When Mark Danner wrote about the El Mozote Massacre in El Salvador that occurred way back in 1981, he included an anecdote that has stuck with me over the years. The El Mozote massacre in many ways compares in its horror to the recent attacks in Paris—although there were many more killed. By some estimates, the numbers easily quadruple the deaths in Paris. Somewhere between 730 and 800 civilians were slaughtered. But as in Paris, those who were murdered were innocent victims, not carrying arms or in uniform, merely going about their daily lives, hardly understanding how they would soon become fodder for America’s proxy war against Communism in El Salvador. As in Paris, the attacks were spread out over the entire village center, not just one family or one target. As in Paris, weapons included grenades and machine guns. As in Paris, the victims were going about their everyday life with no hint as to what would come although everyone knew that a low level war was going on, they didn’t think they’d be affected, at least not so violently, nor so soon.
In El Mozote, the villagers were rounded up and men were separated from women and children. The women were systematically raped and then shot; the men were shot out right. This took place over the course of one night. Such violence had become almost banal in the annals of the El Salvadoran war but El Mozote stood out because of its scale. And there was one other thing that Mark Danner caught in his description of the massacre for the New Yorker Magazine, an anecdote I still cannot shake.
There was a girl who had been raped many times during the course of the afternoon, and “through it all, while the other women of El Mozote had screamed and cried as if they had never had a man, this girl had sung hymns, strange evangelical songs, and she had kept right on singing, too, even after they had done what had to be done, and shot her in the chest. She had lain there on La Cruz with the blood flowing from her chest, and had kept on singing — a bit weaker than before, but still singing. And the soldiers, stupefied, had watched and pointed. Then they had grown tired of the game and shot her again, and she sang still, and their wonder began to turn to fear — until finally they had unsheathed their machetes and hacked through her neck, and at last the singing had stopped.
Now the soldiers argued about this. Some declared that the girl’s strange power proved that God existed. And that brought them back to the killing of the children.
‘There were a lot of differences among the soldiers about whether this had been a good thing or whether they shouldn’t have done it,’ the guide told me.”
One wonders at the nuances of such a debate.
Paris is not alone, of course. Just two days ago, two ISIS suicide bombers killed at least 43 people and wounded more than 230 in attacks on a heavily Shia Muslim community in Beirut. But there the victims of the ISIS attacks were characterized in the U.S. media as Hezbollah human shields and blamed for their own deaths based on the unfortunate coincidence of their geographical location. Some right-wing pundits even went so far as to justify the ISIS attacks because they were assumed to be aimed at Hezbollah.
There was also an ISIS massacre in Turkey in October of this year that left approximately 128 people dead and 500 injured at a peaceful rally for a pro-Kurdish political party. Also, just this last September, our Saudi-led coalition bombed a Yemeni wedding killing 131 civilians, including 80 women.
Massacres are not news. Our bearing witness to massacres that we find especially piquant for whatever reason is news. Not that Paris isn’t horrific: it is. But so is a slaughtered wedding party in Yemen, so is 128 deaths in Turkey and the killing of innocents in Beirut. So is the massacre at El Mozote.
At the time of the atrocious 9/11 attacks, al-Qaeda was a relatively small and isolated group. Middle Eastern expert, Dr. Juan Cole characterized them as minor players, hardly global threats, barely tribal threats. But the U.S.-led war and occupation of Iraq created conditions that allowed al-Qaeda to grow and metastasize, spreading from one militarized war zone to the next. ISIS grew out of the smoldering ruins of our petite bete, our sectarian plagued civil war in Iraq. Some of its key militants are ex-Baathists Sunnis from Saddam Hussein’s regime who were essentially disbanded and dis-empowered at the order of Donald Rumsfeld under the Bush administration. That’s why they are militarily effective. According to Foreign Affairs, “The Islamic State’s current leader, the self-proclaimed caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, spent time in U.S.-run prisons in Iraq. Cells organized in them, along with remnants of Saddam Hussein’s ousted secular-nationalist Ba’ath party, make up some of the Islamic State’s ranks.” Their feverish devotion to a rigid strain of Sunni Islam we can thank Saudi Arabia for—from which much of the funding also comes.
But how can we stop them? Well, we might try not paying them anymore, by cutting off their funding source. Reports out of Syria claim the ISIS militants are some of the best paid fighters in the region, earning $350 a month, a good pay for the area and their funding comes principally from Saudi sympathizers and oil sales. A recent issue of Foreign Affairs magazine notes that “Oil extraction constitutes the Islamic State’s largest source of income. The group is estimated to produce forty-four thousand barrels a day from Syrian wells and four thousand barrels a day from Iraqi ones. The group then sells the crude to truckers and middlemen, netting an estimated $1 to $3 million a day.”
The outcry against the attacks in Paris have been universal. I, too, condemn the senseless brutality, but in particular I like Charlie Hebdo’s response to the ISIS brutality (and, after all, that organization is well acquainted with the cruelty of such monstrous violence)… The magazine writes, “Paris is our capital. We love music, drunkenness, joy. For centuries lovers of death have tried to make us lose life’s flavour….
They never succeed.”
Tonight I am going to In Light at the Virginia Museum to celebrate art, life and beauty in a way a Parisian might. Or even an El Salvadoran girl might, one who died singing her last song of praise. The El Salvadoran soldiers argued that somehow “the girl’s strange power proved that God existed.”
Maybe so, maybe not, but as Charlie Hebdo puts it,
“Lovers of death, if God exists, he hates you. And you have already lost, both in heaven and on Earth.”