The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

What perpetual war looks like in America

Law enforcement respond to the mass shooting at  an El Paso shopping center on Aug. 3.
Law enforcement respond to the mass shooting at an El Paso shopping center on Aug. 3. (Joel Angel Juarez/AFP/Getty Images)
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The eyes of the Hooters owl stare at us, as if through large goggles, wide open with shock and horror. In front of the restaurant, men and women in military fatigues, some with helmets, others dressed more provisionally, hurry past, bearing a formidable arsenal of weapons and communications gear. This is what war looks in America, a surreal juxtaposition of familiar logos and brand names and a now all-too-familiar display of police response.

You might not even notice the ambulance in the right of the image because ambulances are now a bit like the Coca-Cola sign of yesteryear, an obligatory signifier of our country, instantly recognizable and ubiquitous. The ambulances in America will always be full because men with guns who spend too much time reading drivel on the Internet will never stop killing us.

For most of our history, wars have involved foreign ideologies and they took place on foreign soil. When we saw images of the war dead from Iraq or Afghanistan, they were surrounded by an architecture that seemed odd, often low-rise buildings made of dun-colored concrete. When a bomb blast tore a hole in the facade of a distant city, we stared into the gaping vacuity at disorderly domestic spaces that were strange and unrecognizable, full of clothes, appliances and shattered dishware that wasn’t like the stuff you find at Walmart.

Now the war has come to Walmart. And Hooters. And Sam’s Club and McDonald’s, and an unnamed but homey looking restaurant that has a $7.99 Lunch Special. If this doesn’t look like war, that’s only because we so reflexively resist the idea of a war on American soil that we refuse to see the obvious.

Are these scattered and occasional attacks? Two of them, in El Paso and Dayton, have happened in less than 24 hours. Are they meaningless acts of criminal rage? In fact, many massacres, carried out with weapons of war, are motivated by a well-developed if incoherent ideology, with its own literature of interconnected manifestos, its own philosophy of politics and history, its own iconography of symbols, and an emerging pantheon for its murderous heroes and martyrs.

Will the image of a dead migrant father and his daughter change a thing?

We tend to look at images of war and disaster with some part of the eye attuned as a tourist is attuned to small details of place. When terrorists took over a shopping mall in Nairobi in 2013, killing more than 60 civilians and wounding hundreds of others, the landscape felt first familiar — an upscale shopping complex — and then increasingly foreign. Motivated by fear, the mind found things to place the tragedy at a remove: The telephones poles were different, the stores and shops had strange names, the cars were smaller and splattered with a foreign hue of mud, and vines and greenery clung to the cinder block walls in a way that wasn’t quite like home.

The eyes entered a landscape of blood and death, but the mind emerged with that strange, dehumanizing consolation: This all happened far away.

War photographers often seek to overcome the otherworldliness of war by focusing on the banal and familiar. The cigarette is a recurring motif of war photography not just because soldiers often smoke, but for the same reason that theater directors use cigarettes onstage: to make things more believable. Familiar props such as cigarettes and water bottles introduce a sense of the ordinary, making the extraordinary just a little bit more accessible.

In 2004, photographer Anja Niedringhaus photographed an American marine in Fullujah, Iraq. Strapped to his back was a G.I. Joe doll, with a military buzz cut and giant, plastic forearms. The doll, a common American plaything, stands in for the soldier himself, whose back is turned as he works his way through a landscape of pockmarked shops, rubble-strewn streets and thickets of electrical and telephone wires.

The gunman who took at least 20 lives in El Paso apparently wrote a statement of his thinking and intent, and it appears that he went to a shopping center because it was a soft target. While his screed is full of rage against heartless corporations and American consumerism, it is, above all, a Malthusian panic about the arrival and incorporation of immigrants into American life. His rage played out among the signs of the corporate menace he feared, in a landscape of consumerism. He explicitly decried the use of too many paper towels, and there in a shopping cart pushed by a woman fleeing the violence, is a plastic-wrapped, jumbo-size pack of Bounty Essentials.

This convergence of our commercial landscape with violence is what the 21st century, ­slow-motion but persistent American war looks like. It also looks like the underside of a child’s school desk, people hiding in closets and wailing into cellphones, SWAT teams in parking lots, nightclubs with overturned bar stools and tables, piles of shoes abandoned outside a bar, and movie theaters soaked in gore. If we have the courage to do what we must do and look at the facts, we will also see that in one essential way, the American war looks like every other war everywhere on the planet, full of bodies riddled with bullets, bloodied, broken and dead.

Our migrant detention centers may be tomorrow’s museum displays

Some wars are over in a day, or a week, and others go on for years. If there are opportunists and profiteers and cynical actors who are willing to fuel the mayhem for a tiny bit of personal or political advantage, then they can go on for decades. If war takes root in a society slowly, or by stealth, it can come to seem the ordinary state of affairs.

And if you can’t see it, if every image seems to be a dissonant, a one-time-only disruption of a ­generic landscape, then it can go on forever.

In 1945, the German photographer Richard Peter climbed the tower of Dresden’s city hall and photographed the ruins of a once magnificent city. In the foreground of this decimated landscape, he placed one of the tower’s sandstone statues that had, somehow, miraculously survived the Allied fire bombing. It is August Schreitmueller’s “Allegory of Goodness,” one of 16 figures representing the essential virtues carved in the early 20th century, though in a style that suggests it had stood there for centuries. The statue seems to look down helplessly, with arms outstretched, at an endless sea of destruction below.

The destruction of Dresden would not have happened but for an ideology of hate that demonized the Other. The deaths in El Paso would not have happened but for an ideology of hate that demonized the Other. It is strange that it would be the Hooters owl that symbolizes the tragic absurdity of our society, unwilling to confront either the motives or the means of our now everyday mass murder.

The bird may not be an allegory of goodness, or mercy, love or prudence, but owls are wise, and this one has its eyes open.