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don’t stop with the fall guy, blame his boss too

March 26, 2012

On March 11th, 2012, U.S. army sergeant Robert Bales made headlines when he went on a killing spree in Kandahr, Afghanistan, killing 17 civilians. In another infamous military tragedy, military personnel working at Abu Ghraib routinely abused, tortured, raped, humiliated, and assaulted prisoners. Once exposed, 11 soldiers had charges brought against them, and a few were sentenced to some jail time. Earlier this year, six Butterball employees and one state agriculture official were arrested on charges of animal cruelty for abusing turkeys in factory farms. Preceding this, in September 2010, Billy Joe Gregg, Jr. received an eight-month prison sentence for savagely beating and torturing cows on Conklin Dairy Farm.

Billy Joe Gregg, Jr. received only an 8-month sentence for heinous acts of abuse against cows

What all of these cases have in common is that a select few abusers took the fall for failed and violent institutions. Unfortunately, their punishments appeased most people, leaving a satisfaction that justice was somehow served or is being served. However, in letting these people take the fall and bear the burden of the guilt, a number of truths are masked and the violence is allowed to continue.

making the ordinary appear extraordinary

These prosecutions distract from the fact that these sorts of actions are normal within these institutions. It is the job of the military to systematically terrorize and kill others. Soldiers must learn to view the subjects of US imperialism as “enemies” and to deindividualize them. In seeing each individual as one and the same, it becomes feasible to kill them. That is what all armed conflict does, it strips the personhood from individuals and makes them a collective enemy so they can be detained, controlled, defeated, and killed. It makes sense that some people, trained to enact violence on others, cannot switch back and forth between when, where, how, and against who it is okay to use violence or to kill.

The cases discussed here were only addressed with symbolic reprimand because they could not be hidden from the public. They were punished not for what they did but for the fact the public found out about it. Rather than changing these institutions to prevent such atrocities, great lengths have been taken to prevent other public exposures. Whistle blowers such as Bradley Manning are punished for sharing military abuses publicly. Ag gag bills are popping up around the country, attempting to make it illegal to conduct undercover investigations on farms. (It was undercover investigations that exposed Conklin and Butterball).

Robert Bales, his trial has not yet commenced for the brutal murder of 17 Afghan civilians

The punishments doled out are tokens intended to appease and pacify us, while thousands of others are paid with or subsidized by our tax dollars to enact similar abuses on a daily basis, leaving billions tortured and murdered every year. Every time you pay your taxes, you pay for the tortured cows at Conklin, the prisoners held without charges and violently abused at Abu Ghraib, the millions of baby boy chickens thrown into grinders at meat packing plants, the environmental degradation of meat production, the murder and starvation of innocent civilians worldwide, and the list goes on. We pay taxes to maintain our privilege but our privilege comes with the exploitation, torture, and murder of others. And the people charged in the above-mentioned cases, are the people we pay to do this since we cannot bear to do it ourselves or to collectively do what it would really take to make it stop. When Abu Ghraib happens or Conklin Dairy Farm footage is released, we are forced to confront ourselves, and what is happening without our consent, but on our behalf.  It is all too easy to accept the punishment of a few workers as a resolution to these problems. But these people are acting normally, within their circumstance.

Gregg was expected to subdue and move animals who weigh hundreds more pounds than he does. When they lie down he cannot move them. If he cannot move them he cannot get paid. His actions are unforgiveable, unexcuseable, unacceptable. However, given his constraints—the violent system in which he is entrenched, the fact that he kills hundreds of innocent beings on a normal day at work—his actions are not surprising. The system must be changed. To change the system, we need to keep our focus on the big picture and not be pacified with his prosecution. The supervisors who let him take the blame, the owners who profit off of mass murder in the first place, and the government who takes our tax dollars to subsidize this horrific industry—these too are the ones who need the be blamed.

Lynndie England only received a 3 year sentence for her role in the humiliation, abuse, and torture at Abu Ghraib

While a few token Butterball employees took the fall for the abuses animals regularly and normally face in the factory farming system, the higher up the chain of command the less blame a person had. While some workers were fired, the government official who tipped the plant off as to when inspections would occur (allowing for these abuses to go unmonitored) received little more than a slap on the wrist (two weeks suspension from work, a year of probation). Then, in a laughable twist, Butterball was actually rewarded for a safe working environment shortly after when five awards for worker safety were handed out by the American Meat Industry. The chickens and turkeys in Butterball plants are the true proletariat, the real working class. In this context, a safety award for protecting workers is beyond laughable.

the villain is a victim

In our fervor to punish these abusers, we also forget that they are victims. In their punishment, their victimhood is erased; further masking the system that instigates these violent acts and benefits the powerful few at the expense of the majority.

Most of these people ended up in their jobs as a result of their disadvantage. (Not all of course—Bales used to be a stockbroker, though being sent on four wartime tours did, arguably, make him a victim). This landed them in these positions to start, and made them particularly vulnerable to the control of their employers and the system that fostered their violence. The US military targets young kids with few opportunities and positions the military as a way out of their neighborhoods, financial worries, and other struggles. It becomes a viable option for steady employment, travel, and education possibilities for those who grow up in circumstances where they are disadvantaged by their families, income, a bad neighborhood, inadequate schools, or mistakes made in their youth. Rich kids are simply less likely to become combat soldiers, or factory farm workers for that matter.

The combat soldier and factory farm worker are at the bottom rung in their industry. They do the hardest, most dangerous, and most violent work—and they take the least pay. They must victimize others for their paycheck, and that can (and should) make a person crazy. They are monsters for what they did, but they alone   are not to blame; we can’t forget that or it will never stop.

the fall-guy

The few who are punished serve as the fall guys to protect those who profit and benefit from these actions. The term scapegoat refers historically to animals who were literally cast out of cities and towns to symbolically carry the sins of the townspeople away. Fall guys are not as innocent as these scapegoats; unlike the scapegoat they did in fact commit horrific vicious unforgiveable acts. However, like the scapegoat, they are straddled with the burdens of others, who will be absolved of their responsibility as soon the fall guy is prosecuted.  That is, unless we demand more than the prosecution of these few individuals.

If you train and pay someone to be a murder, she will be a murderer. If you monetarily reward someone based on his ability to conquer and kill others you will by necessity have someone who embraces violence and murder and who might strive to excel at it. Expecting these lessons to be enacted only when “the boss” says so is asking too much, particularly when there is often no logical justification for or discernable pattern to when and where the boundaries are, beyond the financial interests of a select few in power. “The boss” needs to be held accountable as well. In our hatred of these abusers our sights hone in on the fall guy, the most powerless among the abusers. We focus only on the ones who wielded the sword, not who gave them the weapon, trained them to use it, and placed them into psychologically traumatizing situations.

On another day, Bales might have received a medal for slaughtering human beings. Gree and the Butterball workers probably saw their superiors or coworkers viciously torturing animals as they did. I am not denying that these people have agency, that they are culpable for their violence, that they should not have done what they did, but I am calling attention to the fact that they did these things within systems where their actions were normalized and at times rewarded. We need to attack the system as well as the abuser.

All the abusers mentioned here deserve to be punished. And they deserve to be punished more harshly than they were.  But that is just one screw loose in dismantling the machine of violence and oppression that these industries really are. The punished workers are expendable, unskilled, and replaceable to those in charge. Other workers have filled their place already and some are likely acting as they did. The machine will keep running. We need to remember that these injustices will continue to happen unless we start holding those in power—the ones who get to sit behind a desk and send others to do their killing—are held accountable and punished.

People profit off of a system where lives are rendered into objects, physically and ideologically. Lines are drawn between human and non-human, US-citizen and foreigners. We have constructed the boundaries of nationhood and species as if they are boundaries to our moral and ethical limits of care. However, they only exist to preserve systems of power and capital gain via institutions premised on violence and the success of the few at the expense of many. This system only works if the less privileged masses stay pacified blaming each other for the crimes of the powerful and never demanding that the real villains, the ones who drive this insanity but assume no risk, are held accountable.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. March 27, 2012 6:04 am

    Your post is precisely accurate. I fear that the current (and long entrenched) power structure is simply too well dug in to be easily uprooted. I wish it weren’t true.

    I’ve been reading about holding superiors and those in power responsible for decades (see stories re My Lai Massacre..http://www.historylearningsite.co.uk/my_lai_massacre.htm) and such just does not happen. My Lai occurred 44 years ago…no one with power was even much inconvenienced. Those holding power do not relinquish power or submit to justice unless forced to do so. It is the forcing them to do so that gets messy.

    • March 29, 2012 4:53 pm

      You are completely correct. Even though in the cases I discussed above a few people were held accountable, usually it is all swept under the rug. And it is always treated like an anomaly, even though it is not at all.

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