Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Can we? Are we?

In the wake of the tragic events in Tucson, AZ the most poignant words spoken were those by Rep. Gifford's brother in law, Commander Scott Kelly, commanding officer at the International Space Station:


"We have a unique vantage point here aboard the International Space Station. As I look out the window, I see a very beautiful planet that seems very inviting and peaceful. Unfortunately, it is not,  These days, we are constantly reminded of the unspeakable acts of violence and damage we can inflict upon one another, not just with our actions, but also with our irresponsible words. We're better than this. We must do better."

These words somehow resonated with me for some reason.  I am a passionate person, and while I have never advocated, condoned, joked about or in any way, shape or form encouraged or implied violence, I am still a man of strong passions and opinions and recent events have made me reflect a little more on my words. I think the first two questions that came to mind, after reading this statement, were the two in the title of this blog...Yes we must do better...but...Can we? and Are we better than this?

As you know, I am both an atheist and a liberal.  I am also a bit of cynic and a pessimist when it comes to the "good nature" of my fellow man.  I am a firm believer that we are, in essence, animals by nature.  Sure we can talk, have opposable thumbs, and some of us can think and spell (occasionally), but at our very core we are animals with all the instincts and capabilities that such a statement implies.  What ultimately makes us different is that we have social boundaries that make us behave different from animals.

For example, we would shudder at the thought of having a bowel movement (in an effort to avoid the profane and vulgar in order to not invalidate my entire argument) in the middle of the street like a dog.  But that is actually a more recent development in our human history as such a thing was not unheard of in earlier times of our social development.  We detest the thought of killing and, indeed, every society at some point has had some rule that made killing a detestable act, but consider this: if tomorrow the world was one post apocalyptic horror, would you hesitate to steal, and if need be, kill in order to feed your children?  See?  What makes us different is not our instincts, not what is in that deepest darkest place in our soul, but rather the environment we live in and operate in.

Here is another example for you to consider.  I was watching the movie, "The Pianist".  The movie is set in Nazi Germany during WWII.  This movie gave me much to think about.  I have always thought of the big names in the Third Reich and thought how evil these men were, how soulless and dark.  Names like Hitler and Himmler induce thoughts of the incredible evil and cruelty these men promoted, encouraged and enacted.  However, as I watched "The Pianist", what struck me was not the cruelty and horrors of Hitler and Himmler but rather of the average enlisted man, the average soldier, the average citizen.  Now mind you, I do not ignore the fact that there were acts of heroism and generosity.  I understand that many sacrificed their lives in order to assist and save the lives of the Jews that the cruel regime attempted to destroy.  So the argument may be made that these people embody the best traits of the human animal.  My reply as that these people show the strength of those social restraints when held firmly in a logical mind, the echoes of a fading society. But that is not the point of this argument.  What struck me was the casual cruelty of the average soldier.  The pleasure they took out of culling a few from the crowd and senselessly killing them with a casual shot in the head.  The casual manner in which a group of soldiers could take a cripple in a wheel chair and dump him off of a balcony.  These acts, that in any other environment would be reprehensible, were rewarded.  And while yes there were acts of kindness and heroism and sacrifice, the fact that these men nearly took over the entirety of Europe brought to mind the sheer cruel animal that we can be, given the right circumstances.

John Calvin, Reformer and founder of the Presbyterian church and the Calvinistic point of view, believed that man at his very core is evil and without hope.  Man, in and of himself, is incapable of helping himself or changing himself.  He may wear a facade, may be bound by the constraints of society, but at his core he is an animal and can never truly be changed into something better.  The answer, according to Calvin, was trust in God and that God chose some for a destiny of happiness and redemption and others for their just deserts as the animals they are.  As already mentioned, I am an atheist and therefore do not subscribe to the idea that a non existing being can change man.  I do, however, agree that at our core we are beasts that are held in constraint by the limitations of society, limitations that come, not from a divine being and his rules that apply to everybody other than himself, but rather from a sense of self preservation.  We do not want to be killed, so therefore we prohibit it.  We want to keep our things, therefore, stealing is not permitted.  These rules have surfaced over time, through every step of our development but are not inherent to our race.

When I was growing up I read a book called, Through Gates of Splendor.  This book was about a group of missionaries led by Jim Elliot, that went to South America, and were brutally murdered by the natives.  The process was unique though.  Among the Aucas, the tribe that killed them, it was considered a skill to befriend and lull to complacency an enemy before killing them.  Killing them was an art but it was considered an achievement to "fatten for the kill".  For these people, killing was not only a way of life, it was an expected behavior.  The Mayans were notorious for massive feasts that involved nothing more than butchering countless victims, ripping their hearts out and holding it up while the organ beat its last.  The point I am getting at is that when man is removed from the constraints of society, of "civilized" society, then the same patterns of violence and cruelty will emerge.  Even more pertinent to the tragedy in Tuscon, is the case of Nazi Germany that I already mentioned; when society adapts to allow for violence and even encourages cruelty, as a race we will, with a few exceptions, revert back to the basest instincts that exist in our genetic makeup.

So I ask again...ARE we better than this?  The answer, in my opinion, is that at our core we are not, BUT thanks to the restraints of society we CAN be a part of the facade in order to promote self preservation.  In other words...We MUST do better.  But what happens when logic, self preservation and the general well being of our fellow man is superseded by a sick mind?  Well the tragedy that happened in Tucson is what happens.  The despicable irreverence of Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas that plans on protesting at the funerals of the victims of this tragedy happens.  What separates us from animals is not only the restrictions of society, but our ability to understand why they are necessary and the capability of the human mind to understand the logic, and in the absence of logic, the emotional reasoning for adhering to those rules and restrictions.  When we lose the ability to understand we lose the ability to restrain ourselves from foolish and sometimes cruel acts.

Much has been made of Sarah Palin and the political rhetoric of our time.  It is no secret that I am no fan of Sarah Palin.  I have made that abundantly clear on this blog.  I will not go so far as to say that Palin is to blame for this violence, the perpetrator must be responsible for his own actions, and blaming Sarah Palin for it does nothing to solve the problem.  Sarah Palin, Michelle Bachmann, Rush Limbaugh, Glen Beck, Sean Hannity, Keith Olberman, Ed Harris, Rachel Maddow and the other extremists on both sides of the political spectrum have certainly not helped the environment but they are not to blame for this person's actions, he is.

I do not believe that either side is innocent in the extreme tension that has taken over the conversation in this country.  I do not, however, agree with those that say that both sides are equal and that the left is as violent as the right, but in the final analysis, pointing fingers does not fix the problem.  Neither does covering for people fix the problem.  Whether Sarah Palin likes it or not, whether the pundits from the right like it or not, Palin did post a map with cross hairs and then called for her followers to "not retreat but reload".  With all the respect I can muster for Limbaugh, Bortz, Hannity and the others rushing to Palin's defense, if she meant it as geological survey symbols she would have referred to "digging the opponents out" not reload to remove them.  Her intentions were clear and covering for her only excuses her.  I repeat that I am not blaming Palin for this act, but I do blame her and others like her for promoting an environment that removes those social restraints and provides an excuse in the mind of those whose mind is already disturbed.  No, the shooter was not a Tea Party member, and more than likely really lacked any real political identification or affiliation.  His politics is not what makes the connection to Palin and others like her, it is the fact that at our core we are violent animals and it is only the restraints of society that keeps that beast in check and when an environment promotes that violence, and excuses that violence, making it non consequential, then those restraints are removed and the weakest minds in our midst can, in the chaos of their own mind, excuse their behavior.

Conservative blogger, David Frum, said it best:
"Again: this talk did not cause this crime. But this crime should summon us to some reflection on this talk. Better: This crime should summon us to a quiet collective resolution to cease this kind of talk and to cease to indulge those who engage in it."

We, and I do mean we, have to realize that providing an excuse, making violence humorous or worse, patriotic, using extremes to describe and define our elected officials, only removes the restraints that bind us from the weakest minds amongst us resulting in the kind of tragedy we have seen in Arizona.  Are we better?  No, not really, but we MUST do better...there is no doubt about that...

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