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Red-Carding in Ramadi
Murder on a Football Field

One moment you’re playing football with your neighborhood friends. The next, cars pull up, gunmen get out, single you out, drag you back to their car. You trip, you fall, you’re shot dead. So is another of your teammates. Barely twenty years old. Your life is over. Your mother, your father: they’re home, cooking dinner, bickering about some idiotic leak under the sink in the kitchen or cursing the latest power outage. It doesn’t take long for the news to make it home. News travels fastest in second- and third-world societies, where social bonds are stronger conduits of information than cell phones and emails could ever be, miserable news especially.

Back at the field the gunman warns the rest: this is the fate of collaborators. And so it is. It’s the by-product of every war, admired in some as heroic or necessary resistance, despised in others as naked savagery. Either way, it’s murder: the summary execution of individuals who may or may not have been involved in whatever their accuser says they were, but who never got a chance to plead their case. The difference between summary executions of the sort and the more formal killings of wartime is made to seem bigger than it is. In the end all killing short of the absolutely self-defensive kind is a variation on execution, whether the killer wears a uniform or not, whether the killer is fighting a just war or not. The war may be just, the individual kill most certainly never is: a distinction lost on those so fond of quoting St. Augustine on the matter: “A just war is wont to be described as one that avenges wrongs, when a nation or state has to be punished, for refusing to make amends for the wrongs inflicted by its subjects, or to restore what it has seized unjustly,” he writes. Lines that apply neither to the Bush invasion of Iraq, nor to what that invasion keeps inflicting on Iraqi society.

The murder of the football player described above happened today in Ramadi, the current capital of the Iraqi insurgency. It was just reported in the United States, along with news, and an ominous picture, of the capture of government employees of the Interior Ministry, now held at al-Qaeda gunpoint somewhere between what remains of their life and almost certain death. The impulse is to term it all naked savagery, which it is. But let’s not forget who and what brought it about, who enabled it, who enables it still. There’s a point where blaming the American invasion for ridding Iraq of Saddam Hussein can seem supremely offensive: instinctively, it should seem never wrong to see a tyrant finally ripped from the subjects he’s enslaved, and punished for it. But the instinctive in this case has long ago been outstripped by the obvious. Saddam’s absolutist tyranny has been replaced by a tyranny of the random, the anarchic, the Hobbesian, a tyranny of moments and places when something as innocuous as a football game in a neighborhood field can turn into a murderous spree, and no way out. Life, for many in Iraq, like those football players, has been rendered nasty, brutish and short. There’s nothing just about it. No rationale, no bigger picture. There’s merely an ongoing crime. The football field murderers were complicit. They weren’t its mastermind.

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