It began long before YouTube showed the world four U.S. Marines urinating on the body of a dead enemy combatant.
In 1994, the civilized world was shocked and horrified by the image of smiling Somalians dragging an American soldier’s body through the streets of Mogadishu.
Warriors have been desecrating corpses of their vanquished enemies since before Achilles dragged Hector's body around the walls of Troy 900 years before the common era. The history of war is packed with accounts of such desecrations, from Achilles to Prince Vlad III, who earned the nickname Vlad the Impaler by covering battlefields with impaled corpses of enemy Turkish soldiers, to the present.
In spite of countless such recent desecrations by Muslims, Islam also recognizes the immorality of such behavior. Abu Bakr, Islam’s first caliph (a civil/religious leader of a Muslim state considered to be a representative of Allah on earth), included in his 7th century rules on battlefield conduct a prohibition against desecrating the bodies of slain enemy fighters.
And throughout history, such warriors have known in their hearts it was wrong.
Article 15 of the First Geneva Convention‘s protocols says, “… Parties to the conflict shall… search for the dead and prevent their being despoiled.”
So it is bewildering that many Americans have justified and even applauded the Marines who urinated on the corpse of a Taliban fighter.
Some - but not all - manipulative rightwing media demagogues have been vigorous in their efforts to justify such behavior by evoking atrocities committed in the modern era by Muslims.
Sean Hannity wrote, “…they [the Taliban] have a long-standing history of brutality so I say it's understandable that those marines would have a natural hatred for those who have killed their fellow marines." Note how Hannity obscured the distinction between hating one’s enemy and acting out in such a crude manner.
Rightwing radio reactionary Michael Savage insisted that the four Marines deserve a medal. He prefaced this by calling Marine Gen. James F. Amos “…a coward,” for ordering an investigation of the incident.
Savage never served in the military.
What is odd is the fact that Savage, a Jew, is so exuberantly ignorant of Jewish law, which explicitly and emphatically prohibits desecration of a dead body (In Hebrew, "nivul hamet"). A dead person's body, since it once housed the holy soul, is to be treated with the utmost respect.
As such, Savage’s ignorance of his own religion’s prohibition is exceeded by his eagerness to flaunt that ignorance before his audience.
In the same ‘savage spirit,’ radio host and fellow traveler Dana Loesch went so far as to applaud the Marines. During the January 12th edition of her show on St. Louis radio station KTFK, Loesch complained about the outrage against the incident, and then declared that she would have urinated on the dead bodies too.
Loesch may or may not be Jewish. Either way, she, like Savage, is unfettered by a sense of decency that is hardly exclusive to Judaism.
Responding to the incident, commentator Pamela Geller wrote. “They [the Taliban] deserve anything they get – except first aid or washing.” Geller is also Jewish.
I'm not sure why I focused on Savage's and Geller's religion. Perhaps I did because as a Jew, it's natural for me to wonder about it, or to distinguish between their behavior and what they should have learned growing up. Maybe I'm simply embarrassed, and see Savage and Geller's behavior as what is known in Yiddish as "a shandah fur die goyim" which means something embarrassing to Jews, where non-Jews observe what becomes an embarrassment to all Jews.
In any case, it's disturbing to see such public figures who either don't know anything about their own religion, or who are willing to abandon Jewish morals and ethics to curry favor by appealing to patriotism's dark side.
Loesch’s comments were so extreme that even Rush Limbaugh won’t defend her. During his radio show, Limbaugh called the actions of the Marines indefensible and admitted that they violated the rules of war, not to mention human decency.
Limbaugh said “Well, there’s a video, nobody knows how old it is, of some U.S. Marines urinating on the bodies of Taliban combatants in Afghanistan. Peed on them. And of course it’s Marines. It violated the rules. There’s no defense of this.”
(When Rush Limbaugh becomes a voice of reason, could the Mayan calendar be right about the end of the world?)
Private citizens also have defended the behavior.
The local newspaper published a letter to the editor that read in part, “…What respect would you have them [the four Marines in the now infamous video] show the vermin that a moment before were trying to destroy them? … I say, “BRAVO MARINES…”
Nevertheless, this sort of behavior is condemned in countless cultures. The fact that it still occurs in those cultures may speak to the flaws of the human condition, but in no way invalidates the correctness of scorning and banning such conduct .
Americans who have been justifying and praising what these four Marines did by evoking the enemy’s barbarism have unwittingly been evoking a common scene from childhood.
Consider two young school boys being escorted by a teacher to the principal’s office for fighting on the playground during recess. As each takes a turn trying to justify fighting, one or both of them is likely to cry out, “Well, he started it.” If the morally absurd nature of this claim is self-evident, evoking the Taliban’s behavior as an excuse for emptying one’s bladder on the lifeless body of an enemy combatant is worse, because now it’s grown-ups crying “He started it!”
For most of its existence, the United States has claimed that the moral high ground is the nation’s proper place among the nations. For much of America’s history, this claim can be justified. Since this vulgar act was committed by four Americans out of more than 300 million, this depraved act should not by itself weaken that claim. Nor does it represent any of the other 200,000 active duty U.S. Marines who had nothing to do with it.
How the Marine Corp and the American people choose to deal with it is a different matter. Will those voices screaming “They started it!” resonate throughout the world? Or will American decency and national self-respect prevail?
When dealing with two children who have been fighting, the adult authority figure was likely to have told them that two wrongs do not make a right.
If the United States is the nation it claims to be, it will show the world that Michael Savage, Dana Loesch and their ilk are headed to the principal's office. But they'll have to wait outside because there are four Marines who have to be dealt with first.
Harold Kushner writes:
I write as someone who volunteered for the military and served as chaplain to a Target Acquisition Battalion. I know something of what soldiers go through, and I agree with every word you write. I understand how tempting it is to take one's frustrations out on the enemy, but also how wrong it is in the eyes of Judaism and basic human decency. I always thought the purpose of civilization was to rein in our all too human temptation to vindictiveness and cruelty, and I am appalled that sensible people don't see that.
Harold S. Kushner is Rabbi Laureate of Temple Israel in Natick, Massachusetts and the author of the best seller When Bad Things Happen to Good People. His other books include The Lord Is My Shepherd, Living a Life That Matters, and How Good Do We Have to Be?