Pepe Escobar from Asia Times Online is back in Baghdad. He's in a car with two other Iraqi journalists.
There's a checkpoint ahead. Incoming traffic has to slow down in front of a Hummer of the Iraqi Defense Forces. A soldier is talking to the driver of a van. Suddenly there is a shot. The soldier falls to the ground, right before our eyes, screaming in pain. He is not dead instantly. His companion, by the Hummer, takes some time to react, then also starts shooting. People duck in their cars; general wisdom is that if these were US troops, they would be shooting at random and every car would be sprayed with bullets.
With Escobar's account, one is light years away from the kind of being Heidegger chooses to discuss in Being and Time or its companion piece, "The Fundamental Question of Metaphysics" in Introduction to Metaphysics (trans. Fried and Polt), Yale, 2000. The first line of the latter is "Why are there beings at all instead of nothing?" Under what circumstances is a question like that going to arise? Shall we assume that the checkpoint scene described by Escobar is one where such a question not only would not be asked, but would be regarded as perverse?
Heidegger worries a lot about the claim that philosophy, in general, is useless, and that his philosophizing, in particular, exaggerates and intensifies this uselessness. Here's an instance of his reaction to such a charge:
Everything that reaches us and that we reach out for goes through the spoken or unspoken "it is." That this is the case -- from that fact we can nowhere and never escape. The "is" remains known to us in all its obvious and concealed inflections. And yet, as soon as this word "being" strikes our ear, we assert that we cannot imagine what falls under the term, that we cannot be thinking of anything when using it.
Presumably this hasty conclusion is correct; it justifies our being annoyed at talk -- not to say idle talk -- about "being," so annoyed that "being" becomes a laughingstock. Without giving thought to being, without recollecting a path to it, one has the presumption to make oneself the court that decides whether the word "being" speaks or not. Hardly anyone takes offense anymore at having thoughtlessness in this way elevated to a principle. ("Kant's Thesis about Being" in Pathmarks, ed. William McNeill, Cambridge, 1998, p. 337.)
And yet when Heidegger provides examples of being, he is quite constrained. For someone who believes that death is the real horizon of being that makes time possible, his examples are decidedly angst-ish. Is that because scenes like Escobar's are too "busy" to be dealing with being? Better to reserve recollecting a path to being when one is bored, or when one is having trouble deciding between scratching one's nose or saving the world. "Why are there beings at all instead of nothing?" is a question that comes up, Heidegger says,
In great despair, for example, when all weight tends to dwindle away from things and the sense of things grows dark, the question looms. Perhaps it strikes only once, like the muffled tolling of a bell that resounds into Dasein and gradually fades away. The question is there in heartfelt joy, for then all things are transformed and surround us as if for the first time, as if it were easier to grasp that they were not, rather than that they are, and are as they are. The question is there in a spell of boredom, when we are equally distant from despair and joy, but when the stubborn ordinariness of beings lays open a wasteland in which it makes no difference to us whether beings are or not -- and then, in a distinctive form, the question resonates once again: Why are there beings at all instead of nothing? ("The Fundamental Question of Metaphysics," pp. 1-2.)
And yet in a certain sense the question of "being" is more radically posed in Escobar's checkpoint experience. A shot rings out, but the soldier "is not dead instantly." His colleague is shot, but the other soldier "takes some time to react" because the suddenness of the threat to being is unexpected. The question of being is pushed away in the midst of an immediate threat to being. But not to worry. Perhaps while everyone is so busy securing being the question of it is bracketed, but in fact the challenge to being presented by these experiences will return to demand a hearing.
The hundreds of thousands of Iraqis killed since April 2003, the more than 4 million exiled and internally displaced, the overlapping ethnic cleansing neighborhood by neighborhood, the abysmal impotence of the Nuri al-Maliki government to seriously work with the Sunni Arab elite, the American imposition of the Baghdad gulag: all these factors dissolve in the deadly embrace of the Red Zone -- where a human life means absolutely nothing and to stay alive in one piece is a victory to be earned minute by minute. The Red Zone soundtrack is the hum of the power generator, punctuated by Kalashnikov shots, explosions, bombings, the sirens of police cars and ambulances and the roar of US choppers flying almost at roof level. The air is heavy, dusty, and the sun usually does not shine through the thick haze -- a Hollywood-like special effect. The Baghdad gulag has the feel of an eerie version of post-apocalyptic Los Angeles -- dusty and dead instead of glitzy palm trees, living-dead characters covered by a thick layer of sand and soot. The urban tissue is of a dissected cadaver -- filthy, exposed parts separated from one another, fear and loathing impressed on blood, sweat, tears and viscera. This is the real face of Bush's surgeland.