January 29, 2011
Whether it’s talk show hosts like Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh pontificating about killing liberals, liberals worried about being (literally) sacrificed to a right –wing, fundamentalist theocracy, men and women in militias tough-talking about killing our own soldiers in a Martial Law scenario, or ordinary doomers discussing ammo and arms to fight off a hoard of marauders in the event of collapse, there’s a mighty lot of talk about killing and death in this country.
I’ve never killed anyone, but by my own back-of-the-napkin calculations, I personally attended close to a thousand people as they died in the twenty-five years I worked in hospitals. No matter how skilled the makeup artists and actors, nothing you see portrayed in television or movie dramas really captures that transition from life to death, the sudden change that takes place in the eyes between the “alive” and “dead” moment in time. The closest I’ve seen to that reality on TV was the heartbreaking death of the young Iranian woman, Nadia, during the uprisings there last year. Even so, the camera simply could not get close enough to capture that “transition of the eyes”. Whatever your religious beliefs, or lack thereof, being there for the first time at that moment, alters everything you thought you understood about life and death in ways both unspeakable and irrevocable.
Unless you are a psychopath, or mental illness or disease has altered your ability to process the act, how much more must this be true if you are the immediate cause of that transition? Perhaps that’s why, in war, snipers, bomber pilots and drone operators can do what they do, day after day, from such distance. They don’t have to see those eyes in transition.
Back in 1958, when I went from high school to college, the Korean War had been over for only three years and veterans from that war inundated colleges and universities. I became friends with several; two became particularly good friends over the next year. Unlike many of the people on radio, TV and the internet who gabble on about killing and death these days, they did not talk much about their combat experiences. The few times they did, I had the sense that, because I had started my first hospital job and was struggling with the deaths I witnessed, I could be trusted – not with their feelings, any more than I trusted them with mine, for our talks were always couched in rather dry, almost clinical terms. What we trusted, I think, was that, underneath the dry, clinical discussions, each felt something similar without having to talk about it yet and if those feelings were to inadvertently be exposed before we were prepared for them, the other would understand.
One thing working all those years in hospitals has taught me – especially working in coronary care and intensive care units – is not to panic in an emergency situation. I know how to keep my mind clear, quickly assess what I need to do and do it. It’s also served me well in my daily life, through the years. So, I can tell you, with a certain amount of amusement, now, that my house was “broken into” early yesterday morning while I was alone and asleep upstairs. I put those words in quotation marks because, as it turned out upon later reflection, it would be more appropriate to say the house was “wandered into”.
My son had brought the dog upstairs about ten o’clock, as he always does on his way to work. I went to bed about midnight with the dog sleeping at the foot of my bed, as she often does in the winter. Around two-fifteen, I woke up when I heard the door open at the foot of the stairs to my apartment and someone start quietly up the stairs.
My son had not been feeling well the previous couple of days, so I assumed he had gotten sick at work and I called out, “Are you okay? What are you doing home, so early?”
He didn’t answer. Instead, he turned and walked back down the stairs. The dog woke up and, and went downstairs. When I got up and went into the hallway, I noticed the door to the stairs was open, so I went down to close it and check on my son. He was sitting on the couch, facing away from me in the nearly dark room, talking on his cell phone. The dog jumped up beside him and licked him on the side of the face, wagging her stumpy tail. I had turned to go back up the stairs when I heard him say, “Hold on. There’s a dog in the house.”
I won’t pretend that I felt no fear as I realized the person sitting there was not my son. I did. What I didn’t feel was panic. Part of that was the dog’s reaction to the stranger. She is a seventy-pound boxer who does not suffer fools gladly. I have seen large men back away and quickly leave the vicinity when she growls and goes into her defensive stance out in the yard.
Knowing that the dog did not consider this person sitting on the couch to be dangerous, I said, loudly and firmly, “What the hell are you doing in my house?”
The young man stood and turned, looking around in confusion, and said, “I don’t know where I am.” He appeared to be drunk.
When I told him, in that same stern tone, he was in MY house, he pointed to the front door, said, meekly, “I think I’d better go out there,” and left.
The dog followed him to the door, tail still wagging and, once the young man was gone, turned to me with a look that seemed to say, “Well, that was quite rude of you.”
After I locked the the front door and checked to make sure the lock had caught, the dog and I went back upstairs. I called my son, to let him know what had happened and that we were all right. Then, unable to go back to sleep, I sat down to ponder what had happened.
At no time, after that fleeting moment when I understood the situation, had I been afraid. Nor had I felt that I was in any real danger. I don’t own a gun. It is a conscious choice. If I had felt threatened, there are non-lethal objects around the house – including the cast-iron skillet I sometimes joke about with friends – I could use to greet someone coming up those stairs in the dark. What I couldn’t get away from, in my pondering, was the thought of how differently things might have turned out for that stupid, but harmless young man if I had gone down there armed with a gun and a little more prone to panic – and for me, if I had taken his life in a moment of panic. I do not take these musings lightly. Neither should you.
I had another friend from that war back then. He never talked, however distantly, about the deaths he had encountered or caused. I watched in horror one night, at a party we both attended, as he backed into a corner and collapsed in gibbering terror at the sound of a liquor bottle falling from the kitchen counter and crashing to the floor. Nearly four years after the war had ended. He didn’t survive the next year. A month or so after the party, he committed suicide in what I can only imagine was a final, dark moment of terror.
For all the braggadocio talk of killing on the internet and airways, for all the discussions about which guns and ammo to purchase, the need for regular target practice and planning ahead on militia and doomer sites, most of us ordinary humans are ill prepared to deliberately kill another person or watch one die – even when required by our job and trained to do so. Ask any combat veteran or law enforcement officer who has had to kill someone face to face. I suspect this is one of the contributing factors to the high suicide rates in those types of professions.
I am not saying, don’t prepare to defend yourself. I am saying we should not be as glib and hubristic about killing and death as we sometimes are in discussing those preparations. We cannot really train ourselves out of the scars that killing and death leave on us and remain human. That’s a good thing. We evolved to draw back from that “transition of the eyes” and reverence its mystery, to fear, instinctively, those who are born without that capacity or those who have fooled themselves into believing they are impervious to it.
No matter what the media and our leaders say about the improving economy, we still face increasing threats to those fragile improvements from declining energy supplies and growing changes in global climate with their subsequent effects on the global food supply. As poorly prepared as our government seems to be in the face of these problems, the transitions of the near future are not likely to be easy ones. Those of us who are aware of this and who struggle to prepare for its immanent possibility, face many choices – none so vital as the choices about dealing with physical threats from others while maintaining our humanity. Of all the choices, this is the one choice that will most clearly define what survives and thrives in the aftermath.
In all our talking and thinking about how to shoot to kill, we need to wrestle with why, whether and when we would kill and to be honest with ourselves about the scars it will leave if we make that choice. The slim possibility that we might escape the most dire effects of peak oil and climate change still exist. But, as I realized in Friday’s early morning hours, even in our everyday life, right now, we confront these choices about life and death and whether the moment calls for us to shoot to kill.