Tuesday, April 02, 2013

The Evil That Men Do Lives On and On

Steve Hagen told a story in his book Buddhism Plain and Simple:

In my youth I drove an Austin Healey Sprite, a little sports car, much like an MG. It was a rag-top, a soft-top convertible.

On one occasion I took a trip across the country with a friend. To save money we camped along the way. It was March, the off-season. We arrived late one night at the Indiana Dunes State Park along the shore of Lake Michigan. I thought it might be closed, but the gate was open when we got there. No one was around, so we drove straight to the camping area to set up the tent. We were tired from traveling, so we turned in as soon as we were set.

Before I retired I took off my watch and hung it on the turn signal stem in my car. Since no one was around, I also put my wallet on the dash. Then I crawled into my sleeping bag and went to sleep.

My friend was entirely unfamiliar with sleeping in a tent. After I had slept a while, he woke me. He was disturbed by something moving around outside. He was a city kid; he thought it might be a burglar. I laughed it off. I was used to camping, and I expected critters to rustle around the tent at night. I told him not to worry, rolled over, and went back to sleep.

The next day, when I stepped outside the tent, I stood next to my car to take my morning stretch. As I stood there with my arms spread wide, I realized that the roof of my car had been slashed in a T, allowing the sides to fall in around a big, gaping hole. It appeared to be a wanton act of destruction, for my wallet was still on the dash, and my watch was still on the turn signal. It was just slash and run. I felt terrible. Who would just slash my roof with a knife for no reason? I didn’t want to live in a world where people did this sort of thing.

Later, as I walked through the woods nearby, I came upon a shredded box of cookies. There were no cookies, just the remains of the box. I didn’t think anything of it but threw in the trash.

A while later, back in the car, my friend started poking around in the open compartment in front of the passenger seat. Suddenly he burst out, “Hey! My cookies are gone!”

It all came together in a flash: my friend from the city had been innocent enough to leave a box of cookies in the car overnight, and a raccoon had slashed my roof in order to get at them.

Immediately my bad feeling about the incident changed. When I thought my slashed roof was the wanton act of a person, I felt a sickness in my heart that went beyond mere irritation at having a slashed roof. But when I realized it was a raccoon… well, of course, a raccoon isn’t going to think, “Those aren’t my cookies. I shouldn’t eat them.” A raccoon just enters the only way he knows how, with no sense of malice or ownership. There was food, and naturally he helped himself. There was no confusion, no blame.

Suddenly I no longer felt any great suffering. There was no more of that hollow, unbearable ache of the heart. But why should my mental state alter so drastically with this realization? Why is the raccoon’s action so different from that of the vandal?

The difference is intention.

I thought of that while reading this article by David Wong:

That is of course the aftermath of the infamous Bali terror attacks in 2002, where a car bomb detonated near a club full of Australian tourists. The victims were just dancing and laughing and having a good time when Muslim fundamentalists decided that the best way to get the world behind their cause was to make those innocent, joyful tourists die horribly in flames.

Look at that picture. Think about the victims inside. Think about the perpetrators watching it burn, listening to the screams, smugly confident that the act would somehow get them into heaven. How does it make you feel? What does it make you want to do to them?

OK, now how does it make you feel when I tell you that the image above is not of the Bali bombings, but rather the completely accidental nightclub fire that happened a year later in Rhode Island, in which a hundred people died due to a malfunction of pyrotechnics set off by the band Great White?

Well, shit. That's a buzzkill, isn't it? Despite the fact that the people died in the exact same way, and that far more people die in careless fires every year than in terror attacks, it just doesn't set off the same fireworks in your brain. Imagining hunting down and killing those terrorists makes me want to charge out of my front door wielding a shotgun and a vengeance erection, with Drowning Pool blasting in the background, but when I imagine charging out the door to advocate for stricter fire safety standards for public performances in small venues, I find myselfIiiiiiithnnnnnnnnnnnnbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbmmmm...

Sorry, I fell asleep on my keyboard there. So why does one tragedy make me want to do a Liam Neeson on the Arab world, while an identical tragedy barely registers? Because I've been trained like one of Pavlov's dogs to react a certain way -- not to danger, but to monsters. And the fuckers who blew up that nightclub were monsters.

I can't be convinced otherwise because long, long ago, the people in charge figured out that the easiest and most reliable way to bind a society together was by controlling and channeling our hate addiction. That's the reason why seeing this (picture of a natural disaster) on the news makes us mumble "That's sad" and maybe donate a few bucks to the Red Cross hurricane fund, while this (picture of smoldering World Trade Center) sends us into a decade-long trillion-dollar rage that leaves the Middle East in flames. The former was caused by wind; the latter was caused by monsters. The former makes us kind of bummed out; the latter gets us high.