalition suppresses images of the dead; the insurgents kill their victims for the cameras.

This insurgency is best understood, not as a band of freedom fighters or evil incarnate, but as a movement with an intuitive grasp of the West's fearful psychology.

Insurgents who pay attention to our debates about the war will notice one thing: We are terrified by death. The authors of the war promised this would be a "clean" invasion in which few would die, while their anti-war opponents obsess over numbers of dead and images of the dead. Both sides have helped to turn death into the defining issue, so it is not surprising that the insurgents should focus on that same issue.

From the beginning, Coalition officials advertised their fear of spilling blood, whether Iraqis' or their own. Their unrealistic desire for a bloodless battle was summed up by one journalist as follows: "We want to have a clean, crisp, sanitary war in which we suffer few casualties. We want the unfortunate deaths of civilians removed from the process completely…. And, by the way, we want the entire thing wrapped up by next Thursday." Through their trepidation, officials guaranteed that deaths, when they inevitably occurred, would be taken as evidence that the war had gone horribly wrong.

When large numbers started dying, the Coalition became defensive. The Pentagon's ban on photographing returning military coffins suggested it was mortified by its dead, seeking to sneak them in the backdoor and hurry them into the earth without anybody noticing. Bush stopped attending military funerals, reportedly because he did not want to bring attention to the number of dead Americans. Last year officials revealed that he spent Easter "praying for American casualties to ebb."

In turning shamefaced from their dead, embarrassed by their sacrifice and unable to justify it, American leaders sent a clear message to the insurgents: "If you want to get one over on us, kill people. We cannot bear this burden." Indeed, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the most notorious insurgent, seemed to taunt America over its inability to deal with death. A couple of weeks after the controversy over photographing military coffins hit the headlines in April last year, Zarqawi's group decapitated American civilian Nick Berg, as Zarqawi said: "As for you, Bush, you will only get shroud after shroud and coffin after coffin slaughtered in this manner." Here, he seemed explicitly to exploit America's embarrassment about returning coffins by promising more of them.

Of course, "body-bag syndrome"—where people tire of the sacrifices being made by their friends or fellow countrymen—is a side-effect of many wars, especially unpopular ones. But the war in Iraq seemed to come with a top-down body-bag syndrome built in. This suggested a crisis of conviction among the makers of the war; in other times, our leaders have been willing to send young men to die if it is for something they truly believe in, but here they promised few deaths from the very outset. And by raising this issue of casualties even before the war had begun, they ensured that numbers of deaths would become a major focus.

Now, we have terrorists and insurgents who constitute themselves in direct contrast to officialdom's seeming squeamishness. This is summed up in the slogan "You love life, we love death," now used by both al-Qaeda associates and Iraqi insurgents.

The anti-war movement has, unfortunately, made things worse. It has morbidly fixated on the dead. Visit any anti-war website and you will see an Iraq Body Count counter with a ticking toll of civilians killed; it was an anti-war website—The Memory Hole—that challenged the Pentagon to release photos of American coffins.

Anti-war journalists call for more scenes of death on our TV screens. British columnist Michela Wrong wrote in the New Statesman that she is "sickened and disgusted by the outrageous lack of graphic violence on our screens today," and called for more "blood and guts" because "we are literal-minded creatures. To believe something we need to see it." The insurgents have been only too happy to provide this blood and guts. Anti-war activists have pushed the moms and dads of dead U.S. soldiers to the forefront of their campaigns, and demand body counts of Iraqis.

These may seem like radical demands. They can also be seen as a failure of political conviction. In place of a hard debate about new forms of Western intervention and why they're a problem, we get shock-horror snapshots of dead kids and mangled body parts. This is an attempt to emotionally blackmail the public, rather than politically convince us, into opposing the war. Anti-war activists hope the gore will make us anti-war.

And they, too, send a powerful message to the insurgents: "Blood and guts changes minds. Give us more of it."

The war was an unmitigated disaster, but here's a scary thought: This ongoing death-obsessed debate about the war is also proving disastrous for Iraqis. Through our fevered debates about risk, fear, injury and death, we have shown the insurgents how to hit us where it hurts—by killing people. We have made injury and fatality into the currency of the conflict, and effectively given a green light to the insurgents to continue killing civilians if they want to make a big impact on the our frail and risk-averse consciousness. Our bombs killed; now our humanity kills.

Brendan O'Neill is deputy editor of spiked in London. His journalism is archived at