Often what is vile hides itself. Denies itself. Alibis itself. Rationalizes itself. It even fades from awareness due to its being so ubiquitous that we become like fish who take for granted the ever-present sea. But sometimes what is vile blares forth. Look at me, it bellows. Here I am! Yea me! Celebrate me!
Decades back, I wrote an emotive piece to express horror at the oft-denied, oft-hidden, oft-unaddressed, oft-taken-for-granted ubiquitous sea of violence that engulfs us. I still feel a need to emote that. Don’t you? But now another feeling gnaws at me. It’s a kind of extension of the first, I suppose. So here is a big section of the decades-old piece about the sea of violence that was titled “The Killing Train.” After that, some words about an extension to today.
Suppose a hypothetical god got tired of what we humans do to one another and decided that from January 1, 1991 onward all corpses unnaturally created anywhere in the ‘free world’ would cease to decompose. Anyone dying for want of food or medicine, anyone hung or garroted to death, poisoned to death, shot or beaten to death, raped or bombed to death, anyone dying unjustly and inhumanely would, as a corpse, persist without decomposing. And the permanent corpse would then automatically enter a glass-walled cattle car attached to an ethereal train traveling monotonously across the U.S., state by state, never stopping. One by one the corpses would be loaded onto the cattle cars and after every thousand corpses piled in, higgeldy piggeldy, a new car would hitch up and begin filling too. Mile after mile the killing train would roll along, each corpse viewed through its transparent walls, let’s say 200 new corpses a minute, one new car every five minutes, day and night, without pause.
By the end of 1991, on its first birthday, the killing train would measure over 2,000 miles long. Traveling at 20 miles an hour it would take about five days to pass any intersection. By the year 2000, assuming no dramatic change in institutions and behavior in the interim, the transparent train or corpses would stretch from coast to coast about seven times. It would take about six weeks from the time its engine passed the Statue of Liberty to when its caboose would go by, its hypothetical god still wondering when pitiful, aspiring humanity would get the message.
Think how a young child sometimes points to a picture in a book or magazine and asks for an explanation, ‘Tell me about a tree? A car? A boat? A train? A big train? The killing train?’ Go ahead, answer that.
If the ecologists are right that this planet is a single super-organism, they are wrong that pollution, toxic waste, and other human-created garbage is the most deadly virus attacking it. Maybe soon, but for now, the killing train is still worse.
Think about the pain that radiates from the Vietnam War monument with its 50,000 names in Washington, D.C. Imagine the lost opportunity and lost love and the network of negative influences that radiate from the unnecessary deaths enumerated on that monument. Now think about the killing train stretching from coast to coast and back and forth and back and forth and back and forth. Consider its impact, not only on those on board, but on every person that any of those corpses ever loved or would have loved, fed or would have fed, taught or would have taught.
Who rides the killing train? Citizens of the Third World, selling their organs for food, selling their babies to save their families, suffering disappearances and starvation. Dodging bombs. They lived in Brazil, the Philippines, El Salvador, and New York. They are headed for the killing train. Every day. Millions. Is this exaggerated? When 10 million children die yearly for lack of basic medical aid that the U.S. could provide at almost no cost in countries whose economies Exxon and the Bank of America have looted, what can you call it other than mass murder? Bloated diseased bodies are victims of murder just as surely as bullet-riddled bodies tossed into rivers by death squads. To deny medicine is no less criminal than to supply torture racks, steal resources, or carpet bomb.
Evolution has given humans the capacity to perceive, think, feel, imagine. At a time of war—as now [when I wrote the killing train] in the Gulf—if we get aroused to action we begin to see the whole train as it persists day in and day out. When this happens, what do we do about it. Become depressed? Cynical? Anguished? Cry? Daydream of Armageddon? Daydream of retribution? Daydream of justice? Hand out a leaflet?
Once we begin to see it, how do we face the killing train? Part of me says these crimes are so grotesque, so inhumane, that the perpetrators deserve to die. A little tiny killing train for the killers and no more big killing train for everyone else. An eye for a million eyes. What other step makes more sense?
But that’s not the way the world works. People give the orders, wield the axes, withhold the food, and pay the pitiful salaries, but institutions create the pressures that mold these people. When an institutional cancer consumes the human patient, what kind of surgeon can cut it all away? Is the weight of repression so intense it can never be lifted?
At first, becoming attuned to our country’s responsibility for the corpses the hypothetical god stacked behind transparent cattle-car walls makes handing out leaflets, or arguing for peace with a co-worker, or urging a relative to think twice about cursing victims, or paying taxes, or going to a demonstration, or sitting in, or even doing civil disobedience seem insignificant. But the fact is, these are the acts that the hypothetical god, tired of our behavior, would be calling for if she were to actually parade the ‘free world’s’ corpses down our main streets in a humongous killing train. These are the acts that can accumulate into a firestorm of informed protest that raises the cost of profiteering and domination so high that the institutions breeding such behavior start to buckle.
‘You lose, you lose, you lose, and then you win.’ Every loss is part of the process that leads to transforming institutions so that there can be no people as vile as Hussein or Bush. No more ‘Good Germans’ or ‘Good Americans,’ cremated Jews or decapitated peasants.
I think the killing train excerpt included above continues to apply. When I earlier wrote at the outset of this essay that I now feel need for an extension perhaps you thought I meant I need to note all the additional transparent cars recent years murders would add, or maybe I instead wanted to now describe the hypothetical god’s killing train as so long it would now stretch around the whole planet over and over, not just the U.S. But I actually meant there has been what seems like a change I want to note. The violence has stopped trying to hide. Still ubiquitous, now the violence often trumpets itself. It blares forth, look at me, celebrate me, even as you suffer my impact.
Global warming is in our face. Oil, oil, oil, hooray. Violence struts forth and says no more food and off with your electricity too. Run, run, but, ha ha, you have nowhere to run. And let’s bomb to dust your hospitals. Let’s shut off your water. We know how to deal with civilians. Use ours. Kill yours. And the U.S., the mightiest of the mighty, the biggest bully of all says, great balls of fire you are indeed wonderful. Here’s more guns to shoot. Here’s more bombs to explode. By all means, starve them too. And if anyone interferes, here is our fleet, here are our planes, here are the really big guns. We got your back. We push you forward. And of course the arms merchants weep with joy. For we are masters of war. Worship us.
So no, my new added need was not to add more about the vile circumstances themselves. The killing train addressed that, albeit now the insane depravity of capitalist ecological violations threaten to simplify the hypothetical god’s effort to create a graphic advisory for caring beings to view because capitalist violation now threatens to make the whole planet a killing train for such a god to show some aliens….
And my need for an extension was not about how to react either. The need for and efficacy of activist resistance addressed back then still applies now.
No, the new feeling that pushed my fingers to type this brief extension is about how we understand ourselves so as to productively talk with one another. It seems like evidence and logic are not enough. Indeed, they seem not only insufficient, but at times barely relevant. For this extension, I can’t quote myself from a few decades back but I can quote a really great novelist, Kurt Vonnegut, from still more decades back, who then wrote about a still earlier time when people even more widely embodied incredibly contradictory sentiments in each human vessel. His subjects were then much like, I fear, many people are today. Like we who bemoan civilian relatives or just distant look alikes who have been struck down to become corpses behind transparent walls in a metastasizing killing train but who simultaneously cheer on shoveling countless more corpses into that same train as if that would make things better. Like we who suffer high waters rising and dangerous temperatures climbing but simultaneously ridicule green anger and activism. Like we who support strikers but bemoan welfare and immigrants. And yes, I know that not everyone harbors good submerged beneath bad or bad beneath good. Still, to me Kurt Vonnegut’s words, quoted here from his book Mother Night, are worth some space. He wrote:
“I have never seen a more sublime demonstration of the totalitarian mind, a mind which might be likened unto a system of gears whose teeth have been filed off at random. Such a snaggle-toothed thought machine, driven by a standard or even by a substandard libido, whirls with the jerky, noisy, gaudy pointlessness of a cuckoo clock in Hell.
“The dismaying thing about the totalitarian mind is that any given gear, though mutilated, will have at its circumference unbroken sequences of teeth which are immaculately maintained, that are exquisitely machined.
“Hence the cuckoo clock in Hell. Keeping perfect time for eight minutes and twenty-three seconds, jumping ahead fourteen minutes, keeping perfect time for six seconds, jumping ahead two seconds, keeping perfect time for two hours and one second, then jumping ahead a year.
“The missing teeth of course, are simple, obvious truths, truths available and comprehensible even to ten-year olds, in most cases.
“The willful filing off of gear teeth, the willful doing without obvious certain pieces of information is how (fascism) happens. That is the closest I can come to examining the legions, the nations of lunatics I have seen in my time.”
With gear mutilation accelerating on every side of us, and please note, inside us too, I wonder how we can productively address willfully missing truths both in others and in ourselves as well. That is a question that needs serious attention.
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