Friday, July 6, 2018

The Contagion of Hell


"He who is the author of a war lets loose the whole contagion of hell and opens a vein that bleeds a nation to death."
-- Thomas Paine

This afternoon, while doing my periodic stint at the Master Gardeners' Plant Clinic (fielding questions about plant issues from the callers and visitors to the desk), I had a deeply unsettling experience.

My companion and mentor was an elderly gentleman (name withheld for privacy) who was quite hard of hearing. We did not talk much, but he was a good teacher, for when I sought to identify a weed, or address clients' issues on the phone, he patiently guided me through the process of searching the multiple online sources of information to find the answer, even when he knew it himself.  For this I am grateful--he is a wise and kind teacher.

And yet...during most of the afternoon, when there were no calls or visitors, while I was dutifully studying various instructional sites on plant diagnosis, I noticed that he was lost in his favorite YouTube distractions. To this, I can relate, of course--I only too often kill idle time in the same way, by surfing YouTube, and letting my curiosity wander randomly from one clip to the next.  

But I couldn't help noticing what grabbed his attention. First, he was watching what seemed to be an instructional video on using an airgun to kill rats. In one sequence after another, the video would peer through crosshairs, fix them on a rat, and blow it away. This went on for a long time. A bit grotesque, but nothing out of the ordinary for a gardener. But the Buddhist in me could not help wincing every time a rat was killed, just for being a rat. Thereafter, he watched, with similar absorption, a video showing dogs tearing into rats that were being unearthed by a bulldozer from a large compost heap. And I was a bit unnerved by my colleague's obsessive attention to these videos; they went on and on.

Then things got a whole lot worse, all in silence. It appeared that this man was a military veteran, for later, as I studied my plant diagnosis materials, I noticed him, with equally rapt attention, watching military videoclips from Afghanistan, again through the crosshairs, but this time of heavy artillery, zeroing in on a man and a young boy--"the Taliban," he said--only to have them vanish in a fiery explosion.  

"Ooh, wow! That was good!" he exclaimed, with the twisted enthusiasm of a 12-year old playing a video game.  First rats--then "the Taliban"--to him, it made no difference. Killing was fun.

I was appalled, but I kept silent, and tried not to look any more, instead focusing on my reading of plant diagnosis. I did not--I could not--engage him in conversation, for I did not want to reveal how utterly sickened, nauseated, and disgusted I was by his chosen entertainment.

Then he went on to drone video clips, again of zeroing in, this time from the air, on hapless, unnamed figures far below, and blowing them to smithereens. At one point he said gleefully, "If you're a Taliban, and you hear a plane overhead, you'd better not step outside!"

I said nothing, biting my lip, and proceeded with my plant studies. But inwardly, I felt sicker and sicker.

How could this old man, with whom I was constrained to spend three hours alone, simultaneously be a seasoned gardener, a patient and effective teacher--but with the private interests and passions of a murderous psychopath?

One answer: war.   After this, I could not and did not engage him in conversation about his past--I just wanted to get away from him as quickly and politely as possible--but I'm assuming that he was a veteran; his hearing may have been damaged in combat, for all I know. But he obviously loved the military, and saw "the Taliban" as nothing more than vermin--than rats. I did not want to know why.  I could not bear to find out, and I did not want to alienate him by challenging his views--or questioning his vicarious passion for killing. Was this prudence or cowardice on my part?  I still don't know.

But looking, at this through a broader lens, I see this as symptomatic of a kind of soul-poisoning that has afflicted our country and the world. As early as 1960, President Eisenhower recognized the symptoms, in his famous farewell address, when he warned us against the rapidly growing influence of the "military-industrial complex:"

"In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist. We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together."

Seldom have more prophetic words been spoken!  In the years since then, we have been bogged down in attenuated, catastrophic, and utterly unnecessary wars--first Vietnam, and now Iraq, Afghanistan, and who knows where else, while the power and influence of the military-industrial complex has grown steadily, and has now brainwashed most of us into a toxic worship of all things military. Increasingly, veterans are given preferential treatment everywhere they go, and we are all expected to say "Thank you for your service" whenever we meet them.  I refuse, of course. They have "served" nothing but the interests of corporate wealth and power.

Those who have been in these wars are scarred forever--if not by injuries and PTSD, then by the kind of soul-poisoning--the love of killing and the  complete dehumanization of the "other"--that I saw so clearly in my colleague today. Yet any criticism of the military is seen as practically seditious. This trend toward the militarization of society, the worship of power and cruelty in defense of "freedom" (a vague concept which itself has become meaningless, due to mass surveillance of the population and the militarization of police with a seemingly unlimited license to kill), has achieved its apotheosis in Donald Trump, and it will be clearly manifest next Veterans' Day, when he holds his massive military parade in Washington--which is the wet dream of any despot. 

This "contagion of hell," of course, is not just limited to veterans or the military. It has spread to the population as a whole, in a coarsening of our sensibilities, and the prevalence of rampant violence in our films and mass media. And it has infected large swaths of the ordinary, alienated, and demoralized population--the gun nuts of rural America, the mass murderers who have become epidemic, the murderous narcotics cartels  and adolescent street gangs terrorizing both our cities and whole war-scarred regions throughout Central America, Africa, and the Middle East; the rise of fanatical hate groups everywhere, whether the neo-Nazis at home or ISIS abroad. And it feeds on itself, of course, for this steady rise of mass violence among local populations in turn serves to rationalize an ever more bloated military budget and the deployment of yet more soldiers and mayhem to the far corners of the Earth.

Is there any solution to this epidemic of soul-poisoning, this contagion of Hell? I hope so...but it might be terminal, the inevitable demise of the unsustainable Glomart world order. For my own part, all I can do is adhere to the Dharma and to Gaia--to the threefold discipline of Tonglen, Satyagraha, and Permaculture. To make "energetic progress in the good" rather than wasting all my vital energy in a futile battle against overwhelming evil.