When I hear many Americans discussing the appropriate contexts for the use of deadly force, I have noticed that there are some pretty key assumptions underlying the discussion that rarely--if ever--get examined. While I don't want to get into the chicken-egg question of which causes which, I would suggest that popular entertainment may give us a useful window onto some important fallacies.
Although I believe in peace as a way of life, I confess that I enjoy a shoot-em-up thriller as much as the next red-blooded American. The 1994 movie "True Lies" with Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jamie Lee Curtis, and Tom Arnold is a fun, and funny, example of the genre. Although it goes way over the top (come on, even Arnold S. couldn't avoid being sucked into the intakes of a hovering Harrier in the final fight scene), it also presented an interesting window into the popular perception of the violent hero.
For those who haven't seen the movie, the hero (Schwarzenegger) is a secret operative with a computer-salesman cover, and his wife (Curtis) has no clue of his real job till a scene when they are both in the middle of a firefight. Curtis' character is understandably freaked out, and at one point asks her husband "Did you ever kill anyone?" His answer, in that inimitable Terminator accent "Yeah, but they were all bad."
It goes even deeper with the novels of Tom Clancy--undoubtedly one of the best writers of gripping international warfare and subterfuge novels today. From "Hunt for Red October" on, the Jack Ryan series has made a ton of money on paper and film, all the while perpetuating the notion of American clandestine operations that are clearly always in the right and usually close to omnipotent. But the most telling dialog I remember in any of the Ryan series, comes from CIA agent John Clark. I'm sorry I don't remember if this was in "Clear and Present Danger" or "The Sum of All Fears," but I believe it was one of the two. Clark is a gritty character, who is often called upon to do the dirty work. He has no apparent compunctions about his task, and in fact says on several occasions that he does the things others would see as criminal, such as assassinations, kidnappings, dealings with "bad guys," because that is what is necessary to preserve the freedom of the rest of us to care about right and wrong.
This is not a unique feeling--we've heard it countless times from the Bush/Cheney administration over the past eight years in phrases like "taking the gloves off" and "preserving our freedom" in the "War on Terror." (btw, how do you declare war on fear? That name has always been disingenuous in my opinion) Consider this quote from Cheney ("Meet the Press" interview with Tim Russert, September 16, 2001):
We also have to work, though, sort of the dark side, if you will. We've got to spend time in the shadows in the intelligence world. A lot of what needs to be done here will have to be done quietly, without any discussion, using sources and methods that are available to our intelligence agencies, if we're going to be successful. That's the world these folks operate in, and so it's going to be vital for us to use any means at our disposal, basically, to achieve our objective.
The vital point that we must recognize is that most discussions defending the use of violence presuppose that "our side" is good, we know who the "enemy" is, that "enemy" is unequivocally "bad," and that the violence being contemplated or defended will either cow the enemy into submission or, by eliminating him, eliminate the problem. How can anyone object to killing "bad" people to "preserve the freedom" of "good" people?
Of course the real world isn't as simple as a Hollywood movie or a suspense-thriller novel. We don't have an omniscient narrator setting up the story of all the evil things we--the readers/viewers--can know which prove how bad the bad guys are. We are actors in the play, and we don't know (completely) who's good, who's bad, and how either will respond to our actions. Furthermore, in the fantasy world of our entertainment, collateral damage and suffering of innocent bystanders only happens when the callous "bad guys" do their thing, never when the "good guys" get the "bad guys."
Yet it is precisely these fantasies that seem to me to propel so much of the popular culture's support for war. . .at least until reality sets in some thousands of casualties later. And the notion that anyone, anywhere in the world, might see us as the "bad" actors, is utterly incomprehensible for far too many.
We cannot have a rational discussion about the use of force, if our perception of reality has more in common with our entertainment than it does with living, bleeding humanity.