April 19, 2013

The saddest possible form of dignity

Watching the coverage of the Boston marathon bombing a few days ago, I began to think about the question of who was responsible. There are people who would obviously love the bombers to have been rightwing extremists -- there are even leftwing journalists who have said so. Most Americans believe the perpetrators were the usual Islamic suspects, perhaps foreign-born or perhaps domestic. The Federal authorities will eventually arrest somebody, probably the guilty parties, and it will all get incorporated into everybody’s respective narratives, with the usual finger-pointing, hand wringing, TV commentary, and a book or two in a couple of months. This is the way we digest tragedy at this point in our history, for better or for worse. Everybody in the media will tell us how we should feel about the incident – as though we were mere inanimate objects, waiting for the godlike voices of others to fill our empty minds with feelings. As though we were not qualified to fill in even those for ourselves.

Of one thing, I am fairly certain. Anyone who plants a bomb in a crowd, or shoots up a school, or even flies an airplane into a building, shares in a very common, very unhappy byproduct of progress. They all know, in their hearts if not in their minds, that the world has no need for them. People who believe that they are needed, that they have some meaningful connections to their societies, are not generally willing to engage in random murder to get attention. To do that, you have to know beyond a doubt that you are nothing.

I don’t think the ideologies that crop up in these things are really very important. To be sure, radical Islam is a nasty set of ideas, but it does not make people want to kill so much as it promises relevance to people who have little reason to live. People who love their lives have better things to do than throw them away. A person who would lay a bomb in a crowd is someone with nothing better to do.

A kid shoots up a theater or a school, and we say that he is mentally ill – as though that diagnosis somehow meant something. For the most part, it is nonsense. All that this sort of labeling really accomplishes is to draw a psychological line between us and the people that we fear. It is really not much better than saying that the killer was “bewitched,” or “possessed by the devil.” It makes us feel better about ourselves. It gives us comfort in whatever sociological niche we happen to identify as our sanity.

Let me be clear – I am not defending the killers as yet another class of victim. We already have far too many victims. Most of contemporary life seems to be one long competition for the attainment of the most attractive form of victim status. Setting out to butcher people for whom the world is working a little better than it is for you can never become an acceptable defense for murder. If it does (and it has sometimes come perilously close to doing so) the glue that binds society together will dissolve. When everyone’s sins are forgiven in advance there is no incentive not to commit them.

What I am saying is that perhaps we have so many mass murderers because we have so many people whose lives are essentially irrelevant. This is not a matter of mere income inequality. Even in an extremely stratified society, the lowest classes can do vitally important things and take some pride in their mundane contributions to the public as a whole. The problem of our times is that one could erase enormous numbers of people from most societies without any economic consequences whatsoever. Technology has made us so productive that most people are unnecessary. Large populations are not a strength now, but a burden. In America, at least, this is something rather new.

People die if they do not have food. If they do not have purpose, they rot. Most rot quietly in front of a TV screen or some equivalent venue, but a handful, especially among the young, rot actively in the pursuit of the saddest possible form of dignity. They feel, even if they can seldom quite articulate the fact, that it is better to be the world’s enemy than the world’s discarded trash.

This is where we are right now, as the population rises and the market value of human life declines.

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