Yesterday was the one year anniversary of an early morning drug raid in Kentucky, using a warrant based on outdated intel, that resulted in the killing of an innocent 26 year-old EMT named Breonna Taylor in her own home. The police who broke down her door and began wildly firing into the apartment were not charged in her death, though they left her bleeding with 8 bullet wounds for twenty minutes before any medical efforts were taken to save her (depraved indifference?). As she lay dying they were busy arresting her boyfriend, who fired once at men who broke down the door — men all but one witness said never identified themselves as police. The boyfriend recently had felony charges against him dismissed, after only a year. Remember, this deadly military style assault was to enforce Prohibition, Louisville police were there to intercept illegal drugs, though none were found. Although no police were charged in Taylor’s killing, scores of protesters calling for accountability for the officers and an end to “no knock” warrants, were arrested for, essentially, felony protest. Fair is fair.
Hard as it is to believe, your worldview will determine how you see the facts of this awful case. A good percentage of the country sees this killing simply as an unavoidable tragedy, something that couldn’t have been helped. Some will argue that Taylor’s boyfriend should not have pulled out his licensed gun when he was abruptly woken by the sound of men breaking down the door. Once he fired into the leg of one of the men, whatever happened after that was coming to him. The same people will defend the Stand Your Ground laws that extend the Castle Doctrine (you may defend yourself with deadly force against a deadly threat in your home) to anywhere and anyone you fear might use deadly force against you. A black kid walking down a suburban Florida street is fair game to shoot, as we have learned, if you can prove he scared the shit out of you.
It sounds simplistic, I know, to insist on a premise like all communal hatred resulting in violence flows from the same source. Or making the obvious point about the central role early life experiences play in shaping how we see the world, for that matter. It is beyond dispute that how we see the world, our worldview, not only influences what we believe and how we act, it creates the world we live in, to a great extent. All simplistic and self-evident sounding, I know. but I hope my rambling here will shed some light for us, somehow.
Take every situation where an enraged mob goes after a certain group of people simply based on the other group’s ethnic, religious, racial or political identity and rains living hell down on them. Lately it’s angry American fools bashing elderly Asians, shoving them to the ground, slashing them with knives, because they blame all Asians for the “Wuhan Flu”, as our former president, a big fan of tough talk and violence of every kind, dubbed it. How about that Nobel Peace Prize winner, former political prisoner turned prime minister, Aung San Suu Kyi silent on the mass killings and forced evacuations of hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims in her country? Two million Tutsis, slaughtered by hand, in a short, bloody span of time, by machete wielding Hutus, another tribal group. Every “ethnic” massacre is a variation on the same theme. The names change, the victims and perpetrators wear different hats, the methods of killing change, but it’s the same thing, every time. Ever hear of “necklacing?” Hell of a technique, Brownie:
Necklacing is the practice of extrajudicial summary execution and torture carried out by forcing a rubber tire filled with petrol around a victim’s chest and arms, and setting it on fire. The victim may take up to 20 minutes to die, suffering severe burns in the process.
How can one human “necklace” another human? Easy, apparently, given the right set of circumstances. For whatever reason, the mass killing of despised “others” is a regular feature of our common history anytime masses of desperate people get really enraged, particularly when they are encouraged in this violent group mania by their leaders. It’s always a very similar horror story, a few details changed.
I don’t know why the commonality of every instance of mass violence seems so hard to grasp, or why it doesn’t act as a kind of brake on these recurring slaughters. Every time I hear the next atrocity story it reminds me of the grappling in the media with the “question” of exactly why the insane guy with the automatic weapon went nuts and killed a bunch of strangers before blowing his own head off. It’s as if, perhaps this time, the insane “gunman” who went crazy and started massacring before he “turned the gun on himself” will be the first to have a brilliant, totally valid theory for his insanely violent act.
Seeing that horrific black and white clip of the guy in the cap dumping a load of jiggly, rubber human skeletons down a chute in the early 1940s did not instantly convince me of the commonality of all such massacres, (and we’ll stipulate that the Nazi death machine was unique in its scope, size and efficiency) but it had an effect on my thinking about the subject, my view of the world.
You see something like that as a child and it stays with you, changes the way you think about “solutions” that involve the mass torture and murder of our fellow homo sapiens. I think I would have felt the same way if the clip had been of charging Turks on horseback whipping wailing Armenian women, children and old people into a raging river to drown. How are those things different? How is either fundamentally different than a man with a gun and a badge nonchalantly kneeling on another man’s neck until the pleading, handcuffed man stops moving and then keeps his knee there until the man is dead? Each of these things is characterized by what the law, in an excellent phrase, calls “depraved indifference to human life.”
On a certain fundamental level, we are all taught to accept that war, and mass killing, are simply an unfortunate, but sometimes necessary, inevitable part of politics. A particularly muscular form of diplomacy, practiced at the behest of God’s imperfect but powerful vessels. The way we have been helping the Saudi royal family starve the people of Yemen, the poorest country in the Middle East, or our devastating blockade of Venezuela — a nation we are crippling economically during a deadly pandemic — just other, more coercive forms of diplomacy. Tally ho! These inferior people, given to a tyrannical form of government, or political beliefs we find repugnant, have simply got to learn to get with the program, we’ll gently starve them ’til they wise up!
Back to the personal, the place where “political” and “religious” beliefs, and “morality” are instilled. If your parent was humiliated as a child, as mine were, they will tend to see the world in a zero sum way. They can’t risk being humiliated any more, the possibility is too traumatic, and so they phrase every disagreement or conflict as a war that must be fought to the death. My father, as he was dying, said he always felt we could never have a real discussion of anything, he thought a fight was inevitable. He said that it had been his fault, because he lacked insight and saw everything in blazing black and white — a win-lose battle to the death. He felt every disagreement with his children inevitably led to a fight since he had never learned any other way, in spite of his education, sensitivity and group dynamic training, vast professional experience and highly developed mind.
In the end, as he was dying, it became important to him, as he reviewed his suddenly-ending life, to confront, out loud, for the first time, how crabbed and destructive his view of the world had been. It should have been as simple as “if you’re in pain, and come to me perplexed, let me listen patiently and try to help you instead of fighting you because I’m angry and afraid.” He realized that simple truth of being a decent human too late, as he apologized to me for the only time in his life. “I was wrong,” he said, also for the first time. Why did it take rapidly approaching death to bring these basic human realizations to him? Beats me. Tragic, truly. On the other hand, what a slippery gift he handed me right before he shuffled off and left me to close his dead eyelids with two fingers of my right hand.
There is really no risk to listening quietly to someone else’s pain, if you care about the person. It is often the only useful thing you can do for someone you care about when they are hurt, understanding how they feel. But to many people, the realm of feelings is always fraught and ready to burst into war. A war over who has the right to feel pain, how much pain is reasonable to feel, to express, how outrageous it is to pour out your troubles as though the person you are crying to doesn’t have even worse troubles! If you tell me I hurt you I am no friend if I say “that’s your problem, asshole.” There is a productive conversation, that starts with yielding to the other person’s right to be hurt, without fighting over how contemptible a worm he or she is to feel that way.
In the wake of my projectile vomiting after that searing Nazi footage from Let My People Go, my father was implacable. It was going to be a hard lesson to me. You see– you disobeyed good parental advice, your mother and I both begged you and advised you not to see what you can now never unsee, strictly for your own good, and now you want my pity because what I warned you about came sickeningly true? It’s good for you to remember next time, you contumacious little prick (yeah, look that up in that dictionary you like so much). And, by the way, seven is not too young to start acting like a man, particularly since you are so smart you don’t need anybody’s advice… (etc.)”
An understandable reaction, I understood it, even at the time. Still, not the reaction a child wants or needs. Understandable from a tit for tat perspective, but not from any other, really.
It is also tempting to repeat the treatment you experienced. This is a familiar tic of the victimized, do it to somebody else, as if abusing another victim will make you feel powerful enough to take your shame and hurt away. The way the more violent of the Ukrainians, recently starved en masse by an inhuman enemy, took it out on their own long-time, powerless, enemies when the opportunity to do so without repercussions presented itself.
I recall the vivid TED talk given by likeable neuroscientist Jim Fallon. He was a funny, mild-mannered expert in the configuration of the psychopath’s brain. He had his family tested at one point, and reviewing the brain scans, found one that was a classic psychopath’s brain. It was his own. He shrugged about it, even when his family and friends unanimously confirmed that he showed many traits of the psychopath. The fact that he didn’t flinch at the diagnosis proved that he had that moral nonchalance characteristic of the psychopath. He didn’t pretend to be upset. His point was that if someone with his brain configuration did not have their violence activated by experiencing or witnessing traumatic physical and psychological abuse during a certain early developmental window, they’d grow up to be people who lacked empathy, but who could also joke, be mild mannered, lead productive lives and never commit violence against anyone else.
Fascinating, if sometimes terribly dark, the way our views of the world are often formed by events early in life, before we know very much. I’ll hope to be on to cheerier subjects soon, boys and girls.