Arriving at Inhumanity

Last week, I heard a story on BBC News Hour that I wish I hadn’t. It was about a mass killing in a small village in Guatemala. The incident happened decades ago, though I don’t recall having heard about it before.

The newscaster—in his matter-of-fact tone, with his authoritative British accent—spoke of acts so brutal that I cried as I heard them described, moaned as if I’d been wounded. I had to choke away the visceral emotion because I was driving, but the story shook me up for some time afterward. The magnitude of the violence done to men, women, and children was/is just so incomprehensible. I couldn’t imagine how anyone could come to the place where they could do such unspeakable things.

I’ll give you the (abridged, edited) Wikipedia version. Warning: if you don’t know this story, prepare to be disturbed … don’t read it if you are hyper-sensitive to the suffering of others.

On the 6th of December 1982, during the de facto presidency of General Efraín Ríos Montt, around 250 people – including women, the elderly, and children – were killed in Dos Erres by commandos working as government forces as a part of the government’s “scorched earth” policy.

In the early afternoon, the Kaibiles separated out the children, and began killing them. They bashed the smallest children’s heads against walls and trees, and killed the older ones with sledgehammer blows to the head. Their bodies were dumped in a well. Next, the commandos interrogated the men and women one by one, then shot or bashed them with the hammer, and dumped them in the well. They raped women and girls, and ripped the fetuses out of pregnant women. The massacre continued throughout 7 December. On the morning of 8 December, as the Kaibiles were preparing to leave, another 15 persons, among them children, arrived in the hamlet. With the well already full, they took the newcomers to a location half an hour away, then shot all but two of them. They kept two teenage girls for the next few days, raping them repeatedly and finally strangling them.

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Sorting through the remains in the well at Dos Erres.

 This is such a heart-wrenching story. It’s crushingly sad. I could hear the weeping and the screaming and the pleading of the villagers (especially the children) as they witnessed these horrors and begged not to be killed. Yet the hammer blows were delivered, the bodies mauled, the corpses tossed in the well. One after another, as if they were no more than garbage. The “how could any human being do this to other human beings” question kept gnawing at me as I tried to get those heinous images and (imagined) sounds out of my mind.

Fear, I suppose is the only answer that makes any sense (truthfully, the reality of this incident makes no rational sense, but it happened so I suppose we are forced to analyze it, try to understand it). One assumes this General Montt was a man to be feared. One assumes it was made clear to the soldiers that if they didn’t exterminate everyone they would be killed, maybe their families too. Did they have to use sledgehammers? (As a matter of degree, shooting seems like it would have been a more “humane” style of execution, though still abominable.) Perhaps even the raping was part of the “scorched earth” policy. Or did the soldiers just do that because they could? No one could stop them. No one was going to survive to give testimony.

Of course, as appalling as this incident is, it pales in comparison (in terms of magnitude) to the Rwandan genocide, or the atrocities committed by Europeans against Native Americans, or the systematic extermination of Jews during the holocaust, or the American enslavement of Africans.

How can people do such things to other people?

One of the steps that leads to genocide is the reduction of “the other” to less-than-human status. Give them a name that robs them of humanity: cockroach (against the Tutsi), savage or redskin (against Native Americans), Untermensch or “subhuman” (against Jews), n-word (against enslaved Africans). In Mein Kampf, Hitler called jews “parasites,” he said, “The Jew is a planetary bacillus.”

It’s easier to mistreat or kill a cockroach than a person.

On being “named,” author Ta-Nehisi Coates writes, “And I saw that what divided me from the world was not anything intrinsic to us but the actual injury done by people intent on naming us, intent on believing that what they have named us matters more than anything we could ever actually do.”[i]

Mass killings happen for different reasons in different social and historical contexts but, at the bottom of them all—aside from simple, good-old-fashioned bigotry—is a drive to gain or preserve dominance over land and resources. In other words, it’s about power.

Are you a Hutu who doesn’t want to share political power or scarce resources and economic opportunity with your Tutsi neighbors? All you have to do is slaughter them (800,000 slain in 100 days), so you won’t have to.

http://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-26875506

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Don’t want to share the land with the native population when your ships arrive at their shores? After they’re nearly wiped-out by the diseases you brought with you, you can see to it that the rest are eliminated or neutered as a threat through murder and dislocation. Then you can relegate them to a tiny spot of their own land and think of it is a kindness. Over the course of 500 years, you will have reduced their population from 10 million to 300,000.

http://endgenocide.org/learn/past-genocides/native-americans/

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Think that Jewish people are pretty much the reason for every bad thing happening in your country and the world? Set up an assembly line of mass murder. You can kill 11 million in a few years’ time if you really try.

https://www.ushmm.org/wlc/en/article.php?ModuleId=10008193

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Are you a European settler needing to get some back-breaking work done, but you don’t want to do it yourself? Go get yourself millions of black bodies from across the ocean. Beat them, rape and murder them into submission. Keep this going for 250 years, so you can build your so-called Democracy. The UN estimates 17 million of those black bodies died over that time period as a result of the slave trade.

http://www.un.org/events/slaveryremembrance/background.shtml

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We read these statistics and they boggle the mind. So many dead. So many murdered. In the end, it boils down to the seizing of power through dehumanization, subjugation, terrorizing, and murder of “the other.” Make them an object of fear, of disgust. Make them an obstacle to dominance. Pave your road to progress with their blood and bones.

With Dos Erres, Rwanda, the mass-elimination of Native Americans, the holocaust, and American slavery, we see varied combinations of violent bigotry according to skin tone: brown on brown, black on black, white on red, white on white, and white on black. This is human evil, the powerful oppressing the weak.

Examples of “man’s inhumanity to man” are far from limited to these. There are so many more. It’s hard to think about the harsh realities of all the violence in human history. Genghis Khan, Mao Tse Tung, Stalin, Idi Amin, the Khmer Rouge … all played their part. As did ordinary people who helped by carrying out orders or voluntarily aiding in the oppression and murder authorized by those in power.

Violence against, and oppression of, certain classifications of people is not limited to “long ago and far away.” Police brutality against African Americans is still happening. Institutionalized racism is still happening. Read the news. All across our country, and around the world, there are oppressed people groups. Nor is discrimination limited to the sphere of race. We discriminate against women, Muslims, albinos, the differently-gendered, homosexuals, those with disabilities … the list goes on and on.

How can we stop these injustices?

It seems like it ought to be so simple. The answers could be written on a message in a fortune cookie or on a postcard.

We’re all the same race: the human race. All of us have the same, intrinsic worth. All should be treated the same, given the same opportunity for education and economic success. Martin Luther King said it: judge people “not by the color of their skin but the content of their character.” Jesus said it: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” It’s not hard to articulate the answers, but it is hard to implement them. It’s hard to give up privilege and power.

It comes down to the human heart. Mine. Yours.

Can we see our own prejudices? Can we see how we contribute to racism by denying it, ignoring it, minimizing it?

I’m speaking to myself. I’m speaking to my white* friends, family, neighbors, and countrymen.

I have to wake up. We have to wake up, recognize the indelible and cruel injury we have done to our brothers and sisters of a darker hue. See that we have not sought to understand or empathize with those with different sexual orientation. Admit it. Out loud. Ask forgiveness. Extend a hand. Be part of a movement that insists we are all the same, a movement that seizes the mechanisms of established power and ultimately, permanently, bends the arc of our future moral universe toward justice. A justice that truly applies to all.

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Educate yourself. Read Coates’ book Between the World and Me. Read Dyson’s Tears We Cannot Stop. Hear their voices. To the extent you can, enter into their suffering. Do some reading to help you understand LGBTQ issues. https://goodmenproject.com/featured-content/the-best-lgbt-books-of-all-time/

These are starting places. This is the easy stuff. But if you let the reading change how you think and feel, even just a little, then you can say the journey forward has begun.

I’m still in these first steps. And I was moved to write this. This is my beginning.

Namaste.

 

*There is no white race. There are light-skinned people of many ethnic backgrounds. Whitness is a construct we have used to empower a majority based on an artificial unity relating to shared skin tone. This seems so obvious, yet it took Ta-Nehisi Coates to make me see it clearly.

[i] Coates, Ta-Nehisi. Between the World and Me (Kindle Locations 1280-1282). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Should We Punish Hate?

(Please don’t judge my intent before you’ve read the whole essay. And know that I welcome “enlightened guidance,” correction, and exposure to knowledge I do not currently possess. Thanks.)

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Imagine you are beaten senseless and robbed by someone of your own race. The perpetrator is a junkie in need of a fix, and you’ve just cashed your two-week paycheck. The thief empties your wallet of cash, leaving you bloody and unconscious, sprawled in a dirty alleyway.

Now imagine the same beating by someone of a different race. This person does not steal from you, but spews hateful, racially-charged language during the beating.

In the first case, the crimes committed are assault and robbery. In the second case, we are looking at an assault that would likely also be categorized as a hate crime.

Once apprehended and convicted, should the bad guy in the second scenario receive a harsher sentence because he hates you? Is the assault-plus-hatred somehow a worse crime than the assault with the intent to rob? Here’s another ethics questions for you: Which crime would you rather be a victim of, the one where you’re robbed but not hated or the one where you’re hated but not robbed (the beating is the same either way)?

To the point: should we punish criminals for what they do or for what motivates them to do what they do?

You see, Johnny Skinhead can sit in his moldy, darkly-lit basement his entire lifetime, surrounded by neo-Nazi posters, slogans, and literature—his grayish little white-supremacist heart beating with savage hatred for all Jews, gays and non-white people—but if he never harms anyone, never vandalizes someone’s property, never commits a crime … we can’t arrest him. The FBI acknowledges that hate itself isn’t a crime, but should it be a reason to escalate punishment when it is associated with the commission of a prosecutable offense? Is that logical, is it reasonable?

Please, please, do not get me wrong here. I’m not pro-hate. Hate sucks. It’s ugly and it does unforgivable, despicable things to (and in) the hearts and lives of people all over the world, every single day. If I could abolish hate with a nice, shiny piece of legislation, I’d do it in a heartbeat.

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Hatred, however, is a slippery devil. It doesn’t care much for rules. More worrisome still, it doesn’t only belong to “those horrible people” we imagine when we think of those who commit hate crimes.

Nope. We all hate sometimes, don’t we? Even if only for a moment.

Surely, we’re tempted to hate “Jihadi John,” the masked ISIS operator who beheaded multiple non-combatants (many of his brutal executions were posted on the Internet). It wouldn’t be hard to hate 22 year-old Dylann Roof, who callously murdered nine African American churchgoers while pretending to join them in a Bible study. Wouldn’t we be justified in hating Omar Mateen for his ruthless massacre of 49 people at a gay nightclub in Florida?

Let’s admit it. We have sometimes been guilty of hating the haters.

We have maybe even hated our exes, our bosses, our neighbors, cops, priests, or politicians.

Should we turn ourselves in at the local police station, confess our hatred and await sentence? Luckily, we’ve already established that hate alone is not a crime. But, wait. Isn’t it a little contradictory to say hate isn’t a crime but it is a reason to increase the severity of the penalty for the commission of a crime?

I think I get the idea of hate crime legislation. Handing out harsher penalties to those whose crimes are an “offense against a person or property motivated in whole or in part by an offender’s bias against a race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, ethnicity, gender, or gender identity” might help discourage people from committing such crimes.

Okay. Maybe. I’d like to see the stats. Regardless, as a matter of principle, are we not, in fact, punishing hate? You know, that thing the FBI told us wasn’t a crime.

Let’s consider something else. Jihadi John, Dylann Roof, and Omar Mateen didn’t emerge from the womb consumed with hatred and a desire to do harm to infidels, black people, or gay people. These criminals were infected with the hateful biases of their families and/or peers. In a way, each of them is a victim of a mindset passed on from generation to generation.

People who commit hate crimes were taught to hate. This fact in no way excuses their behavior or means they shouldn’t face justice. But it does mean, in my opinion, that the helpful (ethical, empathetic, compassionate) reaction here probably isn’t to up their sentences.

Punish them according to what they’ve done. The three I have mentioned? They are serial murderers. Punish them accordingly. Life in prison or the death penalty works in each of these cases.[1] Punish hating vandals for vandalism, hating assaulters for assault, and so on. Prosecute them to the full extent of the law … for what they’ve done.

In addition, necessitate their enrollment in some de-programming classes. Re-educate them. Expose them to loving, intelligent, kind, merciful people who are in the ethnic or religious groups they despise. Find the root of the hate. Expose the fallacies of the philosophies they’ve been fed their whole lives. Chip away at the hate with education and love. Mostly love.

There are paths out of extreme hate groups. Let’s help offenders find them.

Punish crime. Heal hate. End the cycle.

 

 

[1] Jihadi John is believed to have been killed in a targeted drone strike. Dylann Roof has been sentenced to death. Omar Mateen was killed in a shootout with police on the day of his murderous rampage.

Is This the End?

MURUROA ATOMIC BLAST 1970

I listened to Inaugural Day coverage on WBEZ while on-the-job Friday (I drive for a living, so lots of radio listening for me during the week).

I have to admit that the first thought I had, as they described all the dignitaries present, was, “This gathering is a terrorist’s friggin’ wet dream!”

President and Mrs. Obama, the about-to-be-sworn-in president-elect Trump and his wife, all the former presidents and their wives, vice presidents and wives, all those powerful political figures … at such an iconic, uniquely American and Democratic event. All those ordinary Americans. All those people. In one place. What an opportunity for terrorists to make a loud, terrible, visceral, and frightening statement on the world stage. What a target!

I prayed right then and there that there would be no bombs or shootings or trucks-run-amok. I prayed that no one (NO ONE) would get hurt, much less killed. What a tragedy it would have been if a terrorist, or any misguided lunatic, had perpetrated serious violence at the Inaugural.

Thank God none of those things happened.

And how sad that such a thought would have to occur. But this is the world we live in, isn’t it?

Of course, there had to have been security of an unparalleled magnitude. I imagine surveillance so massive, high-tech, and detailed that if anyone in the crowd so much as passed gas, some geek in a van wearing headphones knew who it was and what they had for breakfast.

Many were there to celebrate what they hope will be an administration that brings positive change for America. Many were there to protest what they fear is going to be an unholy parenthesis in American history.

Some of this duality is simply a reflection of how it has always been when we switch parties. The diehards of the opposition predict the ushering in of The Apocalypse. Horror stories of the near-future ruin of America abound, as one party leaves and the other moves in. If there is a way to disparage the incoming party and its leaders and intentions, the outgoing party will find it. This is not a new phenomenon.

I get that, in many ways, Trump trumps all previous hand-over contrasts. I get the fear and furor some have, because this man speaks so carelessly and callously, frequently with little regard to “facts.”

Still, it remains my fervent hope that the next four years will not usher in any kind of bleak dystopia. It remains my fervent hope that those who right now are so filled with fear and dread about a Trump presidency will end up being surprised. In a good way.

In the end, it may be his colossal ego (as if all wanna-be presidents haven’t had one of those) that saves us. I actually believe this knucklehead very badly wants you to love him. He wants you to adore him. Despite so many things he has said that seem to indicate the contrary, I truly believe that whether you are male or female; whether you are an L or G or B or T or Q or A or some other letter I may have left out; whether your skin is red or yellow, brown, black, white or (like his) orange … DJT wants you to think he’s the best thing since our beloved Internet was invented (by Al Gore, wasn’t it?). DESPITE some of the inane and scary crap he’s said, perhaps Trump’s out-of-control need to be loved by all will actually result in some “by and for the people” policies at the end of the day.

Probably not.

But it remains my fervent hope.

People … we WILL muddle through. And it WILL be okay.

Or it will be the apocalypse. (Remember when grade school children were being taught to “duck and cover” in preparation for a nuclear explosion? And you think this moment in history is under threat?)

Light a candle. Say a prayer. Love your neighbor. Hold yourself with compassion.

 

 

 

 

Thanks Science, Thanks Religion

Nature is amazing. The stars. Animal life. Microscopic life. Forests. Oceans. 

Science has done astonishing things with its ability to deconstruct nature, explain it to laymen (sometimes in terms we mostly understand). 

Science is useful when its analyses lead to good medicine and a more thoughtful approach to the use of natural resources.  

But science is forever USELESS when it comes to the things that we yearn to know. Most of what truly matters to people in life remains entirely outside the domain of its relevance: love, friendship, the “high” we experience in an encounter with literature or film or music or any kind of art that moves us, the transcendent sense of awe we feel before nature, the search for purpose. 

Such pursuits are not the job of science, never have been. When we try to make science a God, we have made a horrifying error bound to result in things like sterilizing races we deem as inferior or using unwitting people in tests without any thought to the morality of doing so. 

Yes, the USE of science can accomplish great moral good too. Feed more people. Teach us how to live sustainably. But scientific principles, when applied, are only as “good” as the souls of the people behind their application. 

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The same is true of religion. Its application is only as good as the hearts of its leaders and adherents. Religion can spread brotherly love or divisive rhetoric. It can elevate us or turn us into groveling idiots. 

People can be beautiful and noble. Sadly, they can also be really fucking dangerous. Power in the hands of people is the most dangerous thing of all. In the guise of religion or atheistic totalitarianism or socialism or communism or democracy … humans having power over other humans is the great bugaboo of all suffering and tragedy. 

And this boils down to intent. Do those in power want to minister to the people or manipulate them? Do they want to serve them or make them subservient?  

These are moral questions, not scientific ones.  

So, thank you science … for heart transplants and AIDS treatments and flat screen TVs. 

Thank you religion … for prayer that brings connection to the sacred, for the dissemination of ideas that lead us to give to others, to love mercy and to seek justice and peace. 

Just watch your hearts, atheists and theists and agnostics. This is where all future hope will come from. This is where our doom will come from.  

Consider well what manner of thought and belief you deposit and nurture therein.

(This post inspired by another blog post: https://writerswithoutmoney.com/2015/08/04/the-surgeon-on-the-mount-or-science-the-theology-after-god/comment-page-1/)

 

Dear Mr. Spong

I have a feeling I’d like you if we met. Perhaps we’d chat over a cold beverage (something imported, let’s say from Holland). We’d talk about life and death and spirituality and science and man’s search for meaning.

Since that’s a very unlikely proposition, I am instead writing this letter that you’ll never read. Because I can.

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You, sir, I will necessarily concede, are a whole lot smarter than I am. Your level of formal education far exceeds mine, as does your extensive life-experience and study. The accomplishments of your career are significant and impressive. I would have no prayer of winning a philosophical argument with you, and I’d probably hesitate to try if I were in your presence. I’m sure a lengthy talk with you would be fascinating, enlightening, and a pleasure for me.

But, since you aren’t here to gently decimate my arguments, I am going to argue with you. In a friendly, respectful way. I hope you don’t mind.

At the beginning of your book, Eternal Life: a New Vision, you go very much out of your way to convince the reader how plainly obvious it is that we (humans) are a product of many accidental events.

I have to propose that this is not plain at all. I have to suggest that there is an entirely different way to view our arrival on planet Earth … as quite dramatically and irrevocably inevitable.

It’s not that complicated an argument, really. It can’t be. Because, like I said, I’m not that smart.

Let’s start with a simple illustration.

Suppose Billy bats a baseball intended to land somewhere in the vicinity of his friend, Tommy (presumably so that Tommy might catch the ball and throw it back). However, when bat and ball meet, the ball’s trajectory sends it flying into and through Billy’s neighbor’s (Mr. Johnson’s) living room window.

As it turns out, Mr. Johnson is a very reasonable fellow and, when he catches up with Billy and Tommy (who have run off out of sheer terror), he assures them he is not mad and only wants them to talk to their parents and get the window fixed. More interestingly, Mr. Johnson excitedly invites them over to his house to take a look at something he tells them is, “Really quite spectacular.” That something is the hole left in his window by the ball. As they stand before it, the boys’ mouths drop in amazement.

The hole in the shattered glass looks precisely like the profile of Abraham Lincoln’s head and torso. Uncanny. Beyond improbable. A freak accident if there ever was one.

Or is it?

Yes, you might make a lengthy, complicated argument stating that any of countless, tiny adjustments in Tommy’s throw, Billy’s swing, the wind, the ball, the bat, the curvature of the Earth (you get the idea) … and that hole would have looked like any other random hole in a glass window. And you would be right.

However.

Your point is moot. All of the circumstances and nuances of nature and that moment were exactly what they were. And, from the beginning of time, that outcome—the one that left an Abe Lincoln-shaped hole in Mr. Johnson’s living room window—was absolutely unalterable and completely certain. Put another way: because that event did happen, it had to happen.

Now, apply this notion to humanity’s rise from amoeba to ascendance.

All those events, those “accidents” you describe so eloquently? That infinitely dense ball of matter (the “cosmic zygote,” if you will), the arrival of one-celled living things, sea-life making its way to land, the fall of the dinosaur, the evolution of a primate to modern man? Because those things did happen, they had to happen.

Again, yes, I know, if the sun were in another position, if the dinosaurs hadn’t been wiped out …

But this is conjecture on what might have been, nothing more. It’s like arguing that the team that won the Super Bowl would not have won if only Quincy the Quarterback hadn’t thrown that boneheaded interception in the fourth quarter. (He did. It’s done. Get over it.)

The fact is that, hyper-complex cosmic circumstances being what they were, mankind was most assuredly inevitable. You, dear Mr. Spong, were inevitable. Precisely you. Exactly as you are, with your height and eye color and hair color and temperament and potential for intellect. You had to be born. As did I. And my neighbors, and their ill-tempered wiener dog, Puddin’.

This doesn’t necessitate God in any way. Ours may indeed be a purely material world. Blind matter, and a universe without intention, making absolutely sure that you and I (and all our ancestors) came into existence. Conditions being what they were, we couldn’t not happen.

And yet. No. I don’t buy the random non-intention of that scenario. Not really. Maybe that’s the truth of things. But it sounds wrong, doesn’t it? There’s a cause and effect problem of epic proportion there, in my estimation.

And this is where I invoke God. Not because I can prove God. I can’t. No one can. But I would suggest that the idea of God is (at the very least) no more absurd than mindless matter incrementally building the human mind, leading to consciousness and ultimately self-consciousness. The cosmic zygote came from … where again? Exactly. You don’t know. No one does.

You pick your unlikely conclusion. I’ll pick mine.

Religion is a different matter. I’m not talking about religious ideas of God (that would be a separate and more dubious undertaking, though I certainly have my beliefs); I’m talking about God as the uncaused cause, the unmoved mover. The one utterly inexplicable, irrational, incomprehensible thing that explains everything else. Here at least, as crazy as the notion may sound to some, the cause is sufficient to produce the effect. In a purely material creation you have to have a virtually infinite string of inexplicable materials and events where the spinning of spontaneously-appearing inanimate particles leads to living beings who contemplate their mortality, write poetry, compose symphonies, transplant vital organs, and build ships that carry them into outer space; beings who sing and dance, laugh and weep, hope and despair, love and hate, create and destroy. Fascinating accident, indeed.

Or is it?