Why we kill and why THEY kill

March 19, 2012 | By | 8 Replies More

Here’s what Glenn Greenwald has to say about the way we characterize the motives of Americans who kill others versus others who kill Americans:

Here’s a summary of the Western media discussion of what motivated U.S. Staff Sgt. Robert Bales to allegedly kill 16 Afghans, including 9 children: he was drunk, he was experiencing financial stress, he was passed over for a promotion, he had a traumatic brain injury, he had marital problems, he suffered from the stresses of four tours of duty, he “saw his buddy’s leg blown off the day before the massacre,” etc. Here’s a summary of the Western media discussion of what motivates Muslims to kill Americans: they are primitive, fanatically religious, hateful Terrorists.

Although Greenwald doesn’t analyze it in such terms, this is the classic ingroup-outgroup effect. For ingroup members, we make excuses. For members of outgroups, we pour on the venom. Most Americans are repulsed by the idea that we would actually try to understand the “terrorists'” actions by trying the see the world through their eyes. What is that viewpoint? Greenwald offers some ideas:

[T]hey’re responding to American violence in their country; they are traumatized and angry at the continuous deaths of Muslim children and innocent adults; they’ve calculated that striking at Americans is the only way to deter further American aggression in their part of the world.


Category: American Culture, Ingroup/Outgroup, Media

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (8)

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  1. Niklaus Pfirsig says:

    I remember a college English professor pointing out nuances of the language circa King James (a.k.a. “Biblical English”) that are intentionally misinterpreted or ignored by modern Christian leaders.

    One distinction was between the words “you” and “thou”. Most American Christians are taught that “you” was the informal while “thou” implied respect. The professor, who had studied the evolution of the English language, said that “thou” was the common form and “you” actually implied respect.

    There is another distinction in earlier revisions of the KJV concerning the use of various forms of the words “kill” and “slay”. To kill a man was a mortal sin. Enemies. however, were slain. The connotation of slay, slain, slew and slaughter implied the victims animals, and without souls.

    There was a time when the king would literally lead his army to the battlefield. This is where we get the term “leader” applying to the head of state. Of course a lot of kings got killed off this way so they adopted the cowardly strategy of hiding behind their armies instead of standing before them.

    If you try to look at events neutrally, a pattern does emerge.

    Ours are “Freedom Fighters”, theirs are “Fanatics”.

    We support dissident rebels, but oppose insurgents. (look up the meaning of insurgent for this one)

    When one of our soldiers volunteers for a mission where he faces certain death, he is a valorous hero. When the soldier is one of theirs, he’s a suicidal fanatic.

  2. Erich Vieth says:

    Amy Goodman’s comment:

    “The attack has been called tragic, which it surely is. But when Afghans attack U.S. forces, they are called “terrorists.” That is, perhaps, the inconsistency at the core of U.S. policy, that democracy can be delivered through the barrel of a gun, that terrorism can be fought by terrorizing a nation.”


  3. Adam Herman says:

    The problem with Greenwald’s statement is that it makes no sense. It fails basic logic. Attacking Americans brings MORE Americans and American bombs and causes more deaths of Muslims. So he’s basically accusing Afghans of being morons.

  4. Niklaus Pfirsig says:

    Indiscriminate violence is a double edged sword. It cuts both ways.
    Soldiers know they are putting themselves at risk for loss of life and limb when they sign up for service. This is true if the soldier is a marine, an insurgent or a gang-banger in LA. They not only expect a need to defend themselves, but train to fight both defensively and offensively.
    On the other hand, civilians, even in a war zone, have no expectation of being targeted by the enemy if they are not providing material support to their soldiers.

    Especially if they are children.

    We justly condemn Hitler and his inner circle for their systematic attempt to exterminate the Jewish people. The Nazis killed pregnant Jewish women and children because they didn’t want Jewish children growing up to become rebels. When a soldier makes a point of killing entire families, retribution must be expected. A war crime is a war crime and the “It ain’t easy being a soldier” defense is crap.

    Keep in mind that a lot of people volunteer for the service in war time because they want to know what it feels like to kill another person.

  5. Adam Herman says:

    I just wanted to make the point that if we’re going to understand the enemy, we first have to decide whether they are acting rationally or not. One of my primary criticisms of those who seek to understand the enemy is that they attribute irrational motives to our enemies while at the same time considering them rational. It makes no sense.

    If they want us out of their lands, the quickest way to do that is to stop the violence. We’re out of Iraq because Iraq calmed down.

    Now if we want to attribute a rational motive, it’s that they fear a stable Afghanistan where girls can get an education and all the various ethnic groups can have a say in their government. But those who ‘seek to understand’ are preassuming a sympathetic result and don’t like results that reveal just how depraved our enemies are. Which means they don’t really want to understand at all. These same types from a previous generation used to try to understand the Nazis by focusing on their grievances. The end result was to make them seem less threatening and more rational when a true attempt to understand them would have revealed that they were more irrational and evil than most people imagined. I see the same mistake being made in regards to the Taliban and Al Qaeda.

  6. Adam Herman says:

    The Vietnamese had the outside support to hurt the US enough to get us to leave. The Taliban do not have sufficient outside support and are not inflicting nearly enough casualties to create a critical mass of Americans demanding an end to the war. There’s also the big difference in how the Vietnam war pulled in America vs. how we ended up in Afghanistan. If they sought to understand us, they’d know that. Which means that Greenwald could be right about their motives, but obviously wrong in whether those motives make any sense.

    The Taliban will not drive us out the way the Vietnamese did and it’s crazy for them to try. They will never be allowed to return to power even if we do leave, and making sure that doesn’t happen is much easier than stopping Communists from taking over Vietnam.

    I think that what motivates them to fight, much like the Vietnamese Communists, is their ideology. They have to fight because if they lose, Afghanistan will be less pious than they consider acceptable. They are fighting for God.

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