Pharyngula

Shades of gray

Sometimes, issues demand nuance. This is a complicated world and there are a great many subjects that simply aren’t reducible to binaries — we do a disservice to the subtleties when we discard them in favor of absolutes. And often I can agree that we need depth and breadth of understanding if we’re to navigate a difficult situation.

But sometimes the issues are black and white. Sometimes the answers are clear and absolute. And in those cases, attempts to bring out the watercolors and soften the story by blurring the edges do a disservice to reality. There are places where there are no ambiguities, and the only appropriate response is flat condemnation. And we witness them every day.

All around the world, people are killing and being killed; they are crossing the clearest, least arbitrary border we have. You don’t come back from death, and you can’t atone for extinguishing another life. There are no excuses. Life is not a video game, where your targets are smears of pixels with no history and no awareness. In the real world, those bodies are people, with 20 years or 30 years or 50 years or 70 years of stories and connections behind them, part of a web of humanity, and their every action tugs on the people around them. Dehumanizing them, as we often do, dehumanizes us. You are the killer, but you are also the killed.

  • …the enemy walks down the road, a distant figure in the sights of your rifle. You squeeze the trigger, there is a sharp report, and bam, the enemy is smashed backwards like a cheap tin target in the penny arcade, and a red mist slowly settles over his still form. You trot forward and look; a clean kill, the bullet went through the left eye and blew out the entire back of the skull, brains and blood are sprayed for yards behind the target, the face is a ghastly ruin of slumping flesh on the shattered armature of the skull.

    …you are walking down the road, anxious to be home since there are reports of the enemy lurking in the neighborhood, but still thinking ahead to mundane concerns, like what you’ll have for dinner or what the family has been doing while you were away, when…nothing. You suddenly cease to exist, without warning, without awareness, just abruptly, you are no more.

    Hours later, friends find your body and carry it home, and stretch it out on the table. On the wall above it is your wedding portrait. Your partner clutches your rigid hand, the flesh like cold clay, and looks at the portrait, and looks at the wreckage of your beloved face, and knows there will be nightmares, and that every happy memory will always be overlaid with the horror of this moment.

  • …you watch the crowd fill the streets, and when the numbers seem adequate, you tap the numbers into your cell phone, and instantly the car blooms into a flare of fire, and as you watch the bodies fly and flail away from it, you hear the rumbling thud of the detonation. You rush forward with everyone else — it wouldn’t do to be spotted guiltily scuttling away — and you see one of the enemy lying in the road, eyes blinking in shock, staring at the sky. You watch the lips move, but no sound emerges — you know the shock wave of the explosion would have pulped lungs that now lie in sodden useless tatters in the chest. The target tries to cough, spasms, blood gushes from mouth and nose, and then the feeble movements end, and the eyes glaze, seeing nothing ever again.

    …you join friends as you walk to the market, when a great hand lifts you and flings you against a wall and bounces you into the street. You can’t hear anything but an overwhelming ringing; you feel disoriented and confused; something is wrong with your body, it feels weak and helpless. You look up at the sky, it’s clear and blue and beautiful, and you dream that your mother will come and pick you up and all will be well, so you try to call out to her, but you can’t catch your breath, and all you feel is a vast welling bubble of pain rising up and up and breaking…and then darkness.

    Your mother arrives later, with people from all around the neighborhood. They file through the makeshift morgue, sorting through the bloody clothing and the shattered body parts, trudging through a charnel house to identify their loved ones, or fragments of them. One of the attendants has washed the blood and dust from your face and, unlike so many others, you look like one sleeping — your mother hopefully puts a hand to your cheek, feels the chilled motionlessness, and knows there is no hope ever again, and feels a shadow of that rising bubble of anguish herself.

  • …the enemy walks into the shop, and from your hiding place, you paint the wall of the building with your laser. Your headset whispers; the pilot of the plane flying invisibly distant, far above you, acknowledges the signal and calmly informs you that the package is inbound. Moments later, there is a streak of light from the sky and a thunderclap of sound and fire and dust and smoke, and the building vanishes, becoming a shallow hole in the ground surrounded by a corona of rubble.

    …you open the door and walk into the room, greeting your friends, when, in an instant, you are vaporized, your flesh so thoroughly churned in the violence of the explosion that all that will remain are small clumps of blood and dust sown across the landscape. No recognizable trace will ever be recovered.

    All your children will know is that one day their parent left them, abandoned them, disappeared somehow in the diffuse chaos and instability that is their life. They shall inherit anger and a sense of betrayal, but remember little else about you.

  • …you are part of the mob. How dare they insult your people! Your fury rages, and together you grab sticks and stones and knives and you surge to their home, where the guards stand surprised and frightened by the spontaneous rush of howling people. You overwhelm them. You stand over one, stomp on an exposed arm, and see it bend and break; you pick up a rock, kneel down, and see the enemy’s face, hear the screams of pain and terror, smell the shit and blood as the enemy’s guts are spilled on the dirt, and raise that rock and smash and smash and smash. The body is dead, but everyone continues to tear at it, ripping scraps of smeared clothing and even souvenirs of flesh and passing them back to the crowd behind them, where they are waved like bloody flags.

    …you stand momentarily as the mob charges, torn between duty and fear, and then you try to break and run …but too late. There are too many to fight, they batter you everywhere, you can’t think — all you know is agony and horror and you feel fingers tearing at your eyes and your limbs breaking and the sharp tearing of knives and finally numbing, crushing blows to the skull, and then you’re dead. But the mob doesn’t stop, and continues to rend and mutilate.

    Your body is sent home in a sealed coffin. There is a decorous funeral, the words are solemnly said, the family weeps. In the somber procession, though, suddenly your father drops to his knees, broken. He remembers the laughing child he carried on his shoulders, and he can’t reconcile that moment with this one. He wants to know what happened, but he can’t know. He wants to have helped, but he is helpless. And there is no way to overcome this grief.

I know what it is like to lose someone you love, and it’s a pain so great that I can’t imagine reaching out to cause that pain in anyone else; what killers must do is blind themselves to the enormity of their act and wall themselves off from the empathy that all human beings should have. They also must bury that portion of their mind that can sympathize with their victims in an avalanche of pretexts, these excuses that later apologists will call “nuance”, or “shades of gray”, or “complications”. And they will dredge up the familiar roll call of empty ghosts to water down the evil of what is done. They will call it God. Country. Honor. Justice. Revenge. The priests and the mullahs and the politicians and the generals are experts at softening the contrast and blurring the edges and persuading one person that that other person over there, so much like you in every way that matters, deserves to have everything important extinguished and brutalized and disregarded.

They are so damned good at it that they can stir up the killing frenzy over anything at all. A gang of fanatics, driven by superstition and ethnic bigotry, kill thousands in a terrorist attack in one country. So zealots stir up their own froth of superstition and ethnic bigotry, and convince the targeted country to attack and kill people of yet another country that had nothing to do with the terrorist attack. What a waste of lives, yet everyone on both sides is smug and confident that the deaths on the other side were warranted.

Or even more ridiculously remote: one side takes such extreme offense at the lack of reverence shown by a few people on the other side towards some copy of a sacred object, that they then slaughter unrelated targets.

Stirred up by three angry mullahs who urged them to avenge the burning of a Koran at a Florida church, thousands of protesters on Friday overran the compound of the United Nations in this northern Afghan city, killing at least 12 people, Afghan and United Nations officials said.

Unable to find Americans on whom to vent their anger, the mob turned instead on the next-best symbol of Western intrusion — the nearby United Nations headquarters. “Some of our colleagues were just hunted down,” said a spokesman for the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, Kieran Dwyer, in confirming the attack.

These twelve people were human beings, reduced to a statistic in a newspaper article, and dehumanized and exterminated by a mindless mob, inflamed by religious fanatics. Similarly, the hundred thousand or more killed in Iraq, the ongoing war in Afghanistan, all of these are also genuine, thinking, feeling human beings, wiped out in a cold-hearted calculus of delusion and greed. There is no justification sufficient for these acts.

Yet somehow we get lost in the wrong questions. Do we have the right to burn the Koran? Is it unreasonable to think that Afghans might have cause to be angry? Should we not defend the right of fascist politicians to live, and perhaps it is OK to grant a limited license to murder to certain people if they are of the correct political stripe or the appropriate faith? Shall we weigh the sins of a Florida preacher against those of three Afghan clerics, and come up with a number that will tell us which is the greater offender, and by how much?

I’m an extremist in this debate, I will freely confess. I hold an absolute view that no killing is ever justified, that individuals have the necessity to defend themselves against assailants, but that even that does not grant moral approval to snuffing out the life of another. Don’t even try to pull out a scale and toss a copy of the Koran on one side and the life of a single human being on the other — the comparison is obscene. Do not try to tell me that some people are ‘moderates’ when they tolerate or even support and applaud war and death and murder for any cause, whether it is oil, or getting even, or defending the honor of wood pulp and ink.

The bone is bleached white. The flesh is burnt black. The blood splashes scarlet. You can’t render it in grays and pastels without losing sight of the truth.