Sun 2 May 2010
At the start of one of my all-time favorite movies, The Ruling Class, actor Harry Andrews as the 13th earl of Gurney returns to his well-groomed estate to relax after a long day of waxing conservative in the House of Lords. While this film should be required viewing for the current British parliamentary campaign, my interest is in the way this revered judge and former soldier relaxes: by dressing in a ballet skirt and jumping off a stool with a silk noose around his neck. Last Friday the New York Times carried a story about Col. David Russell Williams, a Canadian commander of a major air base in the Afghanistan war. He is described as “once among Canada’s most successful military officers,” the automatic pilot for visiting dignitaries, including Prime Minister Harper. Why “once”? Because the colonel on the battlefront against those honor-killing Taliban appears to be a “serial sexual predator.”
Ottawa police arrested Colonel Williams last February in connection with two murders of women, two sexual assaults and numerous break-ins in the Ottawa area “most of which involved lurid sexual details.” The colonel, like the late fictional earl of Gurney, was not satisfied with the apparel provided by the military, but had collected some 500 women’s undergarments. Had he only been conducting one-man panty raids, he would qualify as a pervert, but he is accused of having broken into the home of an air force flight attendant, molesting her and beating her to death, in addition to forcing two women near the Trenton air base in Ontario to strip and be photographed while nude and blindfolded. Sexual perversion and military fame are not, unfortunately, the strange bed fellows we should hope they would be.
My interest in the story, as in the film, is in the irony that levels patriot-fired stereotypes. In the film Peter O’toole evolves from a lovingly crazy Jesus to Jehovah-like Jack the Ripper, a parody on those who tout morals and fall off the stool or crash off the cross. But it is only the tough-talking, mass-despising madness of the proverbial lord of the manor that triumphs in this serious farce. The apparent goal of the current war in Afghan, apart from the feel-good mantra of developing such a poor, war-savaged nation, is to free it from the “medieval” grip of the religiously intolerant Taliban. Had the Taliban not defended Osama Bin Laden, it is doubtful Col. Williams or any Canadian or American troops would now be flying over fields of poppies and trying to avoid roadside bombs. But the Taliban, of course, would still be the poster sect for honor-killings of women taken in adultery or just suspected of infidelity.
Because no one doubts that the Taliban are capable of such honor killings, they are convenient scapegoats, as the following incident suggests:
It was early morning on February 12, 2010, in the village of Khataba near the city of Gardez in Paktiya Province, Afghanistan. A local family was celebrating the birth of a child. Suddenly, gunfire erupted from a nearby rooftop striking two men, two pregnant women, their unborn children and an 18-year old girl. The two men appear to have been killed instantly. The women were injured and reported bled to death because the gunmen would not allow them to be taken to a local hospital. Other family members were forced out of the home and detained. The gunman turned out to be American special operations troops.
Realizing that they had killed seven innocent people, the Americans immediately began to create what would become a series of false stories and fabricated incidents. They would destroy evidence of this potential war crime and ultimately attempt to blame the killings on the Taliban. The killings might well have been accidental, but the cover-up was premeditated, intentional and criminal. It causes one to wonder what other alleged Taliban and al-Qaeda “atrocities” have been manufactured by the Pentagon, and how many other Afghan civilians have been killed by the American military, with the Taliban being falsely blamed. The credibility of the American military is at stake in this case.
In my mind there is nothing honorable about the so-called “honor killings” of those who carry out “medieval” penalties for cultural and inevitably politicized reasons. If the Taliban or any group is wrong to brutally kill women suspected of some dishonorable act, then those who would exploit one wrong by shifting blame for the tragic loss of innocent lives in a military action are also wrong. But the greater irony is not the blame game, the “I-did-not-have-sex-with-that-woman” appeal, but the underlying association of sex and violence. Anyone who balks at the idea of gays in the military should take note of the case of Col. Williams, a rising star whose heterosexual perversion led him to commit murder to cover up his acts. Those who sneer at the callous punishment of groups like the Taliban should think twice before believing every evil thing in Afghanistan is due to their presence.
Americans and Europeans so easily adopt a “clash of civilizations” approach to countries and religions they know very little about. It is a lot easier to believe that unexplained murder of men and women in an Afghan village would result from a Taliban honor killing than to suspect that a respected military man might be a dangerous sexual predator. There is comfort in thinking that Col. Williams is an exception, and in my mind he certainly is. There are thousands of military officers; only a very few ever commit such atrocities. But in dismissing reprehensible acts on our side as aberrations we forget how easy it is to assume that those on the other side are guilty of routine atrocities.
The problem, for any student of human evolution, is in both the pantyhose and the burqa. The Taliban and any cultural or religious sect that blankets women in cloth from head to toe fail to understand that the human sex drive is one of the main reasons we are here and have the ability to think about what it means to have libido. The sexual predator, whether he collects women’s panties or coerces unwanted sexual acts, is as much a prisoner to distorted ideas about human sexuality and gender. In both cases “sex” is only the excuse, because the driving issue is control, the politics of the body that several decades of feminist scholarship have unveiled for any rational person to see in its raw, naked form. Because we fail to honor the body as a natural object, whether one sees it as created by a merciful God or as the product of an extraordinary natural process of adaptation, we fail ourselves as social beings. Neither Col. Williams nor a sexist mullah is really an aberration, given the trajectory of human history; both symbolize the pervasive power of myths that drive people to harm other people. As long as we focus on covering up the body, as though there is something wrong with the body rather than something warped in ways of thinking about the body, we prevent ourselves from uncovering our potential to escape the myths and prejudices that have shaped our collective history.
Daniel Martin Varisco
This commentary has also been posted to History News Network.
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