Editor's note: This article is the opinion of the writer and not necessarily of the paper.
News of the killing of Iranian top Military Commander Qasem Soleimani in a U.S. airstrike three days into the new year sent war trepidation throughout the nation. In the age of social media, this apprehension led memes under hashtags like #WWIII and #WW3 to explode on Twitter.
Though the death left many citizens and experts around the globe speechless, Soleimani — who was widely regarded as a key figure in thwarting the spread of ISIS in Iran — did not go quietly.
Thousands of Iranian people mourned Soleimani’s death during funeral processions on Jan. 7. In a broadcast speech earlier that day, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif labeled the attack as a “stupid mistake by assassinating the greatest commander who stood in the face of terrorism" in the region, and said that Iran would respond in a proportionate matter “against legitimate targets.”
The United States attempted to justify the killing as “self-defense” by employing a classic case of deterrence by escalation. According to the Pentagon, “General Soleimani was actively developing plans to attack American diplomats and service members in Iraq and throughout the region [and] this strike was aimed at deterring future Iranian attack plans.”
Here’s the thing: no justification of what Soleimani has done or may have planned to do will erase the fact that assassinating a foreign leader without just cause is a known war crime. The United States’ “self-defense” argument in the absence of provable imminent danger is simply illogical.
But of course, this back-and-forth about the legality and ethics of Soleimani’s death does not exist in a vacuum.
Following the news of Soleimani’s killing, a flurry of tweets related to a possible war were fired off by worried westerners. One such tweet that received hundreds of thousands of retweets and likes read, “Me in afghanistan when i see a bush move,” accompanied by a video of a child with a (fake) gun simulating rapid, unfocused fire. Other users joked about using mental illness as a way to get out of a draft and about the possibility of being bombed by Iran while joking online about the conflict.
Now, I am not asserting that every post on social media is meant to be taken seriously, nor do I believe that this person had serious malicious intent. Intent does not inherently justify bad decisions.
The counterargument I often come across is that making jokes about tense or traumatic situations is a coping mechanism. Although I am sympathetic to coping, it would be naive to believe that all coping mechanisms are good and equal. If a coping mechanism actively harms oneself or others, it is maladaptive at best, and actively ignorant and dangerous at worst.
Moreover, this potential war would almost certainly not take place on U.S. ground. The United States has been in Iraq since 2003, and we reside on United States soil have been able to continue life mostly uninterrupted while innocent people in the Middle East have had to grapple with the death and poverty as a result of endless war. To put ourselves at the center of this conflict is myopic, and to make jokes about it is devoid of empathy.
Again, I’m not saying that Soleimani was an innocent military leader, nor am I defending his character. By definition, a military leader is responsible for overseeing combat, which results in the deaths of troops (and sometimes civilians) on all sides. That being said, the United States is not innocent, either.
To reiterate a Twitter thread authored by a New York Times reporter Rukmini Callimachi, the chance of an imminent attack on U.S. targets is “razor-thin,” and furthermore, the attack that killed a U.S. contractor and the protests outside the U.S. embassy do not proportionately justify the killing of another sovereign’s leader.
Let me be clear — I am not a foreign policy expert, nor am I claiming to have the answers. The war in Iraq began before I started kindergarten, and I am still learning about its repercussions as the days go on.
What I am saying is that we in the United States should not center ourselves in this potential war conflict, we should think critically about the role of the United States in escalating tensions abroad, and if just for a moment, put ourselves in the shoes of the Iranians.
At the very least, people in the United States can do their part by not perpetuating the xenophobic ideology that those abroad are automatically “bad guys” and by not participating in the facetious trivialization of life and death in the Middle East online via tasteless memes.
Alyssa Martinez is a beat reporter at the Daily Lobo. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @amart4447