I remember the first time I ever visited inmates on Tennessee’s death row. What struck me about the experience was not so much the solemnity or the pall of pending execution that hung over the place like a threatening storm cloud. Nor was it the incredible humanity and even decency of several of the condemned-even those whose crimes had been truly horrific-though that too was unsettling.
What rattled me most was the expression on the faces of the guards. Or rather, the lack of expression. There was an emptiness, an affect devoid of emotion. Not a cruelty mind you, but something quite a bit worse. As if they had all been required to take Botox injections daily to smooth out the lines and creases of everyday life.
The facial flatness was made all the more distracting by the words conveyed by these same guards; which words bespoke a numbness running far deeper than their outer epidermal layers and reaching seemingly well in to the inner chambers of their souls.
As one guard put it, he had to dispense with the feelings he had developed for the men he was guarding-men who he acknowledged were amazing painters and poets, and far different than the stereotypical image one tends to have of those who wear the label, “murderer.” In order to do their jobs, these guards had been forced to separate the inmates from the common circle of humanity of which they were a part; to accept their disposability in the eyes of the state; to view them as less than the men they are.
I think it no exaggeration-and indeed perhaps a profound understatement of somewhat embarrassing proportions-to suggest that ignoring the essential humanity of another living soul, especially when that humanity is so glaringly obvious, does something to a person. And what it does is never a good thing.
Just as slave-owners had to make themselves numb to the pain of their chattel, so too did they ultimately become numb to their own pain: the pain of women trapped in oppressive patriarchal conditions; the pain of their children, who never could quite understand how to split their emotions between love for the black women who literally raised them, and the fear and loathing they were supposed to feel for black men.
That war inspires a similar emotional schism should be obvious. We are not born, after all, with a natural desire to dominate and oppress and kill others of our species. We are born with an instinct to survive, but since so much oppressive and murderous behavior has little to do with legitimate self-defense (and thus this same survival instinct), there is clearly something that happens to allow people to bomb, shoot, maim, and then assess the damage and do it all over again. And as with the prison guard, or slave-owner whatever this thing is, is never good.
For terrifying proof that war turns people into something considerably less gentle and precious than their better selves, one need not look far nowadays. The signs of mankind’s ethical retrogression are all around us.
While we certainly should make note of and rejoice in the proliferation of conscious, feeling, very un-numb anti-war voices around the globe, let us also rightfully acknowledge and mourn the capitulation to violence and death on the part of quite a few others, and the apparent majority of Americans, especially those who are white: a subject to which I will return.
First, and this should be apparent, bombing another nation requires believing that those with different citizenship than your own are disposable. Be they civilians “accidentally killed” by errant “smart” bombs, or soldiers slaughtered intentionally so as to “shock and awe” the survivors into surrender, the only way one can accept the taking of lives in such a fashion is to ultimately believe that said lives are worth less than your own. It requires a belief that their children are less precious in the eyes of God, or that if equally precious, their deaths are yet an acceptable cost of doing business in the modern world.
We might not want to admit this truism but it doesn’t take much searching to find confirmation. I hear it in the words of those who write to me calling for a bloodbath in Iraq, and who, when asked how many people they are willing to exterminate so as to “feel safe,” answer without hesitation or the slightest sense of irony: “As many as it takes.”
Something tells me that they weren’t like this when they were seven or eight years old, and no one seems too interested in discovering exactly what it was that transpired in their lives between then and now that turned them into willing genocidists. But I would like to know, and I think we all might benefit from such information.
Something has to happen to make one say-as a colleague of mine did in 1986 as we bombed the home of Muammar Quadaffi-”well, we might not have gotten him, but at least we killed his daughter, and she probably would have grown up to be a terrorist some day.”
Something has to happen to make one gleeful at the thought of global war, as were the two men driving by our anti-war protest in Nashville this week, waving the American flag and shouting “Korea is next,” out the window-not specifying which Korea, or perhaps not knowing that there are two, or perhaps not caring.
Something has to happen to make one so bitter, angry, hateful and ravenous as to drive by that same protest where people are merely calling for peace, and yell through a face contorted by rage if not a mental breakdown, “bomb, bomb, bomb, kill, kill, kill,” as I also witnessed this week.
But even more frightening than the rush to ugly and violent rhetoric such as that discussed above, is the more voluminous shift to reserved and unaffected acceptance.
After all, something also has to happen in order to allow us to label dead children “collateral damage,” a term we would consider an offense of the highest order if used to describe our own loved ones, but which we are told to accept without hesitation when applied to someone else’s family on the other side of the globe.
Something terrible has to happen to allow us to watch blandly the hi-tech, video-game-like coverage of this war on CNN, or MSNBC, or Fox; to read calmly the bold fonts that are the script of choice for the networks as they promote mass death and destruction; to note without comment the little clock in the right hand corner of the screen counting down the minutes and seconds left until the Bush-to-Baghdad ultimatum runs its course, and bombing can commence. One can almost imagine someone rigging a bejeweled glass ball in Times Square to count down the final seconds, like Dick Clark counts them down at New Year’s. But perhaps that sounds a bit too cynical.
And if there is one thing I wish not to be it is cynical. Even at this late hour in the evolution of our species I believe in the fundamental goodness of other people after all. If I didn’t believe this before the birth of my daughter I certainly do now. Bringing a child into the world is, after all, a visceral statement of hope if ever there was one; an insistence that the world does not have to be taken as one finds it; a kind of promissory note to the future; a demand that we can and must carry on.
No, if there are cynics in this scenario they are not those who raise their voices against the blasÃ© discussion of nation-wrecking. The cynics are those who discuss this nation-wrecking in such a fashion over a lattÃ©.
They are those who nod in agreement (or is it wishful thinking) as they hear Donald Rumsfeld-a man for whom the term cynic was created-insist that “we did not ask for this war,” though indeed we did exactly that, at least until it became obvious that asking wasn’t getting us anywhere, and so permission was no longer needed.
They are those so practiced at self-deception that they can listen without laughing or experiencing a deep and revolting shame as this same man claims that one of the goals of this war is to allow for the lifting of sanctions and the rebuilding of Iraq, albeit a million or so deaths too late.
They are those who breathe a sigh of relief at the steady and reserved-though oh so reassuring-promises of the gaggle of retired generals paraded by the media, to the effect that “this is precision bombing,” so not to worry. Residential neighborhoods are safe. Of course, al-Qaeda didn’t target residential areas on 9/11 either, but I’m figuring that didn’t make anyone feel much better.
Don’t get me wrong. I am not trying to draw a moral distinction between those of us already against this war and those favoring it. I am not saying that we are better, more ethical, more righteous, or in any way superior people. I have no doubt that at various times we too have experienced this kind of numbness, or turned our heads to atrocities. Indeed in a society with such atrocities happening regularly-and almost always without the active consent or even input of the masses-it is unlikely that we could conceivably avoid such a thing from time to time. No one is at all times the perfect resistance fighter. Collaboration is virtually built in to the modern world.
But of course the fundamental egalitarianism of our species’ weaknesses is no cause for celebration. That we all fall short several times a week is no source of comfort, but rather a reason for the redoubling of our efforts to un-numb those who are anesthetized at this time, just as we would hope that they would do the same for us in our less noble moments. For the costs really couldn’t be much higher.
Today I received an e-mail from someone who described herself as a suburban soccer mom, who was utterly opposed to the insanity of this slaughter. It was nice to read such a thing from someone who most would probably expect to be first in line at the yellow ribbon and American flag giveaway: such is the nature of our stereotypes, including my own.
Of course my pleasure at reading her righteous screed was tempered by the story she told therein, recounting being asked by a store clerk how she was doing, replying “awful” and explaining this response as being related to the extant bombing, and then being told by the same clerk, that “at least we’re safe here and we don’t have to go through all that”
Putting aside the obvious problem that we weren’t “going through” 9/11 before 9/11 either-and thus one never really knows when payback is sneaking up on you-there is the more subtle weakness to her assurance. Namely, that when one can offer such a dispassionate logic in the face of havoc, that same person should at least be clear that they are indeed “going through it,” if by “it” we mean death. Death, after all, can come to a person long before the heart stops beating.
And this I mean not as hyperbole. Death is indeed not merely a physical state.
In its less blatant form, we have all suffered small forms of death from time-to-time. Indeed, in a world filled with injustice (as well as much human kindness, it should be noted), one can hardly expect otherwise.
At the more extreme end, if one needs further confirmation that breathing souls can be deadened, one need only look at the faces of those white men and their sandwich and lemonade-making wives, standing beneath the lifeless bodies of black men swinging from oak trees in old photos of lynchings to see what I’m talking about. There is no sign of life in their eyes, even though they must surely be as awake as they had ever been at that moment-the smell of flesh burned before the final hanging would all but assure as much. Yet the picnic carried on as planned, and the flies were shooed away with the swat of a hand, by genteel souls who probably thought those same flies had only come for the chicken salad.
And no, I am not implying an exact equivalence between pro-war forces in the present, and those whites who participated actively in the murder of blacks across this country. I am merely noting the general phenomenon, and asking about trajectories and continuums, and wondering what good fortune separates us from those who can participate in such evil, and keeps us from giving in to our baser instincts? We need to know the answer to this question too.
And speaking of white people, it is at times like these that I can say without fear of contradiction that I wish my nation were run by black folks. For although African Americans are assuredly capable of violence on a widespread scale, as with those of us more melanin-deprived, it is nonetheless true that they seem to be a bit less sanguine about the notion of mass death, wholesale killing, or scorched Earth.
While the vast majority of whites, especially men, say they support the war on Iraq even if it results in thousands of Iraqi civilians losing their lives, less than twenty percent of blacks feel the same. And while most Latinos support the war when asked to cast a simple yes or no vote, when the prospect of large scale civilian death is raised, support plummets among them as well, down to less than one-fifth. Only white men in fact continue to support the war no matter how many people have to die.
Perhaps it is because being the dominant group in a society as drunk on power as this one, allows one to never have to second guess one’s actions. Perhaps it is because being on the top of the shit pile means never having to say you’re sorry.
Or maybe it’s because white American males have yet to have our asses handed to us by a stronger foe. Unlike white Brits, or Germans, or the French, or Russians, who know what it means to be blitzed, firebombed, conquered and made the subject of an extermination campaign, white American males think our dicks are simply bigger. Or perhaps we don’t think this, but figure we can make up for any inadequacy by building the biggest missiles and saying things like “Don’t mess with Texas.” Daisy-cutters as technological Viagra: compensation for our moral impotence.
Black and brown folks, on the other hand, know what it’s like to be the victims of mass murder: whether in the Middle Passage that cost tens of millions of African lives, or the 93 million indigenous souls purged to make way for the conquest of the Americas, some people have been experiencing shock and awe for a long time. So long, in fact, that nothing white men do anymore seems all that shocking after all.
Except, perhaps, for the persistent ability of those same white men to believe that the worm will never turn; that the other shoe will never drop. The unwillingness to grasp the simple and frightful truth of the phrase, “what goes around comes around,” or if you prefer, James Baldwin’s prescient rendering, that “people ought not be surprised when the bread they have cast upon the waters comes floating back to them, poisoned.”
It is time to put down the Botox and syringe. Time to feel again.
Tim Wise is a writer, anti-racist activist and father.
He can be reached at [email protected]