Mike, back around 1991 you wrote a very impactful piece: “Killing Train.” John Holder and I made a “public service announcement” (11 minutes long) using your piece and played it on WWUH Community Radio in Hartford. Not long ago, John sent me the piece to look at again (27 years later). I read it and a song was constructed called “Killing Train.”
Below is the original article written by Michael Albert.
Many years back, moved by the first Gulf War, I wrote a piece with the above title, Stop the Killing Train. I am revisiting the same subject because, regrettably, the topic remains at the forefront even if the precipitating violence is different.
For the purpose of the exercise, please use your imagination.
Suppose a hypothetical god got tired of what we humans do to one another and decided that from January 1, 1991 onward all corpses unnaturally created anywhere in or by the hand of the “free world” would cease to decompose. Anyone dying for want of food or medicine, anyone hung or garroted to death, shot or beaten to death, raped or bombed to death, anyone dying unjustly and inhumanely for want of clean air or water or other necessities of life, would, as a corpse, persist without decomposing. The permanent corpse would then automatically enter a glass-walled cattle car attached to an ethereal train traveling monotonously across the U.S., state by state, never stopping. The hypothetical God would tirelessly display our achievements for us all to see.
One by one the corpses would divinely load onto the cattle cars. After every thousand corpses piled in a car, a new car would hitch up and begin filling in turn. Mile after mile the killing train would roll along, each corpse visible through the train’s transparent walls. We can suppose it fills at the rate of 200 new corpses a minute, or one new car every five minutes, day and night, without pause.
By the end of 1991, on its first birthday, the killing train would easily measure over 2,500 miles long. Traveling at 20 miles an hour it would take about five days to pass any intersection across the U.S. Imagine you are sitting at a railroad crossing. You watch this horror go past, 24 hours a day, for five full days. Every car contains 1,000 corpses, all clearly visible. This hypothetical God knows how to communicate so we can’t ignore reality.
By the year 2000, assuming no dramatic change in institutions and behavior, the train would stretch from coast to coast about seven times. It would take about six weeks from the time its engine passed the Statue of Liberty to when its caboose would go by. Would the God still wonder when pitiful, aspiring humanity would get the message?
By 2014 – you can safely just double the ugly statistics. Deaths accelerate, unless, of course, we had gotten the message. So, coast to coast it would stretch, about 14 times. Every corpse an indictment.
Think how a young child sometimes points to a picture in a book or magazine and asks for an explanation, “Tell me about a tree?” A car? A boat? Or a train? A big train? The killing train? Go ahead, try to answer that one. Perhaps that explains why this image isn’t, in fact, a common one on our TVs and in our never-ending streams of information.
Bad enough, way worse than bad enough, it could even get worse. Consider that climate change will before long start to wrack up even larger kill lists. But, of course, those dead would pile into the killing train too, since with only modest exceptions they too are preventable.
The killing train, in any event, no matter how each moribund commuter who need not have been on board got his or her ticket, is horrendous.
Imagine the lost opportunity and lost love. Imagine as well the network of negative influences that radiate from the unnecessary deaths displayed by the killing train stretching from coast to coast and back and forth and back and forth and back and forth. Consider the horrendous impact, not only on those on board, but on every person that any of those corpses ever loved or would have loved, fed or would have fed, taught or would have taught.
Who rides the killing train?
Certainly citizens of the “Third World,” selling their organs for food, selling their babies to save their families, suffering disappearances and starvation. They live in Brazil, the Philippines, El Salvador, but also New York. They enter the killing train, every day. It isn’t a peace train. It isn’t a justice train. It isn’t a love train. It is a killing train. Its current most bloody loading platform: Gaza. But don’t forget those who starve and die of preventable diseases in the Third World and in the first world too. All are onboard.
Is the gigantic sprawling disgusting image exaggerated? 10 million kids die yearly for lack of basic medical aid that the U.S. could provide at almost no cost in countries whose economies Exxon and the Bank of America have looted. Preventable death fills the killing train. To the sane, it is mass murder. The grotesque image I offer is actually understated.
Bloated diseased bodies are victims of murder just as surely as bullet-riddled bodies tossed into rivers by death squads, or shrapnel shredded bodies prone in the piles of blasted hospitals and homes. Denying medicine by out of reach pricing or preventable shortages is no less criminal than denying medicine by blowing up pharmacies and demolishing hospitals is no less criminal than supplying torture racks, stealing resources, and paving roads with bomblets. Bombing electric power stations and pulverizing hospitals enlarges the train. Deaths by starvation and disease are no less unnatural than those by bomblet and bullet, and enlarge the train.
Evolution has given humans the capacity to perceive, think, feel, and imagine. During war time—as now exists in so many places —if we get aroused to action we begin to see the whole train as it persists day in and day out. When this happens, what do we do about it? Do we become depressed? Cynical? Anguished? Cry? Daydream of Armageddon? Daydream of justice? Or do we hand out a leaflet?
Once we begin to see the killing train, how do we face the killing train? Part of me says these crimes are so grotesque, so inhumane, that the perpetrators deserve to die, now. A little tiny killing train for the killers and no more big killing train for everyone else. An eye for a million eyes. What other step makes more sense? Was this the hypothetical God’s plan?
But, of course, that’s not the way the world works. Yes, people give the orders. People wield the axes, withhold the food, pay the pitiful salaries, blow up the power stations, spew the garbage, lie, steal, cheat, obey – and produce corpses. But institutions create the pressures that mold the people.
When an institutional cancer spreads through the human patient, what kind of surgeon can cut it away? Is the imprint of accumulated repression so deep it can never be excised.
At first, becoming attuned to our country’s responsibility for the corpses stacked behind transparent cattle-car walls makes handing out leaflets, or writing essays, or arguing for peace with a co-worker, or urging a relative to think twice about paying taxes, or going to a demonstration, or sitting in, or doing civil disobedience, or even taking over a workplace, seem insignificant. But the fact is, these are the acts that the hypothetical God, tired of our behavior, would be calling for if she were to actually parade the “free world’s” corpses down our main streets in killing trains. These are the acts that can accumulate into a firestorm of informed protest that raises the cost of profiteering and domination, of war making and pollution so high that the institutions breeding such behavior start to buckle.
The fact is, when fighting a behemoth, “You lose, you lose, you lose, and then you win.” Every loss, understood properly to learn its lessons, is part of the process that leads to transforming institutions so that there can be no people as vile as Hussein or Bush, as Netanyahu or Obama. No more “Good Germans” or “Good Americans.” No more incinerated Jews or decapitated, starved, poisoned, starved, bulleted Palestinians.
War is invariably unjustly motivated. War is always horrendously harmful. War is an orchestrated atrocity that mandates our militant, unswerving opposition. But so too does exploitation, racism, sexism, the systematic deprivation of any one community at the hands of any other.
But even after the Gaza crimes of the little thug Israel and of its guardian angel the big thug, America, ends, the on-going U.S. war against “free world” people who it has consigned to ride the killing train will, if it continues, remain a enormous crime against humanity. The killing train transcends each separate war, inequity, and injustice, and ultimately, and this is, of course, the point – so must our opposition. The killing train is fueled by poverty, disease, starvation, indignity, death squads, racism, sexism, class division, bombs, and more bombs. The power plant of the death, destruction, and generalized deprivation is our basic institutions. The institutions must become our target.