The Pageantry of Annihilation as Entertainment
On this, July 4th, 2020, as the 45th President of the United States prepares to gleefully disregard all public health guidelines in celebrating July 4th at Mt. Rushmore with fireworks, warplane flyovers, and no social distancing, I pause to reflect on this holiday, it’s signifier fireworks, literally symbolic of bombs bursting in air, and to reflect for a moment on what it means when a country routinely displays the pageantry of annihilation as entertainment.
I lived in Beirut with my wife in 2001, where the Israeli army routinely engaged in show-of-force flyovers, breaking the sound barrier over the city, and laying down a thunderous sound wave across the city. The first several times this happened I didn’t hear it, because I couldn’t comprehend its existence. It literally was unreal for me. I attributed it to something else mentally. An explosion, a car back-firing, etc. This is something that our bodies do. We plug whatever happens into our existing reality framework. It is called, in psychological parlance, defensive exclusion. It happened again, in a different context, when we moved to California and began living through earthquakes. Later people would ask me if I’d felt them. No, I hadn’t. It was a truck rumbling through, or something else. I didn’t choose to not hear them. There was no intent involved. It was a bodily defense against this knowing. Only when we endured a high magnitude quake that lasted 30 seconds, woke me up, and shook me and my wife almost out of our bed, as we held one another, did I actually feel an earthquake. When I felt it, finally, and my body awoke to what was actually happening, my heart set off in my chest racing.
This is the protective capacity of the unconscious, at work, to shield us from what we refuse to know. When I finally heard an Israeli flyover, in Beirut, it scared the living shit out of me. This is what the flyovers are designed to do. Perhaps there is an equivalent sound in nature: the roar of a flood coming down a valley? A tornado? It is unmistakably the song of death. These reapers flying over, just to remind us of Israeli air dominance, were flying American planes, built in the United States, and paid for by US taxpayers. The planes were F-15s: twin-engine, supersonic, all-weather, carrier-capable, multirole combat jets, designed as both fighter and attack aircraft, and built in St. Louis, my childhood home, by aerospace company McDonnell Douglas. McDonnell Douglas also built the F/A-18 Hornet, and when we returned to the United States, and moved to San Francisco, we had the opportunity to closely encounter those warplanes, when they moved at sub-attack speed, in formation, lazily across, over, and around the city during Fleet Week, laying down a carpet of sound, that was, by comparison to the flyovers in Beirut, almost like a purring noise.
Psychologically, having been on the business end of one of those planes when it flew over Beirut in excess of 780 miles per hour, I found it difficult to relax when a squadron of these planes was moving at sub-attack speed a mere several hundred feet above the houses of the city. This demonstration, I will confess to you, after having lived in Beirut, seemed in fact insane. In order to enjoy Fleet Week, I would propose to you, you must be a person who has never had the annihilating force of this aircraft directed at you or anyone you know or love. For the many families who brought their small children to Alamo Square Park to watch the ‘pretty airplanes’, we witnessed the indoctrination into violence that being a ‘good American citizen’ entails. Blond children perched on daddy’s shoulders, licking a popsicle, staring at warplanes. Again, the pageantry of annihilation disguised as entertainment, hidden in plain view, just like White Supremacy.
To cozy up to a threat: to take a selfie with warplanes over your shoulder. This is White Supremacy. If you are reading this, and you happen to be white, I encourage you to savor this image, because it will help you understand yourselves (ourselves). You can imagine, perhaps, though we call them the Blue Angels, that the true purpose of a warplane might not be flying in formation for the purpose of entertaining children with sweets. You can imagine how, from the receiving end of their destructive force, Angels might not be the honorific you would employ in describing them. They are not raining down trumpets and light. You can imagine, perhaps, how someone might find it horrifying to see you cozied up with an engine of destruction, the glibness with which you show your small children these ‘pretty airplanes.’
In August of 1982, the Israeli army obliterated down-town Beirut, utilizing American F-15s built in my ancestral hometown. Mahmoud Darwish, the Palestinian poet, reminds us of the actual function of those planes:
Three o’clock. Daybreak riding on fire. A nightmare coming from the sea. Roosters made of metal. Smoke. Metal preparing a feast for metal the master, and a dawn that flares up in all the senses before it breaks. A roaring that chases me out of bed and throws me into this narrow hallway. I want nothing, and I hope for nothing. I can’t direct my limbs in this pandemonium. No time for caution, and no time for time. If I only knew–If I knew how to organize the crush of this death that keeps pouring forth…The fever of metal is the song of this dawn, now transforming the sea into one of the fountainheads of hell.
If you ever, once, for even a moment in your life, were facing the business end of one of those machines, you WOULD NEVER TAKE YOUR CHILDREN OUT TO WATCH THEM! It would be FAR TOO TRAUMATIZING. Do I sound angry? Do you detect, gentle reader, ANGER IN MY VOICE? My staid, dispassionate, narratorial voice? My dignified, neutral, academic voice?
When you take a selfie with a warplane over your shoulder, if you do not understand what a warplane means, it is because you identify solely with the role of being defended by those planes. This makes you extremely naive. It makes you naive because you built those planes to destroy someone else’s life, and anytime you destroy someone else’s life, you create the karmic conditions, the ripeness, for the destruction of your own. THE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES JUST USED DISPLAY OF FORCE TACTICS ON PEACEFUL PROTESTORS IN THE UNITED STATES. You never guarantee your safety through a display of overwhelming force: you ensure your lack of safety. This is a basic law of Nature.
President Trump is a bully. A little boy who has ejected all of the tender parts of himself. The gated community you build doesn’t keep out strangers, it estranges you from the parts of yourself that are unknown. It prevents you from becoming human. The world is a mirror. As above, so below. We who would stand with the backdrop of warplanes, the backdrop of police cars, we who would understand ourselves only as the ones protected by these institutions, these machines, we are exhibiting the fatal failure of empathy that threatens to destroy this young country before it ever becomes mature. Our mentor John Stokes points out that the scariest words for Americans to hear should be, “What goes around comes around.”