Christmas Eve yet again – I can’t believe it’s here. It seems that lately Christmas seems to happen about every third week. Still, one thing I am grateful for – we can still think. And what I’m currently thinking about is the murder paradox.
I am a parent, and I would still love my child above all other people if she killed someone. But loving someone is not the same thing as condoning their actions. Much as I adore her, she is a thinking, reasoning being, and will wear the consequences of her actions, no matter how desperately I love her.
But if she killed someone, particularly if it were deliberate? I would like to think I were civilised enough to consider her reasons for killing, and to judge her as I would judge a stranger.
There is a conundrum that is set to psychologists at one stage of their training. There is a pair of identical twin males, forty-one years of age. One has spent the last fifteen years beating the crap out of his wife every friday night after a hard week at the office. The other lives an uneventful life until, at the age of forty-one, he murders his wife for reasons completely unknown. Given only those statements and no other statements or information about the two brothers, which twin do you know better?
I tend to agree with the psychologists that you know the one who regularly beats his wife.
Murders can happen in extremis for all kinds of reasons, including self-defence, defending a child from rape, totally accidentally, in self-defence if the only way out of being killed ourselves is to kill, and so forth. None of us are above killing, should we find ourselves in unusual and extreme circumstances.
I am normally a rabid, frothing-at-the-mouth pacifist, of the stripe that believes that the complete and immediate removal of all standing armies and all weapons stockpiles will result in world peace – or at least, only the ability to hit a few nearby people with sticks rather than thousands of distant people with missiles.
Yet even I am capable of killing. I remember many years ago, one long and very dark night where I spent many hours holding a claw-hammer and watching a total waste of human DNA sleeping, wondering if – or when – I was going to strike.
Yes, with the right provocation, even the most peaceful and idealistic of us can kill. If I could contemplate it under extreme circumstances, then anyone could.
Here is another hypothetical that I offer:
You have a child whom you love above all people. S/He is beautiful, gifted, intelligent and very, very special. They are old enough to think rationally, but not old enough to have fulfilled much of their potential yet. You desperately want them to go on living and realise their potential. But you and they are in a situation where to prevent them dying immediately and painlessly there is only one course of action open to you, and you know that taking that course of action will indirectly but immediately result in the deaths of a hundred strangers’ children in an overseas country, many or all of which are as loved by their families as your child is loved by you.
What do you do?
(I suppose, all that this last one asks us to confront is this notion: whether our own pain and loss is more important than the pain and loss of many, many more people who are just as real as us.)
Today as I was laying in supplies to get through the non-shopping days that are upon us. I overheard a woman in her thirties talking to her father on the phone. She was discussing “doing” a pork roast for Christmas. Her father must have asked her to buy a pig’s head because she reacted: “A head? That’s cruel!” Now I happen to know that much of the stuff on mammal’s heads tastes particularly good, is high in iron and is very much more tender than the rest of the meat, but because of the culture that I live in, the fact that I don’t eat much meat at all and do even less of my own hunting, means that I rarely get to eat it. I was also taken back to my fond memories of the Anglo-Italian film “Queen of Hearts”, in which a roasted pig’s head gave the waiter some sage advice on how to make his fortune.
As I was thinking about all of this, the woman continued to argue with her father, telling him that her children shouldn’t have to see the faces of dead things because it would traumatise them. And I started thinking about how badly we as a society handle death: how much more we suffer after death visits with unresolved feelings than people in different societies do, because we snatch the ill and dying out of their rightful places in the heart of the family and put them into sterile hospitals where friends and relatives don’t have a chance to resolve their feelings, use cosmetics on corpses to make them look like a travesty of a living being, and often don’t even let our children come to funerals or even tell them the truth about death. And of course, they grow up all twisted and fearful, unlike kids who nurse their dying elders and siblings, who kill their own food or help kill it, and who help wash and bury their dead.
Musing about all of this, I thought about the relationship that women’s children might or might not have had with their ancestors, how they would be able to handle or not handle a sudden fatality or a long, drawn-out illness, and why the hell actually knowing where their food comes from would be bad for them. Would it not give them a sense of realism and passion in the world?
Meat is not cold red stuff that occurs in pretty rectangles in fridges: Meat is warm, often hot stuff that was living, breathing, moving and feeling not so very long ago. And when you butcher a dead animal to prepare it for the plate, it stinks.
And each of us who chooses to eat meat, should be able to kill our own food at least once in our life if not more often: if you think it’s wrong to pick an apple from a tree, do you have the right to eat apples? And if you cannot drive a knife into a fish’s brain, do you have the right to eat fish?
So if you cannot even look at pieces of quite edible and tasty meat that look as if they came from an animal, much less actually kill for yourself exactly as much meat as you consume rather than paying someone else to do it for you, do you have any right to eat meat? How can you take the moral high ground about buying or not buying a pig’s head, if you don’t even know what is involved in eating meat?
I personally prefer not to eat pork. This is not for religious reasons – I do not belong to any of the religions that have a prohibition on that meat – or for health reasons. It’s because I’ve known pigs personally in my past, two of them at different times, and they are at least as smart as dogs, and respond to training better than dogs do, making great company. And I have personal problems eating any potentially sentient being: I prefer to eat creatures that have little or no self-awareness, or at least as little as possible, so pork is off my personal menu, along with other pig-products like bacon most of the time (I sometimes break my own rules).
Killing something that thinks (a pig) is just like killing something that thinks (a person). Which brings me neatly back from killing creatures of other species, to killing creatures of my own species. Most of us – all of the well-adjusted of us – do not regard humans as a potential food-source, fortunately. Every so often a cannibalistic killer comes along, but they are remarkable and receive so much attention precisely because they are such rare creatures.
A French author and philosopher, Emile Zola, once wrote a book called “The Beast In Man”. I haven’t read it for a few years, but I remember it as enthralling. The paperback copy I had, had a blurb on the back cover written by a publisher’s hack that said something like “exploring the mind of a homicidal maniac”.
I read the book somewhat differently. I read it as the story of an impulsive and passionate person, someone living a normal life with the normal ups-and-downs, arguments with employers and spouses, and doing what I suspect we all secretly do occasionally: spending a few moments fantasising about what it would be like if so-and-so, the focus of our immediate problems, were to die, or if we were to kill them. Most people do have such thoughts at times of crisis, but a non-killer is the person who looks at the thoughts, then dismisses them, and finds other ways of managing the difficult situation. And throughout the book, not a single murder happened, as far as I can remember. He merely visualised them, thought about how to get away with it, thought about disposing of the bodies, then got on with taking other options.
Yes, telling me that someone is habitually violent to those who are weaker than they are, tells me a lot about their character. But telling me that someone killed a person, reveals absolutely nothing about their character, but opens far more questions than it answers.
Have a happy celebration, people. Try to celebrate the spirits of those who died for no purpose other than to feed you, and please try not to kill those you love.