To kill or not to kill? That is the question. It has tentacles into our legal practice of capital punishment, our medical practices of abortion or euthanasia, and our civil conduct of war.
An opinion article by Timothy Kudo—a captain in the US Marines and grad student at NY University—in the February 27, 2015, Friday issue of the New York Times is a thoughtful and thought provoking piece: well worth a careful read.
I saw it in the NYT Sunday Review. After describing his training, and the march of circumstantial logic that required him to answer the question in the affirmative, he invites us to look at the cultural fabric into which his and our answers are woven. Kudo served in Iraq in 2009, and in Afghanistan from 2010 to 2011, according to the article. Appropriately, the title states “How We Learned to Kill.” The final paragraphs read:
… The fog of war doesn’t just limit what you can know; it creates doubt about everything you’re certain that you know.
The madness of war is that while this system is in place to kill people, it may actually be necessary for the greater good. We live in a dangerous world where killing and torture exist and where the persecution of the weak by the powerful is closer to the norm than the civil society where we get our Starbucks. Ensuring our own safety and the defense of a peaceful world may require training boys and girls to kill, creating technology that allows us to destroy anyone on the planet instantly, dehumanizing large segments of the global population and then claiming there is a moral sanctity in killing. To fathom this system and accept its use for the greater good is to understand that we still live in a state of nature.
If this era of war ever ends, and we emerge from the slumber of automated killing to the daylight of moral questioning, we will face a reckoning. If we are honest with ourselves, the answers won’t be simple.
T.Kudo; New York Times Sunday Review; March 1, 2015
All social ethics related to mastery over life flow, fundamentally, from the right of a people to self-governance. 20th Century standup comic Lenny Bruce famously caricatured a basic civics lesson from the needs of people to eat, defecate, and sleep. Common agreements are negotiated about how that should be structured to keep everyone satisfied. After agreements create an equitable solution, someone chooses to flaunt personal power or address perceived injury by breaking the rules.
Then, we, the people, pick a rule enforcer whose authority and sway supersedes individual right, according to Bruce.
That is the beginning, and the definition, of the problem: individual right versus an enforced social standard. If we accept the premise that social values have more weight than individual rights (points humorously made by Bruce) then we must accept that it will end in someone falling victim to society’s management of his or her “excesses.”
If we are ever to get the genie back into the bottle, we must find a way to utilize language to depolarize the extremes between social mores and individual freedoms. Calling the Unabomber’s actions “excesses” may seem atrocious use of language to us. But we must take responsibility for the “surgical bombings” that decimate villages in Pakistan and Afghanistan. These same bombings are creating the rationale for wars not yet begun in the minds of the horrified children in those villages, who witness our unintended “excesses.”
US abortion rates add to the “excesses.” The following was downloaded 05/28/15 from the Center for Disease Control site: http://www.cdc.gov/reproductivehealth/data_stats/ “In 2011, 730,322 legal induced abortions were reported to CDC from 49 reporting areas. The abortion rate was 13.9 abortions per 1,000 women aged 15–44 years and the abortion ratio was 219 abortions per 1,000 live births.” Nearly 18 per cent of all US pregnancies end in abortion.
When abortion has morphed into ‘another form of birth control,’ one has to ask, do those “prevented” children have a voice in the debate over their fate? How may that voice ever be heard? While the maternal mortality rate in the abortion process is higher than for live births, we seem stuck on arguing in favor of this right for the mothers involved, while we conveniently overlook the mortality rates for those women, and completely eliminate the voice of reason that asks, “To whom, exactly, are we denying life?”
The Women’s Movement has chosen to focus on women’s reproductive rights in the abortion/birth control debate. What of male responsibility in the process? Are men being given the message, “It’s not your decision because it is not your body?” Or is that acquiescing to implicit male dominance in the reproductive cycle, by ignoring any male responsibility and continuing a cultural shift making women increasingly responsible for all child bearing and child rearing. This is the very process that has allowed a male-dominant US culture where women are valued for their sexual desirability and men are less and less responsive to any child-bearing or child-care needs. Hilary Clinton in the White House won’t change this picture.
No one has yet defined what exactly constitutes the “life” to which we cling as a right in our Declaration of Independence, and which we want to be able to shrug off when the pain of being US outweighs the pleasure we get from it. Is there any longer such a thing as “suicide” in a state that allows one to administer the death “penalty” to oneself? Let’s face it, death is not usually a penalty to a sixty-something or older citizen whose creaky old body takes a while to come to life in the morning, and to whom the work of living one more day often precludes many other activities once enjoyed in the course of 24 hours. However, death is a penalty.
If death is not a penalty, why would any state debate its use? Generally, it is a penalty to the loved ones left behind, whose rights to be actively related to a living elder are terminated by death. I would argue that it is also a penalty to the state where the benefit of the experience and perspective of the most blighted serial killer may be useful in understanding ourselves, our lives, and the value systems that our culture upholds.
Initially the “death penalty” was given by a state intent on cutting its losses in the secure imprisonment, care, and feeding of a citizen who had committed a heinous crime. Today, we stand to gain more from studying the person like a bug under glass. That person’s actions have given him or her no right to a say in the matter because s/he has broken faith with the community whose laws s/he so grievously flaunted. Any society that wishes to name “life” as a right must necessarily provide humane treatment of persons imprisoned for life—though the prisoner’s ultimate punishment is the knowledge that s/he will live for the state’s benefit as long as life endures.
I would suggest that we use some of our vaunted wealth and knowledge in an ongoing debate on the meaning of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” since our forefathers framed that conundrum. Put war, abortion rights, capital punishment and euthanasia on hold until we have learned the results of our bellicose politics; and until we understand what we mean in our debates over “equal rights, capital punishment, and euthanasia”—until we better understand the subtle logic by which we call ourselves “US.”