To Think, or Not To Think?
Je pense, donc je suis. (I think, therefore I am.)--Rene Descartes
To be or not to be? -- Hamlet
To be or not to be--what? What will we be or not be? As humans we have choices about what to do, what to plan, who to hang with, what to learn, what to ignore. But do we have a choice about what to be? I think we do, and it's the most difficult of all the choices that face us.
It is by now a truism to say that what distinguishes humanity from the rest of the living world is the ability to reason. But to say that all people are "human" is patently untrue by this definition. I mean to challenge the claim to humanity made by those who choose not to think about the consequences of a "war on terrorism", or who will not think about the motivations of the murderers who attacked American citizens en masse. Let me save the ink and breath of all who would argue that I am about to justify or rationalize the barbaric acts of September 11th. I apply my judgment both to the brutal killers and to those who urge a war of retribution while turning a dead eye on the "collateral damage" to life and liberty that will likely result.
While it may be human, all too human to seethe with anger over the atrocities borne vicariously (by most advocates of war) in their capacity as tribal members of a nation suddenly shocked into an unfamiliar and generally shunned feeling of community, yet to want nothing more than war and revenge strikes reason as narcissistic pandering. Many neighbors, family and friends have suffered real losses because of the brutal acts of some limited number of people who themselves lack humanity. As members of a nation, the rest of us may vicariously crave the sense of personal involvement that the television seems to promise by offering a false proximity to the horror. But this edgy sense of having been there should not be sufficient justification to remove inhibitions that separate us from mindless violence and mockeries of justice.
It seems beyond dispute that humans and beasts alike are justified in acting to preserve life, their own lives in particular. Where humanity fails in being what it claims to be is in the deliberate censoring of conscience that is apt to follow so shocking and unexpected a change in the general sense of security and well being. By saying "in this case we can dispense with the niceties of civil justice, because this is War!", by accepting this necromantic gramary, we put to death our own humanity in an act of choosing not to be human. And it is nothing can be revived once the slaughter is done. We may attempt some sleight or voodoo in later years as a firewall between the truth of our bloodlust and the peace we will want to bequeath to our children and theirs. But for those who turn to savagery or support it, peace will be forever sacrificed to the god of death we now unchallenged let whisper in our ears.
And what are the lies with which this shadow of life will fill our skulls?
That the acts of those who act in our name have nothing to do with the ferocity of hate that powered the assault on our countrymen--and even if they did, the point is moot in deciding the fate of nations harboring the enemy.
That the global reach of the West's "consumer culture" is a force for peace, and the best hope for democracy and international cooperation.
That we will be called on to sacrifice privacy, free speech, democratic control of the legislature (the executive is by acclimation gone), freedom of movement, the use of public funds, the surrender of social programs, not to mention our children and their futures to the rapidly inflating war machine. The hiss will tell us that these "structural adjustments" to empire have already been imposed on other nations and should be accepted as a leveling force imposed on Americans. It is an irony we should embrace, we will hear whispered.
The shadow will hiss that we will want, for our own good, to cease questioning or criticizing the behavior of government representatives, because they are now War Leaders, not representatives, and they will tell us how it will be in the world and the nation, not the other way around.
The cowled wraith of war will impugn our desire nor will it countenance our need to know the truth. In fact, we will better serve the cause and be instruments of victory if the furrows of our brains are tilled by our betters and sewn with pap that will surely sprout jingoistic waves of ingrained obedience. We will be quietly promised a subsidy not to grow anything of our own between our two ears.
Life's nemesis will say that talk is cheap and action, any forceful action, is far better than procrastinating over morality or virtue or responsibility or law.
"To do is to be!" we will hear whispered.
Do-Be-Do-Be-Do! And how will these prophetic lies become the truth of our age? How will our unreasoned self-deceit devolve into the Big Lie that no one may securely challenge? Ah! So much for security! Count it gone when surrendered to the moment.
It will happen, I am sure, if no one dares think. If no one dares be human. If no one asks and no one demands answers. It will rise out of the unridiculed and unchallenged hypocrisy of empire. It will cover our times like the shadow of a new Dark Ages in which the counterfeit piety of warring camps of fundamentalist true believers ban thought and embrace faith in the Big Lie they have erected together to serve as an idol for the lost humanity that once threatened to take root in man-unkind.
Herecomes the horseman of Apocalypse! Hear his steed approach? It is War!!
War is a drumbeat, a carnivorous, pulsing drone that throbs in the ears of a nation preparing to send death abroad. In the teeth of the American warhorse is clenched the bit of vengeance, and bitter is its metallic taste. The steed's sight is narrowed by blinders and its reins are held so tightly that only one direction fills its present-only mind: to war!
Of what are the sinews of the stallion made? I'll tell you: the harnessed will of the people is cowed to the spur and flexes in tension and distress. And underneath are dull, thudding hooves and the bludgeoned ground of justice rises in a dust cloud and falls lifeless on the widening path to war.
Nostrils flare: with sudden feral ferocity the beast snorts and huffs the curling air to catch the scent of the other, the stranger, the enemy. Who is the other? Anyone not assimilated into the thrust of the sinews to charge. Any who stand in the way.
America's security as a nation was blind-sided on September 11th, 2001. It's self image as an untouchable empire, remote enough from its colonies so that most American citizens didn't even know the nation had any, came to an end. The shock was not just to the surviving families and friends; it was a blistering repudiation of national aloofness that was played out on Wall Street and Main Street. What will we do? What will our plans become? With whom will we ally? What will we want to know first? What will we refuse to consider before we act? What will we become as a result?
What we should not, I hope, become, is a nation of unthinking brutes bent first on vengeance, and then on mere tyranny against all who oppose what we see as a "just" cause. Justice borne of harmed sentiment lacks civility, as proved by those responsible for the attacks on New York, Washington, and the passengers and crew over Pennsylvania. What do we choose to be?
To be, or not to be: that is the question:
Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles.
And by opposing end them?
(Shakespeare, Hamlet (1601),act 3, sc. 1, l. 56)
It should be remembered that what Hamlet was considering in this passage in which he proposed to himself that he "take arms against a sea of troubles" was suicide. While the USA may not be in jeopardy of military suicide by declaring a multinational war on an undefined enemy, the American people stand the risk of suiciding their humanity. Some thought, prior to the irrevocable decision toward this end, must come to mind.