Sunday, April 28, 2013

Cultures of Death

Death once came as a thief in the night
But now it may come all year
If the purpose is to create a fright
Or grip your soul with fear
We look to weapons as a right
While death itself is the purpose
For the thrill or maybe God’s will
And excuses rise to the surface
As killing becomes less a mystery
Looking backward at history

As I thought more about Larry DiStasi’s last two essays, I realized that we have been wringing our hands about our American “culture” of death, but that much more is involved.  Several cultures influence our views on killing and we have developed a unique set of beliefs to support killing.  I will outline a few and leave the sociological studies to smarter writers.  In the 1600s, our early European immigrants brought an extreme European religion to the Massachusetts Bay Colony.  The name Puritan is ironic, at best, for they were only ideologically pure and death was high on their list of social and religious sanctions.  While claiming to be Christian, they also believed in predestination and that only the Elect would be saved.  Only God chose the Elect.  Mere mortals were not party to the process…except to help it along where they saw violations.  They hanged some nineteen witches.  They authorized the killing of Jesuit priests who were sent by the French to evangelize the natives, but they also killed the natives who dared to be evangelized or dared to breath Puritan air.  They sometimes killed their own for engaging in “wrongful” sex, but not always.  Remember, they were only helping their God select the Elect.

Now lest you think that it was solely the strict Puritans, a retrospective would indicate that the Spanish influence was well formed about a hundred fifty years earlier during the Inquisition.  When the Spanish came to America, the aim was conquest.  Subjugation, slavery and death were the tools of conquest.  When they witnessed the Inca human sacrifice (another American culture embracing death), they were scandalized by the removal of a beating heart from the living body of the person sacrificed, but they used Spanish steel and musketry to dispatch the natives without remorse.  Note that except for the religious human sacrifice that the rationale for killing was usually a widely held belief that the life forms being snuffed out were sub-human.  The Puritans and Spaniards both felt that they were far superior to the “savages” they killed.  The underlying fabrics of religion were flexible enough to exempt killing “savages” from the 6th Commandment.  Invaders claimed superiority in religion or ethnicity and then used that as a basis for killing others.  Even in the late nineteenth century we slaughtered Native Americans and, on one occasion, blamed Indians for the Mountain Meadows Massacre (1857) that was later determined to be the work of Mormans.  In that incident, Mormans in southern Utah killed about 120 emigrees bound for the far west and they used Indian war paint and even the white flag of truce to kill the hapless travelers.  The Mormans were themselves sometimes earlier subjected to harassment and death in their travels usually due to their religion and polygamist practices, but turnabout was no motive here.

At this point, I need to remind the reader that much of the killing in our chronicles of humanity is tied to the ugly practice of using words that indicate a sub-human aspect to our targets.  I will deal with this again when dealing with wars, but it has always been convenient and effective to view the enemy as a lower form of life.  We spoke of savages and evil Indians, or perhaps, “red devils.”  We took on the white man’s burden of taming their evil inclinations and failing that we killed them as we looked down upon them because they did not have our superior religion, ethnicity or language or:  name your favorite cultural item.  The American way of death carved trails west as those hostile Indians did not move fast enough to get out of our way.  Then we imported inferior beings to lay our rails and build our cities.  They were German, Chinese, Irish and Italian and sociologists wrote scientific-like treatises to prove that southern Europeans and Blacks and Poles were inferior as were Jews and Chinese and Mexicans.  The cry, still heard, was “They are not like us!”  It is time to make a note:  Using names and slurs helps provide distance, both psychological and physical, between “superiors” and “inferiors.”  As we recall, this comes in handy in case of bus seats, drinking fountains or restaurants as well as wars.  While fences may make good neighbors, distance and the fences we build in our minds and hearts allow us to avoid the guilt that we might otherwise feel for violating the 6th commandment.  Distance removes us from responsibility and changes us from murderers to victims and protectors.  If not a license, it is a learner’s permit to kill so we can learn how to do it without hurting ourselves or our religious sensitivity.

Let us examine some of the common language benefits that epithets provide.  Listing even a few may seem offensive, but it makes the point of the visceral jarring they provide.  They are listed in no special order and are far from complete but they have been insoluble lumps in our melting pot:

Nigger, rag-head, krout, jap, wop, dago, slope, cracker, slant eyes, wetback, camel jockey, hebe, kike, chink, coon, coolie, frog, gringo, kafir, paddy, squinty, spade, redneck, polock, paki, haji, goy.

As you perhaps wretched reading the abbreviated list, you may also have been touched with a little guilt for using these terms and falling into the trap of marginalizing and labeling others.  It is nasty and yet common and often effective.  When distance is critical, this practice provides psychological distance.  In war, we also build up a hate reflex so that killing the enemy is motivated by emotions stronger than disgust or psychological distance.  We train soldiers under the universal anthem:  Kill or be killed.  We do not want our soldiers seriously thinking about taking a life, but we want them to act viscerally from our ingrained fight or flight reactions and to force them into “fight” rather than “flight.”  In war, we use targets that simulate the enemy visually and in their tactics.  We use unusual means to insert distance into our actions.  Dresden and Hiroshima were possible, not only because of the available technology, but because we were distant from the inherent horror of the attacks.  Julius Caesar’s army killed 500,000 men, women and children in a single day in Gaul when the broadsword was the weapon of the day. That may have been exaggeration.  It is documented, but by chroniclers who perhaps wanted to praise the exploits of Caesar (before killing him).  Our more recent documentation is photographic.  Another aspect of killing during war is that it is practiced and repeated until the extraordinary becomes routine.  This too, removes the person from the long built in controls that restrain and control killing.  We are taught from birth that killing as an individual is wrong and we condemn people for it.  We are taught that killing as a member of an army is right and we praise people for it.  Sanctions are critical in killing.  This derives from our spiritual or religious beliefs.  It also helps explain why some who feel that their religion is under attack can kill in defense of religion.  Facts do not count.  We recently have been reminded that personal religious harm is not needed as in Boston.  Syria may have violated the international sanction of using chemical weapons.  We are upset that they did not follow our rules for killing their own people.  Are not the people killed from conventional artillery attacks just as dead as those killed by Sarin?  Side note: War is a game marked by rule-books and umpires.  We sometimes stretch the rules but, by definition, we do not break rules.  Perhaps this is a prelude to justifying our killing…maybe even by remote controlled aircraft that give us the distance for “clean” killings.  Those are killings when our hands don’t get dirty and we can be thousands of miles distant from our targets (not people).

In reality, we draw from many cultures in our use of death as a tool for control and power. We know violence begets violence and violence is used to kill.  We need to face our culpability in promoting violence as a cultural highlight and then change the process. “Immunizing” our people with hate brings violence.  Stop killing at home and school and street and lower the number of guns.  Teach ways of solving problems without violence and change our cultures or our melting pot will become a pressure cooker always ready to explode in the heat of hate and always question extremism whether in religion or ourselves.

George Giacoppe
30 April 2013

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