2014 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2014 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

A San Francisco cable car holds 60 people. This blog was viewed about 260 times in 2014. If it were a cable car, it would take about 4 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

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The Point of Killing

My last retrospective blog-post of 2014, entitled “The Point of Killing” is perhaps not as cheery a text as many would wish to read during the festive season. Nevertheless, I feel that its message of peace, tolerance and forgiveness, in the midst of a world that is still far crueler than we like to imagine, is in keeping with the true spirit of Christmas. The text forms a companion piece to “The Sweet Inception of War”, which I posted earlier this year to commemorate the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War.

I wish all those who follow or visit my blog a spiritually-rewarding Christmas and a peaceful and prosperous new year.

The Point of Killing

2014 has turned out to be an unusually, depressingly—and seemingly pointlessly—bloody year. In its dying weeks, it has descended to new depths of barbarism, with the Taliban butchering over a hundred Pakistani children at their school desks.

In the US, the drip-drip of everyday police brutality and crazed shooting sprees goes on unabated, while torture is revealed to have been a standard—if ineffective—procedure in US prison camps during the post-9/11 Bush régime and Islamic extremists post videos of beheadings on the Internet by way of warped retaliation.

The most popular forms of entertainment—TV shows, movies and video games—reflect and maybe fuel this gruesome reality; titillating audiences with an increasingly aestheticized high-definition orgy of senseless or extra-judicial violence and killing. Sony Pictures Entertainment saw fit to celebrate Christmas this year by treating family audiences to a ‘comedy’ about the assassination of a sitting—albeit cruelly despotic—North Korean head-of-state.

In the early 1990s, when I first had access to cable/satellite TV, I conducted a little experiment. I wondered whether it was possible, simply by rapidly switching channels, to spend a whole day’s viewing watching only acts of violence. I found, shockingly, but not much to my surprise, that it was extremely easy to do so.

The kind of violence at that time was mostly of the action-hero type, with a strong emphasis on the Dirty Harry-style of extrajudicial killing, which is a particularly—and worryingly—resilient stock-in-trade of the US feature-film and comic-book entertainment industry. Since then, the cult of death and violence in popular culture has become much subtler and more sophisticated, ranging from the cozy moralizing aestheticism of Bones, CSI or Midsomer Murders, to the chilling tragi-comic ambivalence of Dexter, Hannibal and Bates Motel, to the art-house hyper-realism of The Wire and True Detective.

There is obviously something very unsettling about all of this. The most basic injunction not to kill is being treated on all sides—in fiction and reality—in an unusually cavalier fashion.

And yet, statistically, violence has in fact decreased significantly over the past fifty years or so, possibly to the lowest levels in recorded history. Steven Pinker has argued (http://www.amazon.com/The-Better-Angels-Our-Nature/dp/1491518243 and https://www.ted.com/talks/steven_pinker_on_the_myth_of_violence?language=en that the spotlight of social media and the interconnectedness of the global economy have given rise to an unprecedented expansion of empathy and accountability.

In the not so distant past, horrific genocides and casual everyday cruelties went unnoticed or met with indifference. The murder of hundreds of Pakistani schoolchildren is certainly a horrid crime, but the fact that this is instantly condemned around the world by far-reaching media outlets is surely a cause for hope. It is wrong that African-Americans are still gunned down on the streets by police, but they are no longer lynched secretly or with impunity as part of a socially-acceptable deeply-entrenched racist regime.

It has been a bloody year, but the bloodshed has not gone unnoticed and the perpetrators are being increasingly held to account for their crimes. 1914 was a much bloodier year and we still feel the need to sugar-coat that senseless slaughter with poppies. In the First and Second World Wars, going on into the Cold War, all combatant nations committed heinous war-crimes and most of these went unpunished.

Keith Lowe’s Savage Continent, one of the best books I read this year http://www.amazon.com/Savage-Continent-Europe-Aftermath-World/dp/125003356X tells the shocking tale of the ongoing brutality that shaped modern Europe in the immediate aftermath of World War II. He ends this book by noting that, while violence based on intolerance of outgroups is now much rarer than it was in the past, there is a tendency for old grudges to linger and fester for generations, and then suddenly erupt, as occurred in the fissile Yugoslavia of the early 1990s and, is occurring now, to a lesser extent, in Ukraine, and, to a much greater extent, across the Middle East.

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In the past 50 years or so, the act of killing (and, with it, the fact of dying), in so far as it has become rarer, has shifted from being a deplorable necessity or atrocity, to something much more ambiguous.

Most killing and dying nowadays is not planned or planned for, but, to some degree, contingent and accidental. Responsibility, justified or not, has become an ambiguous concept and this scares us much more than a caricature of outright cruelty and brutality (for the sake of good or ill) that is easier to grasp, classify, and condone or condemn.

There is a point—and it is often only a microsecond or a millimeter away—where a prank, an act of bullying, or even the overzealous pursuit of a perceived just cause tips over into tragedy and lifelong ignominy. The crime wasn’t exactly planned, but is somehow worse for that, its motivation terrifyingly lost in the semantic and moral cracks between accident and design.

We yearn for death to be meaningful; clearly justified or patently undeserved. But there is a point where a gang of 10-year-old bullies messing around with a younger boy hear his skull crack against a railway track. There is a point where a frustrated single mom shakes a crying baby girl and feels her limbs go limp in her arms. There is a point where an ill-paid security guard shoots out in fear and pierces the heart of an innocent teenage boy. These are points where the distinction between the justifiable and the unconscionable, between being responsible or irresponsible, break down catastrophically into moral black holes.

This is the sickness in the stomach a band of self-styled freedom-fighters in the eastern Ukraine must have felt, when they realized they had ‘accidentally on purpose’ shot down a civilian plane. A band of brothers, in an instant, turned into a den of monsters. The feelings on all sides defy words. The facts defy normal feelings, defy forensic science, defy justice, defy reportage…

Popular culture and the pitchfork justice of the mass-media tend to pre-judge such ‘accidental on purpose’ killers especially harshly. Callous psychopaths, by contrast, are regarded in the popular imagination with a certain awe, verging on perverse admiration, and their misdeeds are immortalized in bestselling books and blockbuster films. This is especially so, if they can somehow be cast in the role of ultimately well-meaning vigilantes. No such fame, but a much worse fate, awaits those who kill accidentally but as a clear consequence of their own misguided actions. These benighted souls, after all, scare us more, because, unlike the monsters and supermen on the margins of our imagination given silver linings by Hollywood screens, these ordinary casual killers could easily be you or me.

Murder is not a Rubicon between good and evil, but always a hair-trigger away and the fact that our culture idolizes murderers with no conscience and condones soldiers and executioners, whilst demonizing those who seem to murder by accident, tells much about the moral decadence of a modern world in which the clear Christian commandment not to kill is observed at once sternly and flippantly.

“Thou shalt not kill,” is the most basic commandment and apparently the easiest to comply with. Despite the glorification of Hollywood, it is not easy to kill a fellow human being, even in war, as the discovery of post-traumatic stress disorder has shown. A recent survey in the UK suggested that all convicted murderers are mentally ill. And yet, killing is, on another banal level, all too easy, and becoming easier, as modern technology allows us to end life in the space of a keystroke with a remote-controlled drone and police group into SWAT teams armed to the teeth with army-surplus materiel.

In 1995, Pope John Paul II issued an encyclical entitled “Evangelium Vitae” [The Gospel of Life] http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/john_paul_ii/encyclicals/documents/hf_jp-ii_enc_25031995_evangelium-vitae_en.html . I am not a Roman Catholic but I have always found this text especially moving and of profound importance for our modern world. It is a sermon that aims to counter the prevalent—if veiled—modern idea that killing—through acceptance of euthanasia, capital punishment, suicide, abortion and war— should be viewed as something clinically utilitarian and routine rather than aberrant or accidental. In John Paul’s argument, clearly informed by the Nazi horrors he witnessed in his youth, it is obviously wrong to kill people merely because they are sick, useless, unwanted, despairing, or criminally insane.

Killers who kill coldly according to this logic are much worse than those who lash out in accidental passion or those genetically bereft of empathy. Unfortunately, as the past year has shown, we still live in a world in which this gentle message is, more often than not, turned upside down.