LONDON — Reading some of the recent media coverage, you could be forgiven for thinking that many Africans inhabit a parallel moral universe, governed by no civilized rules, where hacking off your neighbor's limbs is a common form of intimidation and control.
Many in the Western media appear to have abandoned any attempt to provide a political or social analysis of the tensions in West Africa. Instead, they have opted for psychologizing to find out what makes people do such terrible things, and moral handwringing about "the evil that men do."
In the process, we have dehumanized Africans - depicting them as irrational creatures driven by forces beyond our comprehension, for whom the only hope is outside intervention.
News reports tell us that the violence in Liberia is "senseless." When rebels renewed their assault on the capital, Monrovia, toward the end of July, US Ambassador John Blaney condemned it as "senseless violence." A senseless action is one "without sense or meaning; unmeaning, meaningless, purposeless." Perhaps it is futile to try to understand events in West Africa, if they are devoid of meaning.
According to the New Zealand Herald, the recent "battle for the bridges," in which rebels tried to seize control of three bridges around Monrovia, was a "senseless, tragi-comic farce," where fighters high on "moonshine and marijuana" were "roaring insults and randomly spraying bullets." But winning bridges is key in all territorial wars, as it was for coalition forces in Iraq. Why should it be senseless when Liberians do it?
If events in West Africa are "senseless violence," then those executing such acts must be irrational. Indeed, referring to the violence in Sierra Leone in the late 1990s, an Irish government minister recently commented: "There was no reason; it was just a type of bloodlust." Last month, under the heading "They're so crazy," the BBC reported a fleeing Frenchman's analysis of the Liberian conflict: "I was very frightened because the people ... they are so crazy."
Many media reports focus on the primative forms of killing sometimes used in West Africa's conflicts. They tell us that rebels in Sierra Leone, allegedly backed by Liberian President Charles Taylor, "hacked off civilians' limbs." They were a "murderous rabble" that cut off "arms, legs, lips and ears with machetes and axes." West Africans even allow their children to take part in such barbarous acts. As a Guardian report from Liberia put it on Aug. 4: "The children of Jungle Fire go into battle - on a diet of drugs."
Amid all this apparently incomprehensible violence, it is little wonder that an American journalist recently asked: "What is it about Africa that seems to defy any kind of modern governance or civilized behavior?" For some, including liberal commentator Arianna Huffington, the answer is that, in West Africa, there exists "true evil," which stalks the continent's "hearts of darkness, riven by mutilation and rape."
How inhumane. In the place of political or social investigation, we get moral condemnation and barely concealed contempt. None of these commentators stops to think that perhaps even the worst instances of conflict and violence in West Africa could be explained in rational terms.
Perhaps these are political clashes over territory and resources, in a part of the world where intervention by British, French, and American forces has sown rivalry between groups and often exacerbated tensions. Perhaps the horrifying primative killings are a result of the fact that poverty-stricken West Africans often use old-fashioned weaponry, like knives and machetes, which involves getting close to their victims; that they lack the West's "civilized" methods of killing great numbers from a distance of thousands of miles.
And perhaps the use of child soldiers, which so offends our Western sensibilities, makes sense in a part of the world where childhood is short and where adult responsibilities come early; where some as young as 10 are expected to provide for their families and to play a social role beyond their years.
I know one thing - I would far rather take my chances with those explanations than buy into the notion that West Africans are senseless automatons, driven to murder their neighbors by "true evil" and other irrational forces.
However bad it gets in West Africa, we would do well to recall the words written by the Roman playwright Terence over 2,000 years ago: "I am human, and let nothing human be alien to me."
• Brendan O'Neill is assistant editor of spiked-online.com.