Today, as I read the news, I am reflecting upon a phrase we have all heard used many times by America's leaders: "own people". Its usage usually runs something like this: "Saddam Hussein killed thousands of his own people!"
Expressions of outrage about what Saddam Hussein did to "his own people" ran rampant through the American media in the months leading up to the American invasion and occupation of Iraq. Every time I heard the phrase "his own people" being used, I wondered why it was being used. I guess the underlying, always unspoken, idea was that Saddam Hussein was an especially bad man because, not only did he do bad things, but he did them to "his own people." The obvious implication of this is that it's not so bad when you do awful things to people, so long as they are somebody else's people.
The conservative Americans who use this phrase "own people" apparently have a basic world view that divides humanity into OUR PEOPLE and SOMEBODY ELSE'S PEOPLE. In this worldview, OUR PEOPLE are generally understood to be more worthy of protection and decent treatment than SOMEBODY ELSE'S PEOPLE. To these conservatives, Saddam Hussein was supposed to be really awful because he broke this unspoken code of protecting your "own people" in preference to anybody else. To them, the American invasion and occupation of Iraq is okay, even though it resulted in the killing of over 100,000 Iraqis, because the Iraqis are not "our own people" and so are worthy of less consideration than "our own people".
(Of course, none of "our own people" had been so much as scratched by the Iraqis before the invasion of Iraq, but the conservatives liked to pretend that there was an imminent threat from the Iraqis to "our own people".)
What brings this "own people" idea back to me is a little item in today's news that did not make it to "our own" front page. It seems that yesterday, six Iraqis were found, lined up and executed, their bodies left lined on the ground as a warning. They were killed by "their own people" - other Iraqis.
You see, as part of the American invasion and occupation of Iraq, the American military is teaching some Iraqis to become "security forces". It's the job of those Iraqis to go around and kill "their own people" when those people defy the will of the United States. In turn, some other Iraqis have decided to kill the Iraqis in the "security forces" in retaliation, even though they are "their own people." So, under American authority, Iraqis are busy killing "their own people" even though we said we were invading the country in order to prevent Iraqis from killing "their own people."
It doesn't make sense. Yet, across the world, the "our people" ideology continues to gain ground. Particularly here in the United States, nationalism is becoming increasingly dominant, with the ideal of a melting pot replaced by a vision of a Homeland protected from everybody else in the world.
What would make a great deal more sense would be for Iraqis, Americans, Afghans, Germans, South Africans, Russians, Kuwaitis, Malays, Inuits, Hutus, Tutsis, Brazilians, Basques, Turks, Jews, Mexicans, Ivorians, Lapps, and everyone else on the face of the Earth to stop spending so much energy trying to figure out who "their own people" are. What would make sense is for the people of the Earth to realize that all human beings are "our people".
Aren't we a little too old for tribes? The fate of everyone on the planet is connected, and we have much greater problems to deal with than who has who's oil, or who has who's land, or who has who's water. There are more than six billion of us now, and if we are to survive, we had better learn how to share.
We can't afford a world any longer where "our people" get to make and use nuclear weapons, but "their people" cannot, or where "our people" get to reap the profits of free trade, but "their people" have to shoulder the hardest work.
Their people are our people. Our people are their people. Whenever we kill other human beings, we are killing our own people.
Until we start treating all people as our people, we will always have the anger of their people to fear.
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