Michael L. Falk
“Before Indonesia invaded East Timor in 1975 — an act that led to one of the most grievous genocides in history — certain people in the “civilized” world knew of its plans in advance, and had preferences for how the invasion was to be carried out. They used American equipment and a lot of it was needed for the job at hand. Men, women and children were beheaded, burned alive, butchered, blown up, machine gunned and of course tortured and raped. Over 200,000 died.”*
Since the early ages of man right up to the present time, the killing of one another has remained a shameful pillar of our species. Yet, shame has seldom been a factor in how we deal with each other. We’ve deluded ourselves into believing that because of a more assumedly evolved cerebral cortex, we are separate from the rest of the species on this planet and hence, more “civilized” toward one another (i.e. by polite actions, respectful behavior, reasonable, pleasant & comfortable).
However, one need only to look at the history of mankind and the relentless murder of each other to understand that we’re not the superior beings by a long shot. We’ve developed any number of convenient rationalizations for disrespecting the dignity of all human life to the extent that killing, for whatever reason, has sadly become the accepted norm. Just listen to the rhetoric of justification for an untold body count of mostly innocent civilians caught up in power struggles. The value of human life is belied by those so willing to take it for gain rather than to preserve it.
Consider the violence necessary to have established and maintained at least 219 separate dynasties since 2400 BC. But, dynasties for what purpose and who’s primary benefit. And how many millions of lives were destroyed in the process. The point is that killing is as common as living and we seldom see the true horror in it. We’ve been emotionally anestitised to the tragic loss of human life by everyday scenes on TV, in the news, films and print media. In fact, Hollywood even romanticizes war.
The cold reality we’ve so conveniently air brushed into acceptance is that war, in all its forms, is simply attrition by the greater body count or, to be more explicit, which side can kill more human beings (i.e. sons, fathers, daughters, mothers, brothers, sisters, babies, grandparents, families, etc.). Is this wanton destruction worth the objective? Is the quest for power more important than the permanent loss of another human being?
We are an extremely violent species who pretend otherwise. Although we continually pray for peace because it’s seldom ever sustained, the reality is that instead, we kill for peace; we kill to preserve; we kill to protect; we kill to punish; we kill to acquire; we kill over differences; we kill for power; we kill for money; we kill for control; we kill to retaliate; we kill for territory; we kill for retribution; we kill for religious ideals; we kill for democracy; we kill for resources; we kill by “collateral damage”; we kill for independence; we kill to defend; we kill as a deterrent; we kill to gain; we kill again and again. “Might makes right”. Uncivilized.
We’ve even developed clever words to mask the horrors of unrelenting slaughter such as ethnic cleansing, genocide, holocaust, conflict, police action, skirmish, hostilities, encounter, dispute, aggression, controlled engagement, military intervention, preemptive strike, overseas contingency operations and, that old standby, war. Killing, no matter the words or how you spin it, is still killing. The willful taking of human life cannot be sanitized. Uncivilized.
Each death by murder diminishes the rest of us as civilized.
Consider for just a moment the chilling Wikipedia definition of genocide as “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such: killing members of the group; causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; deliberately inflicting on the groups conditions of life, calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; [and] forcibly transferring children of the group to another group."
According to Wikipedia, since 350 AD, there have been at least 189 separate accounts of genocide or ethnic cleansing that destroyed the lives of millions upon millions. Why?
As a species, like all other organisms on this planet, we have, in my elemental view, two basic functions that are intrinsically intertwined; (1) to perpetuate the species through procreation; and (2) to survive. What happens in between defines us. And, although we’ve made huge advances in technology, the real hallmark of our identity is the manner in how we respect all life including the life of our planet. Civility.
Our thought processes have been developed through the senses in relationship to our environment and hierarchy of basic needs. The environment includes interactions with other of our species and in that process, we tend to evaluate our sense of self-worth or status in comparison to others. The need to have a sense of self-worth, value or purpose is considerable since when we perceive our value to being important, it provides gratification in terms of ego enhancement. However, when ego enhancement comes at the expense of others, then the organism has disrespected the value of life and, hence, one’s own existence. Not civilized.
History has clearly shown us over and over again that a great majority of our species are fundamentally racists, bias, prejudice and intolerant of those who are different from us either by skin color, physical appearance, language, culture, religion, race, class distinction or country which gives rise to certain untoward behaviors. At best, we tolerate those differences to avoid being confrontational just to “get along” rather than the more ideal behavior of unequivocally embracing our mutual humanity. Unfortunately, our most common reaction to these differences is conflict that frequently regresses to aggression and violence. Uncivilized.
One of the foremost causes of the atrocities we so frequently visit on each other with such “knee jerk” rapidity is that of power. An examination of power struggles throughout the ages invariably centers around the linked aspects of wealth, territory and authority over others. In its various forms, capitalism or the production, attainment and control of wealth, is at the root of power. Almost all aggression by our species has been fought for power by those in power or those seeking power. War for the most part has always been a tool of the ruling class in the furtherance of expanding or protecting their wealth interests be it by control of resources, territory and/or people. It’s the lives of many for the benefit of the few. Mohammed Ali said it best when he refused to be drafted, “I don’t have anything against those people”. Yet, millions are sent off to die or be maimed not for democracy or freedom but rather, for power.
Power is the seduction of ego gratification. It’s the ultimate ego trip whether by a rapist, battering husband, school yard bully, dictatorial boss, political fascist or dominant government. One could argue that it almost seems natural given the prominence of this behavior but that, unfortunately, is a great part of our delusion and consequently, acceptance of war for its many ostensible purposes. This type of myopic blindness that characterizes a society so accepting of aggression and war is also blind to the deleterious effect that capitalism has unquestionably, been the underlying cause of global tension and conflict.
Power needs capitalism and to succeed, and capitalism needs power structures to survive and, their means is violent aggression either physical, economic, environmental or all three. It’s the three headed dragon of power, capitalism and aggression that has eaten up the lives of so many innocent species, human or otherwise.
Power structures are not the best example of conflict avoidance since acquiescing to such a position implies weakness. They would rather rattle their sabers to better position themselves for conflict resolution but invariably, the answer to most conflict when the weaker fails to yield to the demands of power, is aggression. On an individual level the same usually holds true since no one wants to have their ego bruised or “loose face”. In the end, aggression almost always wins out but the application of this tactic seldom anticipates unintended consequences which can be formidable and ultimately leads to further aggression.
Aggression has been the strong arm of capitalism that feeds the power structure and although this paper has focused solely on the loss of life from wars, there’s a whole other loss from capitalistic ventures that have comprised health, environmental and infrastructural issues that have dramatically affected the lives of untold millions.
Kings, queens, monarchs, emperors, presidents, and prime ministers have clearly shown throughout history that beyond any shadow of doubt, the greatest threat to life on this planet is the insatiable lust for power. Uncivilized.
We as a species inhabiting this planet in conjunction with all other species and organisms need to take a good look in the mirror to understand the reality of our existence and the effect we have on each other and the planet. It’s not so much a matter of what we’ve become but rather, what we haven’t become – civilized.
*John Pilger, Who.What.Why 3/10/16.