I’ve had this quotation from primatologist Frans deWaal in my head for a long time. Sadly, I think it’s relevant now for life in the United States:
“Humans have something of the bonobo and the chimpanzee in them, which makes them bipolar in character. Most of the time, actually, we like to have a peaceful relationship with everybody around us. But at the same time we can be aroused to a point, under certain circumstances – either by political leaders, or by an invasion, or by some traumatic event – that we start killing, and not killing on a small scale like chimpanzees do, but genocide… When we are bad, we are worse than any primate that I know. And when we are good, we are better and more altruistic than any primate that I know. ” — Frans de Waal, primatologist (source)
The two pieces of this passage that mean the most to me are that: (1) peaceful relations are our default preference, and (2) mass acts of violence require being goaded or aroused by some external push factor.
“We will work to be an example of how we, as brothers and sisters on this earth, should treat each other. Now, more than ever, the illusions of division threaten our very existence. We all know the truth: more connects us than separates us. But in times of crisis the wise build bridges, while the foolish build barriers. We must find a way to look after one another as if we were one single tribe.”
I ended Part 1 with a quotation from Robert Sapolsky, who wrote (to paraphrase): We don’t hate violence. We hate and fear the wrong kind of violence… When it’s the “right” type of aggression, we love it.
Do we “love” violence in the right context, as Sapolsky suggested? Perhaps sometimes. When the news broke a week ago that Dzhokar Tsarnaev, one of the two brothers responsible for the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, had his death sentence overturned, local sentiments were mixed. The Providence Journal (located 50 miles south of Boston) asked its readers whether Tsarnaev should spend his life in prison or face another death penalty trial. Several responded with a variety of brutal ways that he should be killed. As we saw in Part 1, people are often more at ease with violence if they feel someone has failed as a moral agent so badly that they deserve to be hit, kicked, beaten, shot, killed, etc.
Attitudes toward the death penalty in the U.S. have fluctuated significantly over time. In the mid-1990s, roughly 80% of U.S. adults were in favor of the death penalty for some convicted murderers. By 2019 this dropped to 56%. Support for the death penalty is lower in Boston, however, even in cases where terrorism affected the lives of many locals. In 2015, about 30% of Bostonians felt Tsarnaev should receive the death penalty, while 60% felt he should be sentenced to life in prison. The upshot is that attitudes toward state-sanctioned violence are not set in stone. There is variation in opinion among individuals, across time, and by geography. It is pliable.
“No animal shall kill any other animal… without cause.” – the pigs (George Orwell, Animal Farm)
When I was in the second or third grade I asked my parents about the Ten Commandments, which we had just learned in my Catholic school. Specifically, I wanted to know about the fifth commandment: “Thou shall not kill.” As my father was in the U.S. Navy during the Vietnam War, I was concerned whether he had broken the commandment. To my relief he told me that, as far as he knew, he had never killed anyone.
Beyond my own father’s past —and I know this isn’t an original thought— I wondered how to reconcile this sacred instruction with all of the killing that must have taken place in the wars across history. Were they all sins? Were all those soldiers doomed to hell?
It’s been a long time since that day, and I only have a vague memory of my parents’ response. They said that killing in war was different. Somehow, the rule was lifted when soldiers killed for their country. In the eyes of a child, I guessed that even divine decrees had exceptions.
From an anthropological perspective, it is worth considering how individuals and societies negotiate what forms of violence are permissible. Some religious scholars, like Rabbi Marc Gellman,have writtenthat a more accurate translation of the fifth commandment should be “Thou shalt not murder” instead of “kill.” Gellman noted that while killing entails ending a life, murder is “taking a life with no moral justification.” Similarly, in his book The Warriors, Glenn Gray wrote that “The basic aim of a nation at war in establishing an image of the enemy is to distinguish as sharply as possible the act of killing from the act of murder by making the former into one deserving of all honor and praise” (1959: 131-2).
However, determining when violence (lethal and non-lethal) is morally justifiable can be a gray zone, with people positioning themselves on a continuum between completely nonviolent “doves” to hyper-aggressive “hawks.” While many people hold nonviolence as an ideal; living up to that ideal perfectly has proven difficult to almost impossible. The question is where people draw their line.
“But there’s no place in politics for violence — to threaten or carry out violence — and that’s where everybody has to take a stand. Whether it’s your supporters or somebody else’s…Sometimes it’s easy to call out the other side, but you’ve got to call out your own side, too, and I think that’s something where they could definitely pick up the pace.”—Steve Scalise, Republican (Louisiana) and a recovered victim of a politically motivated shooting
Let’s start with the good news. We are not currently in a civil war in the United States.
Over the past few years, pundits and editorialists have wondered whether this country mightbe heading toward a civil war, on the verge of one, or even already in one. Others have written that, yes, we’re currently in a civil war, but only in a non-violent, metaphorical sense (in other words, not a war at all).
In 2017, the Los Angeles Timesreferred to such stories as “bait-and-switch” because they compare political polarization to war and because they juxtapose clashes between white supremacists and left-wing demonstrators as indicative of where the country is overall. Two years ago, Voxreferred to this genre as “clickbait” and “apocalypse punditry.” Steven Greenhutrecently wrote that such talk of civil war is too blithe and over-the-top, and people aren’t giving the topic the seriousness it deserves.
It is true that talk of civil war is often overdone. According to the Uppsala University Department of Peace and Conflict Research(UUDPCR), a war is defined as having “at least 1,000 battle-related deaths in one calendar year.” By that definition, the U.S. is clearly not in a war. However, we may be in a situation akin to a low-intensity conflict. The UUDPCR defines conflict as “at least 25 but less than 1000 battle-related deaths in one calendar year in one of the conflict’s dyads.” Last year, according to the Anti-Defamation League’s (ADL) “Heat Map” of political violence, there were 46 incidents involving extremist murders, terrorist plots or attacks, or extremist shootouts with police. Altogether 54 people were killed in these incidents, which crosses the 25-death threshold. Tragically, 23 of these victims were killed in one horrific incident, the shooting at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas by a white supremacist who was intent on killing Hispanic people.
There are usually limits to using rigid definitions for something as complex as conflict and war. First, the cutoffs of 25 deaths and 1,000 deaths are arbitrary. The same number of deaths would be more impactful in a smaller country than in a larger one, so perhaps a rate of death might be more appropriate than a simple tally. Also, according to UUDPCR standards, such attacks in the US may not apply toward “conflict” because most were carried out by lone actors, not by formally or even informally organized groups. In addition, several U.S. incidents in the ADL Heat Map involved individual extremists who were involved in domestic incidents or robberies which may not have beenpolitically motivated. Taking these caveats into account, the U.S. may not meet the criteria for being in a “conflict” either.
Something interesting happened with this one. It was fairly dormant for a year, then in late May 2020 (coinciding with theGeorge Floyd protests) people started to read it again. As far as I can tell, most of these views have been in the US. And most have been organic, with people finding it individually via search engines, not via social media. I don’t know their motivations for searching for something like this. It could be curiosity, maybe fear. And some people may be enthusiastic for the prospect of a civil war and a chance to kill people they dislike. Somealready havekilledpeople. Maybe the people in the pro-war group are on to something, so I started thinking of some reasons that another civil war in the US might be worth considering.
16. You Like Wasting Spending Money
Wars are notoriously expensive and a great way of dumping any excess cash you have. For example, the first (only?) Civil War in the U.S. cost an estimated $23 billion and $68 billion for the Confederacy and Union, respectively,in 2019 dollars. That may sound like a pretty good way to spend a lot of money very quickly, but the news gets better because modern wars are even costlier. TheWatson Institute for International and Public Affairsat Brown University calculated that the U.S. federal price-tag for the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Syria was close to $6 trillion. Granted, a civil war in the US has the advantage of not having to travel very far, which would reduce transportation costs (you could have a front-row seat from your own home!). Still, modern weaponry would be much costlier than days of yore.
An added bonus is the opportunity costs of war. Eisenhower knewthat money poured into war cannot be spent on frivolous things like education, health, science, food, housing, roads, etc. Who needs those things, anyway?
15. You Have an Affinity for Apocalyptic Scenery
If you like the scenery in sci-fi movies like “The Terminator” or “The Book of Eli,” then you can make that fantasy come to life by starting an actual war. Art and reality really can mirror each other.
14. You Don’t Like Thinking Too Much…
Adrienne Rich once wrote that “War is an absolute failure of imagination, scientific and political.” If there are people you don’t like because their values seem to be all cockeyed, weird, or deviant, it can be hard to think of solutions to bridging those gaps. So maybe it’s better to not try. Just skip all that mental effort at compromise and go straight to the only logical conclusion – some people need to be wiped out. Maybe a lot of people. History shows that people never change anyway, which is why Samurai warriors, Vikings, and the Spanish Inquisition still exist, most people still believe the earth is the center of the universe, and stone tools are all the rage. And, once people are enemies, they stay that way forever. Reconciliation is a fantasy, which is why most Americans started speaking French after the Revolutionary War, just to spite the British.
13. … But You Do Like Taking Chances
If you’ve ever placed a bet on a Super Bowl or World Series, you probably know there are few guarantees in sports. Predicting the future is not easy. And that’s for sports, where the rules of engagement fall within a confined range, with referees to ensure that everyone is playing fair. The rules in war often go out the window, adding an exciting air of unpredictability. Who knows what will happen?!?! As Clausewitz once wrote: “although our intellect always longs for clarity and certainty, our nature often finds uncertainty fascinating.” Betting on unpredictable, low-stake sports is one thing. How much more fascinating it would be to bet on our lives and homes? What an adventure!
12. Environmental Destruction Doesn’t Bother You
We can’t afford to worry about trivial things like the environment during periods of war. Speed is of the essence, and we can’t delay by taking out all chemical and radioactive contamination from weaponry. For example, naval and aerial bombardment of the island of Vieques left marine vegetation high in concentrations of things like lead, copper, nickel, and cobalt (Massol-Deyá et al. 2005). And that wasn’t even during an emergency. That was just target practice.
Sometimes these things can last quite a while. Long after the Battle of Verdun in WW1, the surrounding area (known as Place-à-Gaz) is still contaminated with lead, arsenic, copper, and mercury as a result of massive artillery shelling and later disposal of ordnance (Thouin et al. 2016). Some plant species still have a hard time growing there, a century later. Andin Laos, massive aerial bombardment has left parts of the country contaminated with unexploded ordnance (UXO), 47 years after they were dropped. Up to 20,000 people have been injured or killed after the war ended, and 1600 km2 of the country still cannot be farmed. But fear not. Laos is a small country. We can farm in Alaska when the war is over.
11. You Think Food is Overrated
“Scorched earth” campaigns in war have existedfor millennia, leading to food insecurity, even famine. Some people got pretty upset when toilet paper and meat were hard to find early in the coronavirus pandemic. That’s nothing. Wait until people run out of chocolate, pasta, and coffee. In the meantime, we can sustain ourselves on rage.
10. You Don’t Mind Murder and Atrocity
The WW1 veteranHarry Patch once said that “war is organised murder, and nothing else.” If your conscience is intact, then you may need to work on that. You could be at risk for some emotional devastation at taking another human being’s life, something known as “moral injuries.” If you’ve somehow convinced yourself that the people you hate are not really fully human, then you may not have much to worry about. But beware. There have been cases of people who at first convinced themselves that their killings were justified. Some of them, like Anwar Congo below, can build up a pretty sturdy mental wall to keep out any thoughts that might contradict the view of themselves as heroic, only to have that entire edifice come crashing down years later when they accidentally dredged up their buried humanity.
9. You Think Civilians Are Fair Game in War
Speaking of murder… Many people think of war primarily as a competitionbetween two military forces. History buffs often discuss the tactics and strategies of past wars, and the decisions made by leaders. Sometimes they’ll talk about the fallen soldiers and officers who were killed and maimed. Deaths of combatants are to be expected in war. After all, you can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs, or eventens of millions of eggs. However, statistics show that civilians are not just occasional “collateral damage” in war, due to an accidental misfire. Rather, civilians often comprise the majority of casualties, ranging between 40% in the case of Bosnia to 90% in the case of Cambodia and Rwanda (Roberts 2010).
8. You Like Travelingand Moving Around a Lot
People have a tendency to move around a lot during war, and they get to see many new places. In fact, 1% of the world’s population(about 80 million people)was displaced by the end of 2019. Being displaced is sort of like a vacation only without money, food, freedom, or the ability to really do many things that are traditionally considered “fun.” Instead of seeing beautiful scenery or new cities, people tend to end up in camps. Some of these camps arehuge tent cities, with the chance to meet new neighbors living right next to you. It’s kind of like a summer camp, only you can’t really leave when you want. So let that be a fair warning: sometimes these camps are final destinations, your ability to travel after that may be severely curtailed with authorities keeping an eye on you, indefinitely in some cases. But, hey, it’s the journey that counts, not the destination. Some lucky Americans will really get to travel by being resettled in other countries (maybe; we haven’t been very open to accepting refugees lately, so it’s not clear how open other nations might be toward us).
7. You’re OK with Trading Mental Health for “Character”
As everyone knows, suffering builds character. For the fortunate people who survive the war, they can expect to have a lot of character-building experiences, and these can last for the rest of their lives. In a review of refugee populations, Bogic et al 2015 found that rates of depression, PTSD, and anxiety were as high as 80 to 88% in some groups, years after resettling in other countries. “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” become a little more difficult under conditions of war, but if you’re one of the lucky few people to get there, I bet the payoff would be pretty sweet.
6. You Want Your Children to Be Shorter and Developmentally Delayed
With food shortages, unclean water, increased infection, and psychological stress, kids who grow up under war conditions tend to be malnourished and shorter, sometimes by a huge amount. This is a very consistent pattern, and these effects are usually permanent since you can’t get those years of growth back. That’s fine. Althoughheight seems to be correlated with earning potentialin adulthood, shorter kids (and adults) can save money by living in smaller homes and driving smaller cars. See? It all evens out.
5. Sexual Violence Doesn’t Bother You That Much
If the idea of a civil war sounds exciting to you, the prospect of being avictim of sexual violence may not have crossed your mind. Yet, history shows that this is fairly common across wars once social controls have weakened or as a deliberate method of terrorizing a population. In a review, it was found that victims of sexual violence often experience pregnancy, traumatic genital injuries, fistulae, sexual dysfunction, STDs, anxiety, PTSD, depression, social rejection, and spousal abandonment (Ba and Bhopal, 2017). This may not affect you directly, but maybe the people you hate. I’m sure everyone you know and love will be fine. Only other people are victims.
4. You Think Trust Is for Losers
Pierluigi Conzo and Francesco Salustri found that European who were exposed to World War 2 before age 6 hadlower levels of trustin adulthood. In their review of background literature, the authors noted that trust is considered almost like a social “lubricant” in helping a society run more efficiently; it is an important factor in economic development, the quality of institutions, and subjective well-being. Once it is lost, it takes a long time to rebuild trust and survivors can view each other with suspicion for decades.
On the other hand, if people had been less trusting before WW2, they would have been better prepared for the coming chaos. Think about it.
3. We Don’t Need No Education
War-affected children often don’t have access to a lot of basic things that wetake for granted, including school. In 2017,61% of refugee children attended primary school, compared to 92% of children globally. Those numbers dropped to 23% and 84%, respectively, for secondary school. Education is great and all, but no one will really have time for it after the war because the survivors will be too busy doing other important things, like clearing rubble.
2. You’re OK with Chronic Diseases
Wars have a tendency to “get under the skin.” Researchers who study things like the Developmental Origins of Health and Disease (DOHaD) idea have found that early adversity in life, including in war, can lead to long-term increased risks for chronic diseases like diabetes, schizophrenia, cardiovascular diseases, and obesity (Clarkin 2019). They can even affect your genes and possibly be passed down to the next generation. Some of these maladies can cut off years of your life, but they tend to be the years that are considered expendable anyway.
1. You Like Fairness and Sharing Power
Infighting in civil wars tend to leave countries weakened. How could it not? The good news is that in our compromised state, power abhors a vacuum, giving other countries a turn at being global leaders. I’m sure whichever nations step forward, they will be willing to give up the stage after they’ve had their turn.
Ba I, Bhopal RS. Physical, mental and social consequences in civilians who have experienced war-related sexual violence: a systematic review (1981–2014). Public Health. 2017 Jan 1;142:121-35.
Bogic M, Njoku A, Priebe S. Long-term mental health of war-refugees: a systematic literature review. BMC international health and human rights. 2015 Dec 1;15(1):29.
Clarkin PF. The Embodiment of War: Growth, Development, and Armed Conflict. Annual Review of Anthropology. 2019 Oct 21;48:423-42.
Massol-Deyá A, Pérez D, Pérez E, Berrios M, Diaz E. Trace elements analysis in forage samples from a US Navy bombing range (Vieques, Puerto Rico). Int. J. Environ. Res. Public Health. 2005 2(2):263–66
Roberts A. Lives and Statistics: Are 90% of War Victims Civilians? Surviv. Glob. Polit. Strateg. 2010 52(3):115–36
Thouin H, Le Forestier L, Gautret P, Hube D, Laperche V, et al. Characterization and mobility of arsenic and heavy metals in soils polluted by the destruction of arsenic-containing shells from the Great War. Sci. Total Environ. 2016. 550:658–69
A friend shared this song by Old Crow Medicine Show with me years ago, and for some reason I am finding it relevant today. Maybe because it agrees with a “life is beautiful” perspective, that we are all mortal beings on an ancient planet, even though – as James Baldwin wrote –we tend to imprison ourselvesby denying our mortality and focusing on other things, most of which are human constructs. It also jibes with acosmically connected primatestheme, at a time when people don’t feel particularly connected.
This isn’t my typical genre of music, but I try to be open to different styles. If you like something, that’s all that counts, I guess. This one, to me, is beautiful. Anyway, if you haven’t heard it before I hope you enjoy it.
Show me a river, I’ll show you an ocean I’ll show you a castle turn into sand For we rise and we fall, and we crash on the coastlines And only our love will last ’til the end
Fortune is fleeting, time is deceiving Our bodies are weak and they turn into dust Though following blindly, but love is like lightning It strikes only one time, and ain’t it enough?
Ain’t it enough to live by the ways of the world To be part of the picture, whatever it’s worth? Throw your arms around each other and love one another For it’s only one life that we’ve got and ain’t it enough?
Surely all people are made for each other To join in together when the days turn to dust So let the prison walls crumble, and the borders all tumble There is a place for us all here and ain’t it enough?
Ain’t it enough to live by the ways of the world To be part of the picture, whatever it’s worth? Throw your arms around each other and love one another For it’s only one life that we’ve got and ain’t it enough?
Late in the evening, feeling the wind blow Talk through the treetops, warm in the sun Lying beside you, watching the moon rise If that’s all there is, babe, ain’t it enough?
Show me a river, I’ll show you an ocean The stars just like diamonds all shining above Where the heavens are beaming and all the world’s dreaming Peace everlasting and ain’t it enough?
Ain’t it enough to live by the ways of the world To be part of the picture, whatever its worth? Throw your arms around each other and love one another For it’s only one life that we’ve got and ain’t it enough?
Still thou are blest, compared wi’ me! The present only toucheth thee: But Och! I backward cast my e’e, On prospects drear! An’ forward, tho’ I cannot see, I guess an’ fear! (Robert Burns, “To a Mouse,” 1785)
This will be a short post. I was thinking of people’s perceptions of the present and the future, with all of the messiness in the US right now: the coronavirus pandemic and the inadequate government response, the BLM protests in the streets against racism and police brutality, the social divisions, the high unemployment rate, and the dual crises of climate change and species extinctions. Things don’t feel great right now.
Some people have tried to predict what the US will look like in the near future, ranging from dystopian hellscapes including the end of the country engulfed in food shortages, unchecked spread of COVID-19, and even civil war. Others have suggested there will be a return to normal with a new, less divisive, administration that will be more proactive in tackling the pandemic and stabilizing employment in an FDR-style presidency.
Predicting the future is not easy (though some, like Peter Turchin have tried). I was thinking that we perceive our current social environment similarly to how we perceive velocity in a car or plane. When a vehicle’s speed is constant, it becomes almost imperceptible to us since we are also going at the same speed along for the ride. In a commercial airplane at cruising speed, people walk freely through the aisle without noticing much. The same applies to the earth, which is rotating at over a thousand miles per hour (and so are we). It’s only when the vehicle slows, accelerates, or turns do we feel the shift.
I’d say that something similar happens in how we perceive other aspects of our environment. A 70°F day (21°C) may feel warm or cool depending on the season or what the temperature the previous day was. Anyway, here’s my point: the way the world feels right now depends on context and how we perceive not only our current position, but the changein direction and where we might be headed.
If yesterday we had just experienced a horrible period that was worse than this one, such as — oh I don’t know — the Bubonic plague, or maybe the Rwandan genocide, then today’s situation would feel pretty good. But perceptions are not always the best guide. As the first cases of coronavirus reached the US, most people reacted with trepidation, since it was new and the future seemed uncertain. Then people became attenuated to the situation over a few months, like the proverbial frogs being slowly boiled. Then almost every state eased their stay-at-home orders, even though the number of new cases per day is higher than when those lockdowns were initiated.
I suppose what I’m saying is to remember that as bad as things are right now, they could always get worse. Hopefully not. With foresight, planning, and effort, we can get momentum going in another direction.