Victims and Rescuers as Rivals

Reading two unrelated articles — one, Death on the CNN Curve (NYT, July 1995), about the rescue of Jessica McClure from the well she fell into in 1987 and its aftermath (which I will write more about later), the other, Two Views on Mideast Peace: A Tragic Struggle by Amos Oz (NYRoB, Sept 2010), about conflict between Israel and the Palestinians — I can’t help but notice the similarity, the two-sides-of-the-same-coin quality of the rivalry:

From the story about Jessica McClure:

“I first met Robert O’Donnell [the man who crawled down to get her] when things were starting to get ugly. The earliest, most visible sign that the euphoria was crumbling came in early spring, when the rescuers, tantalized by competing offers from movie producers, formed two rival associations. One, called the McClure Rescue Association, was made up of public employees including O’Donnell, who was the president, Steve Forbes, and the chiefs of the fire and police departments. The other, the Jessica McClure Rescuers’ Association, was made up of 37 volunteers, the ones who brought the equipment and the brute strength to the operation. Each group had its own set of bylaws, with rules about what percentage of the vote was required to admit a new member, and what percentage of any eventual profits the various members would get. Each also had its own lawyer. And each agreed on three things: that it was a shame that they had to fight like this, that their group’s story was the story and that they were interested only in the quality of the movie; it was the others, they said, who were interested only in the money.”

O’Donnell said:

“‘I hate to see it split the rescuers like this. But our story is the real story — we were the major players. I want the best movie.'”

 

From Oz’s article:

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a tragic struggle between two victims of Europe the Arabs were the victims of imperialism, colonialism, repression, and humiliation. The Jews were the victims of discrimination, persecution, and finally of a genocide without parallel in history. On the face of it, two victims, especially two victims of the same oppressor, should become brothers. But the truth, both when it comes to individuals and when it comes to countries, is that some of the worst fights break out between two victims of the same oppressor. The two sons of an abusive father will each see in his brother the face of his cruel father. And this is the case with the Jews and the Arabs — each of us sees the other in the image of the former oppressor. The Arabs look at Jewish Israel and do not see it as it really is — a half-hysterical refugee camp. Instead, they see it as the long, arrogant, oppressive, and exploitative arm of European colonialism. We Jews look at the Arabs and instead of seeing them as our fellow sufferers, we see the persecutors of our past — the Cossacks, the antisemites. Nazis who grew moustaches and got suntanned, but who are still eager to slaughter us.”

In both cases, each side sees the other as wrong and themselves as right; each makes the same accusation against the other that the other makes against them.  In both cases, the two groups are groups of similars: all rescuers of the same girl in the first case, and all victims of the same perceived oppressor in the second. The opposing sides are twins of a sort, “brothers” as Oz calls them, and their similarity and lack of differentiation is the very thing, according to Rene Girard, that makes them antagonistic to the other. In Violence and the Sacred, Girard writes:

“The unity and reciprocity that the enemy brothers have rejected in the benign form of brotherly love finally impose themselves, both from without and within, in the form of monstrous duality. … In the collective experience of the monstrous double the differences are not eliminated, but muddied and confused. All the doubles are interchangeable, although their basic similarity is never formally acknowledged.  … The  monstrous double is … to be found wherever we encounter an ‘I’ and an ‘Other’ caught up in a constant interchange of differences.”

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