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Thou Shalt Not Kill - #6 out of 10
There Ought to Be a Book
Here is an idea I give freely to historians willing to do the research I am not. As is well known, despite the fear of God, laws, severe punishment, ostracism, and execution, murders and killings (I will allow the distinction) occur with an astounding regularity. I am not a criminologist, so I cannot probe the psychological ramifications involved. My perspective is that of an armchair analyst, looking at phenomena from afar in relative safety. Cowering, maybe. Cringing, at least. All I am getting at is that there have been unique capital crimes in the past, and at least one in which the victim miraculously escaped death. In retrospect, none should have occurred. One led to a world war, another to a city-wide riot, and still another to an event that has no peer, serving as prelude to and catalyst of yet another world war.
The Archduke Ferdinand
For many, this man was, is, and always will be, not much more than a photograph. His curly mustache, hat, and other gaudy accouterments tell me only this: he did not come from around here, not even a hundred years ago. To me, the whole subject matter is inert, dense, and inaccessible. European history is like reading Proust day and night, night and day. Only a spider, used to webs and complex patterns, weaved over long periods of time, can properly trace the thread. The man himself seems, using the historical present, harmless. But he occupied a high position in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The assassinators, belonging to a devious collection called the Black Hand, were subjects, if disloyal. They came from Bosnia and Herzegovina. But the plan was hatched, funded, and supplied by Serbia. Hence, Austro-Hungary decided, as was already their inclination, to declare war against Serbia. Then, Russia, allied with Serbia, took up its cudgels. Germany, allied with Austria, set its war-face against Russia. On and on it went, until exact battle lines were drawn. One shot and there was no turning back. The point of my article is merely this: the Archduke should not have been murdered, irrespective of who he was or what he had done. Reverence for the lowly sixth commandment might have staved off a terrible episode in human history. What his murder unraveled had unbelievable consequences, still vibrant throughout World War II. True enough, Europeans wanted war. Some did, at any rate. But this is a popular sentiment that continues to permeate the higher echelons. They can and must be monitored and, if possible, discouraged. How heart-rending this pacifistic rationale must be for those egoists who strap on guns as they leave home, ready and willing to grapple to the death with anyone who gets in their way. But there may actually be a reason not to kill. Somewhere down the line, a price might be exacted beyond anyone's budget.
Ernst vom Rath
1938 Europe was no place to be. I suppose there were those who had fond memories of this vintage year, but, if so, they rarely make their nostalgic reminiscences public. It is tempting as a writer to approach non-fiction subjects with various degrees of sarcasm, cynicism, and smarmy word play. One keeps one's distance; one protects one's own vulnerabilities. But there are no laughs in this historic episode. Vom Rath was only a young civil servant or common bureaucrat when he received at least three deadly bullets from a low caliber gun. It was said that he was energetic and ambitious. Even with the aid of well-written history books, it is difficult to discern just who the gunman was. Herschel Grynszpan was of Polish descent, by birth German, and living at the time of the event in Paris. Understandably, he had not found stability in life when he purchased the murder weapon. There were deportations going on; his parents were among those who suddenly found themselves stateless in concentration camps. As far as I am concerned, no opprobrium attaches itself to his name for so little a deed as the death of a subordinate level Nazi, while the whole, pusillanimous world waited, as if nothing were wrong, steadfastly refusing to intervene. The retaliation was unexpectedly gruesome. It is called Kristallnacht. Anyone interested will have no trouble finding out about it. The larger point is that in 1938, nearly a year before the invasion of Poland, Hitler and his ill-mannered hooligans could have been stopped. Yet, no one stood up to him. Still, there is that stubborn, lurking, indelible commandment, stated unequivocally, with which the human race has not yet made its final peace. Yes, had it not been Vom Rath, it might have been somebody or something else. Plenty of evidence indicates that the Brownshirts aggressively sought an incident. Afterwards, on November 10th or 11th, no one could any longer say, German or non-German, that it was entirely unknown what Hitler had in mind. The audacious showing of his own hand after a lengthy series of cautious, anti-Semitic moves, beginning in 1933, five years in the making, made him the man to either beat into submission or submit to. Civilization unanimously chose to prevaricate.
March 3, 1991
I still think in terms of a triumvirate that does not exist consisting of New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles. All have large police forces. All have had issues. But on this particular night, numerous squad cars converged upon a speeding motorist. Stopped, stunned, and surrounded, he was repeatedly struck by night sticks. The police were lucky they had not killed Rodney King. But for the community at large, this was a meager consolation. Is it possible for law enforcers, in good standing, to cross over within a split second, into the realm of crass criminality? My reading reveals that fifteen squad cars were present. Several residents watched in amazement, perhaps as many as twenty. The man was shocked, kicked, and beaten. He was bruised with TASER darts. Finally, he was hog-tied and left. The mistreatment alone was bad enough. But the worst, in terms of the larger aggregate, was yet to come. More than a year later, an acquittal set off arguably the goriest televised event in history.
My point, however minor, is that as unimpressive as King must have appeared to his tormentors, as it turned out, he was not a man to be toyed with. Obviously, excessive use of force does not always call for an accounting. City streets are by definition mean. Intimidation is a permanent part of the underworld. I have never lived in L.A., so I would not know firsthand its barrio by barrio, local racial tensions, or underhanded police tactics. All I can comment on is the visceral aftermath, some of which could easily have been predicted. That it happened the way it did, motorists pulled from cars, smashed over the head with bottles and blunt objects, shops set on fire, windows busted, cars overturned, might not have been fully anticipated. But from the larger perspective, this riot spun so much out of control that it calls into question every so-called safeguard, including the entire judicial system.
The details of the resultant chaos can also be found elsewhere. My humble point is that it would have paid handsomely in real peace dividends had these uniformed men with sticks, steel-toed boots, helmets, and automatic weaponry refrained from allowing their lower emotions to get the better of them. I guess, all the training in the world cannot restrain the human beast within. It was late at night, I will give the patrollers that much. But had they succeeded in terms of self-control, not just Rodney King-control, which is where they failed, nothing much would have ensued. The motorist might have been ticketed and driven home, or, according to protocol, jailed overnight and arraigned in the AM. Without this blatant overkill, what mountain could have been made out of so routine a molehill? Another DWI and that's that. A piece of paper instead of bloodshed. Thus, we would never actually have been aware of the blessing attained rather than the curse brought down upon our heads -- some with brutal literality, others vicariously, watching in horror on red television screens.