Stories of atrocity are compelling motives for war. They resonate to the myth of America’s special virtue. Our goodness exists by contrast with the enemy’s evil actions. As the enemy’s image darkens, our self-image shines (by implication). Shades of grey disappear.
Atrocity is a self-certifying story. Its psychological force and narrative function are sufficient both to persuade and to inhibit rebuttal. Its status as fact is presumed. Its verisimilitude is a cultural given. To question its authority is heretical.
It does not matter that stories of atrocity in past wars so often have proven, in retrospect, to be untrustworthy. We believe what we need to believe in the heat of the moment. Moreover, how can we tell that a given story is untrue, that it is mere propaganda? Especially when the story comes to us through the mainstream news media? Our only recourse seemingly is to accept all such stories on faith or reject all of them out of hand. Outright rejection reduces us to an untenable position of sheer cynicism.
A recent story of sexual slavery illustrates the compulsive form of atrocity images. “The leader of the Islamic State personally kept a 26-year-old American woman as a hostage and raped her repeatedly, according to U.S. officials and her family.“ We read further in the Washington Post version of the story that the family of Kayla Mueller was informed by the FBI “that Abu Bakr, the emir of the self-proclaimed Islamic State, had sexually abused their daughter, a humanitarian worker.” She had been “tortured” and “kept as a sex slave.” The FBI “pieced together what happened to the American from interviews with other hostages and the captured wife of a senior Islamic State figure.” This “disclosure” by the FBI “adds to the grim evidence that the exploitation and abuse of women has been sanctioned at the highest levels of the Islamic State. The sexual enslavement of even teenage girls is seen as religiously endorsed by the group and regarded as a recruiting tool.”
Despicable. How else can we feel about such a vile act? The horrible image dominates our feelings and thoughts. It crowds out all other considerations and displaces any reminder of our own bad behavior or reflection on war’s inherent cruelty.
Is this revolting story as factual as it appears? The government is not above lying. The news media are not reliable watchdogs. We simply cannot know the truth of the telling, but we do collectively feel the moral indignation that certifies this lurid account as real and motivates us to support a war on Islamic terror. Even if we do not believe the story, it would be disrespectful to object.
The story of atrocity conveys a horrific image of the Islamic enemy that warrants war over diplomacy on all fronts. The atrocity image extends—not by reason, but by an emotionally charged premise of apparent factuality—to the logic of resisting a nuclear accord with Iran. How can we negotiate with a demonic foe?
Thus, Senator Bob Corker, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, would have us reject a nuclear deal with “the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism.” Iran’s support of dictator Bashar al-Assad and Hezbollah has resulted in a “carnage in Syria” that has “spilled into Iraq as the Islamic State took over large swaths of the country.” The “fanciful” idea of diplomacy, he observes, appeals to American “idealism,” but the reality of the administration’s nuclear deal is that it leaves the US “vulnerable to a resurgent Iran wealthier and more able to work its will in the Middle East.”
Atrocity stifles critical reflection. The obvious choice is war. Given the “fact” of atrocity, one wonders why the US does not use overwhelming military force to eradicate so despicable an enemy. Nothing could feel more logical.