What Actions, What Response

I reacted with typical horror to the NYT article by Rukmini Callimachi, “ISIS Enshrines a Theology of Rape.”

I could not read it at once, and in-between attempts to finish reading, I wrote: Tomorrow I will think about this with facts and reason and other proper nouns; tomorrow I will not focus on global negative traits, overgeneralize, or fall prey to emotions. Tonight, I am thinking of anti-theism. In between, I will need Christopher Hitchens’ shadowy help. Because I find the idea of subjugating and enslaving another living and sentient creature revolting.

It is tomorrow, and I am picking up on what I think is the fundamental felt response to news such as this: why does someone not intervene?

I am not knowledgeable on foreign policy, nor a soldier (the subject-position of the person who will actually be sent to fight someone or something labeled heinous), nor one of the ‘People of the Book.’ My attitude, position and response are founded on different grounds. This detailing of thoughts and feelings is an attempt to cope with the awareness that no matter what I feel or think, and there are many such as I, my thoughts and feelings are immaterial and useless to those women as an actual deterrent to harm in real-time. Is it wrong to allow this to play out in history ? Is it wrong to battle the red flag? Is it right to grieve and do nothing? What is to be done?

Who will intervene? With what rationale? With what effect at home and abroad? Whose actions will be supported? Which country or individual is safe from retribution if that entity intervenes?

It is important to ask why intervene, why now, why in this. There is a response to the original New York Times article in Slate (http://www.slate.com/blogs/the_slatest/2015/08/13/the_new_york_times_details_isis_s_systemic_use_of_rape_it_is_uniquely_horrifying.html ), which says this sort of evil is uniquely horrifying. I do not know how to judge it unique. I think it is unique in several decades, perhaps, for persecution, enslavement and systematic war on people considered inferior enemies has been the hallmark of human history. It crops up every century in some way or another, and is not limited to any religion or sect. It is a feature of the human. I do not want to fear that it is a feature of the human male in this century (too many young males, unemployment, frustration, lacking stable role models or avenues for energy and achievement). It does not matter whether this strategy is unique or typical or widespread; that sort of reasoning will lead us to try to measure a certain minimum of harm before external intervention can be justified, and I do not believe it is possible to fix that measure.

Neither is it possible to decide whether to condemn hard or softly based on similarities in the degree of horror/harm/excess. That brings me to a point that irritates me in this century’s oppositional politics of all stripes. Every group that is accused of exceeding ethical limits begins to point fingers back to one other or prior group and says well, they did it too, we are not the only baddies, or the unique baddies. I cannot understand how such a reactionary ethic can ever lead to a future that is more peaceful. This is certainly not the only instance of unique transgression and unique horror in the world or in human history. It need not be, either for us to condemn and resist it or for us to say we do not know how to deal with it because it is new.

As for the merits of intervention in real-time history, now, in our present, concerning the countries possibly involved in any conflict around this issue: I strongly believe in cascading effects, at the individual level and the global level. Every international, military or political action cannot help but occur in a context of prior politics, prior war-games, ongoing cultural-political strife, and domestic demographic turmoil. Who can afford to intervene in economic and political terms?

The rationale must be made clear: can we unwind the ethical from the political and the just from the reactionary in our reasoning? For look, military might is being used to systematically use one community for the political ends of the other, and all is being rationalized with a moral and ethical code. Whoever begins to intervene in the injustice by attacking the moral and ethical will come back with a bloodied nose or worse. However, admitting to clear political aims as a basis for intervention is recipe for open wars of another sort.

If asked, I will condemn instances of brutality and slavery in ancient, medieval and modern times equally. I am not so much an idealist as to say that no one need die, and all men and women are good, and so on. Once an event occurs, once harm is done, it cannot be undone. One a child is brutalized and if the child knows no goodness in the people surrounding her, is it right to say to her, your thinking is wrong, change your thinking, because you are generalizing? Or is it better to succor her, prevent her from harming others in her defensive anger, and to prevent such from happening to more children in the future? My readers might object to my ethical movement from ‘right’ to ‘better’ in this paragraph; I will argue that ‘right’ and ‘right’ (what is right and what are our rights) have become sword-slivers and allow for little interpretation in our time, and I will argue for the determination of ‘better’ (the more humane, more benevolent, more fair, more peace-keeping) over ‘right.’ And I will argue that ‘better’ better fits the idea of justice (i.e. what is just and proportionate for everyone) than does ‘right.’

I feel the only justice can be a future justice, a justice based on lessons from history about what not to do and what the human is capable of. A justice pushed into the future, beyond the calculations of action and reaction, and therefore perhaps an unforeseeable justice. Those who believe in religious ‘ends of times’ will find this familiar, because most religiously-cloaked political groups in the world use a foretold justice to incarnate what they see as the necessary conditions of that justice in our times. But I think the way is not to push from a future end backwards into our time, or to reincarnate a lost and past glory in the near future, but to push away from our time into whatever future we can make and above all base this process on a fundamental insistence that we do not know, cannot be the ultimate judge, and therefore must make peace with provisional judgements as we know best in the moment. Revelations, absolute recompense, revenge, retribution, these are fallacious closures to ongoing human conflict.

I find I must retain believe in the capacity of some men and women in every community to act in the name of proportionate justice and to restrain injustice when necessary. Perhaps this is my replacement for the god-ideal that others like to believe in, an external solution, for in the end I do nothing except feel and writhe and write.



Declaration: The intertwining of anger and hatred against the dehumanized ‘Other’ made my bile rise. Perhaps my degree of revulsion is suspect because I am an empath and therefore especially intolerant. Violence is not something I can emotionally encompass without shock, numbness and annihilating rage. The only possible following action, for me, seems to be to turn to the living and try to do something on their behalf. And so anger is followed quickly by sorrow. Who grieves for them? For every wound, every child rushed quickly through the pain of adulthood into sickness and sorrow and death? The remaining affect founders in the mud beneath the clear sky of reason.


The whip and the road

I would not read this BBC story (http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-33096971 ) about two men who survived Tuol Sleng prison, Phnom Penh, as warning against certain kinds of torture or evil government. I would read it instead as reminder of the tendency of human beings to burn all in the quest for their version of utopia. Western, Eastern, Northern, Southern, each and all will sacrifice the Other and then parts of their own peoples to install a better future. It used to be possible to overcome some empires, dictators and tyrants and plot and plan their overthrow or assassination; with each passing decade, with the refinement in technology and the sheer human and economic numbers involved, the calculations for throw and overthrow are not likely to be made by individuals or local groups.

And in all that neutralized (in tone and political statement) story this matter-of-fact sentence is what I would choose to highlight:

‘”If those guards hadn’t tortured a false confession out of me, they would have been executed – I can’t say I would have behaved any differently [in their position],” [Chum Mey] says.’

This is the truth, I think. The blunt everyday evidence to stand beside the Stanford Prison Experiments and William Golding’s _The Lord of the Flies_. We do not like to talk about these things. We prefer to believe in sweetness and light. Or prefer that when we will make our mini and major empires we shall do it better and more honorably than this. Our souls are surely not like this, not if we adhere to Law or Religion. Surely, if we believe in something higher, our actions will be better. Surely we learn, and progress and evolve.

And yet, I think we merely see what is in front of us, the part of the moral compass that presents itself to our field of sight.

I once quoted elsewhere from a frivolous book: “True pain is like black ink. Enough of it can blot out a man’s soul. If you’re willing to use it, you can write whatever you wish in its place.” In that book these lines were spoken by a character who had been tortured in such a way that he bore no outward marks, and who had ‘sold his soul’ to avoid further pain. Allow me to generalize. Many of us do as the character did. War or sport or the war of life: ’tis all the same. Cumulative trauma exists, and half this hopeful world reels between the black reality of their pain and the unreal reality of the world-machine.

I first quoted that because I was struck by the metaphorical similarity drawn between soul (after ‘intelligence,’ the next most ‘untouchable’ attribute of the ‘human’) and ink-n-paper (in a world where we have grown accustomed to insisting on writing/patenting/publishing/material proof). Allow me another moment to ask metaphysical and utterly visceral questions. Is pain a reflection of soul, i.e. that it is but an illusion? Maybe, but even a monk doing penance knows how the body hurts. And a child knows joy. As for the rest of us: you can wear a person down over the years such that you break their will to resist and fight, to stand tall or act fairly. I have not read or speculated enough to agree if ‘aatma’ is ‘void.’ I suspect every organized and folk religion in the world will give you a different version of the nature, form and characteristics of the soul. And thereby prove or disprove the co-existence of pain with soul. I am irreverent, so I believe none of them until experience tells me true. I do not know about ‘soul,’ but the human can definitely be broken. Just like a horse under rein and spurs.

I know men and women can be broken and redirected at least half against their will. And sometimes, if they are beaten enough, they will be like the horse that attacked whatever it saw on the road in front of it whenever it felt the whip on its back. It could not see behind it (what had trained it, what drove it) but it could see what was in front, and it began to associate pain with what it could see. We can be like that, too. Too easily. Therefore news like this is important, and voices and words such as Primo Levi’s and Wilfred Owen’s and all the rest unknown to my mainstream mind are important, because after training by trauma we need to relearn what it is exactly that hurt us and what we cannot see.

On ‘My Choice’

Originally written April 5, 2015:

When asked to comment on this video about an Indian woman (representative and yet not able to represent or speak to the millions she speaks for) I had this to say:

1. Why is this in English? Many of the women who need this message and the men who need to hear this do not speak English as well, nor perhaps have access to a computer and the internet. Is the target audience an already privileged middle and upper class?

2. Where is the ‘we’? Individual empowerment of every man and woman is necessary and valuable, but if this is a feminist or womanist or socially conscientious declaration, where is the solidarity and support for other women who may not have been able to stand up and say or even think ‘my choice’ ?

Choices are privileges, most people are not free enough to have real choices, only some options. If one person is free and strong enough, is it her prime duty to release herself, or to also remember to aid those who might be trapped? And no, I do not think the answer is as easy as the rule for putting on your O2 mask first in an airplane; life is not an emergency, it is a long event.

3. Where is the declaration of ‘responsibility’ for the consequences of ‘my choice’? An adult human being, male or female, does not live, earn or relate in a vacuum. A woman cannot exist in isolation. Therefore, whatever choices she makes will have an impact on others. When this impacts innocents or other, less empowered people, it is the ethical duty of the adult human to bear the responsibility for the damage caused to those lives and do her best to lessen the harm or heal the damage. Just as it should be for a man, and just as it is not, and that is why women protest. Nevertheless, I cannot look up to a womanist declaration of rights without responsibilities.

I would remind you of Toni Morrison’s words in _Beloved_: “Freeing yourself was one thing, claiming ownership of that freed self was another.”

Thinking on Conflagration

It is Holi, 2015. I am reading this.


The nuclear bomb was meant to be a frightening inducement to peace, as if humans as a species could be collectively made to behave peaceably under the overwhelming threat of a weapon-overlord.

The context was near-planetary war, in a century shaken by the fact that war had no limits. New technology had made it possible to reach and destroy without having to go to the enemy and engage them face to face with rules and constraints. The enemy was multi-bodied, the enemy uniform or physical characteristic sufficient to mark and condemn all the people who symbolically shared it. Fear had spilled over the trenches long ago, now it would spill over human life itself.

Perhaps some folks did not like that the implacable fight to live that animated most of what science put under its instruments of examination should be mirrored in whatever humans created. Perhaps the idea was to subdue man with the forces of nature (or science) before the very matrix of human life became a battlefield.

What did those well-meaning men (and they were perhaps men, perhaps not all men) think about who would wield such bombs? Who is or would be benign enough to do so?

Besides, it hardly matters if the overlord himself were benign; it is not in this century’s culture to view the presence of a perceived overlord or more powerful entity as benign. The very existence of such a power would be an affront, an actionable trigger.

Nuclear power was never about ‘right’ (what is right); only about ‘the right’ to do something with it, and about some ideological justification for what any one person or community wants. The existence of nuclear power is not a problem; the pervasive desire to harness it as weaponry instead of a source of energy for human needs is a problem we cannot unmake.

There are studies (http://www.gsb.stanford.edu/insights/nir-halevy-how-do-you-make-decisions ) that say, given a chance, humans will choose an equal and best common decision for any relational choice. But what is true in societal, individual-to-individual or peer-to-peer relations is not necessarily true for inter-community relations. For the lifetime of a community is longer than that of a single human, and history induces a different sort of calculation of choices, of political justifications for imagined futures. People calculate rewards and punishments in different ways (http://www.gsb.stanford.edu/insights/kristin-laurin-people-calculate-rewards-punishments-different-ways). A man or woman may invest and sacrifice to build the fabric of the social network he or she lives in, but will not act the same way to extend that network beyond a safe, controllable perimeter. We don’t decide in favor of justice, we decide for ourselves.

I would resist the temptation to speak of schoolyard bullies, of men in their childhood. As long as there is any chance for power, gang war and factionalism, without sufficient overwhelming presence and pressure applied to discourage the bickering and fighting there will be war. There is no other species yet violent enough or powerful enough to subdue the self-sabotaging tendencies of the human race.

Our communication media are full of rhetoric about ‘changing the world’ at every level. We applaud youngsters who deliver inspirational speeches, move us with youthful idealism, or simply speak of things we discarded in favor of stability and security in our life-choices. We elevate and enshrine the idea– at our mundane career levels: work for the underprivileged, for women (while you shop at brand name stores), win a trip to Africa, to India, travel and learn, volunteer, teach the poor, the children (always dark-skinned, by the way), and what a great thing to add to our resumes; at geopolitical levels; at levels of religious or economic empires. And we ignore what it means when our effort and our vision of change or a changed world interacts with everyone else’s. We know better and we mean well, so you better listen, OR we don’t care about you and we have the power so you better listen. What’s the difference? Whose world matters? Whose vision?

This planet is more than the earth of humankind, but in our individual efforts to superimpose one or the other perfect world on it we have reduced its existence to our narrow jockeying for regional power. I watch the roll of history, of the choices being made between possible futures, and wonder how much energy will be spent in opposing one or the other mad ambition before some part of this earth is blighted.

Blood Cry


As long as national and international laws treat the rape of women as less significant than the brutalization and torture of men, I refuse to call either the Delhi or the Rohtak cases rapes. They are cases of mutilation, torture, murder, dismemberment, cruel and pathological premeditated destruction. A woman is first a human being.

Define her any way you want. She is gone. I’m glad she is gone. I hope she went into shock very early, so that some part of the pain I cannot imagine will have been kept from her senses. Oh child, I wish I had had the power to ask for a quick death for you.

Morally, I feel violated. Warring subjective reactions, one almost feral, the other weary of everyday claims to a modern world. Nothing has changed, we still have poverty, disease, brutal and casual death, catastrophes that could have been easily averted, and a miserable existence for those outside the gates of the manor/gates of power.

They speak of arrests and fast-track courts. Nine men safe in cells. Thus speaks the red mist of pain and anger.

And the mist asks: why should we distrust a subjective response, or hand over our moral trials to slow, plodding courts? Justice can be serene only when it has transcended both pain and joy, of all peoples. But in the moments of every event, every time, the public must feel, must respond viscerally, affectively, subjectively, for such response is the surest condemnation of whatever threatens the human (cruelty, violence, inaction). By refusing to feel the pain of others we become less than fully human ourselves.

In the wake of such response it will be easy to hear the blood cry for justice. Inevitably, someone will ask for the death penalty, and most others will cry against it.

Let’s think for a moment — and separate the legal and the moral codes, and then again the archetypal ones.

I cannot comprehend the psychology of this much fear, rage and revenge, all for the chance occurrence of a female body. What sensations are such creatures after? Had they done it before? Who are the men and women who know them, shelter them? Such impotence, that it took many to hunt one, it took many to attack one mentally challenged female stranger, it took sharp and hard objects to invade her, it took violence to make her submit to what they had to say. They calculated–a stranger, a woman with difficulties, a place where her cries and struggles would not be heeded or her body found for days, a plan of ambush, tools for their task, the willing participation of each. They depersonalized her, dehumanized her, obliterated what remained. Nine men for one woman? But these are not men. Nor are they beasts. Animals have a primary motivation — survival. These perpetrators had no purpose other than gratification in the moment.

Cries against feeble manhood and an impotent nation could be taken in the context of increasing brutalization of women by men all over the world. A body perceived as weaker is still an easier and more horrifying target for the rage of man. Why? What causes a man to wish to rape whatever is ‘not like me’? What causes a human male to split off from the part of him that is common to the species? Shall we blame it partially on womanhood and the raising of wayward, entitled, sociopathic sons in societies enamored of ‘traditional ways of living’? Shall we say Delhi and Rohtak reveal the pathology of Indian society, and the psychopathology of several million specimens of the Indian male?

Do you see? I cannot reason this through. I cannot thrust this from my body, take pleasure in my body’s life when my cells twitch with an anguish they cannot remember.

Oh child, I wish I had had the power to ask for a quick death for you.

Endless calculations

It is an accepted, if debated, truism that terrorism is the answer of oppressed people, meeting endless illegal violence with illegal violence. Notice the ‘endless’? Acts of sudden death counter the perception of endless oppression by moving the counter from ‘what has been tolerated’ to ‘the intolerable’ and answering endless acts with nothingness and erasure. In case of pitched war (good old days of battlefields), acteurs erase each other, as expected. In the ideological spectrum of disorder into which terror falls, the impact is the element of the unexpected, and acteurs erase someone else entirely.

Terror is outward directed violence; self-immolation is violence directed inward. Both are part of a spectrum of responses to oppression and traumatic disruption. Not all acts on that spectrum are tactics of ‘resistance.’ Both can be claimed as a political gesture by actors. Both harness spectacle, and use the law of unpredictability. They are also still on the edge of the incalculable in expected responses, for the usually accepted ideology is not to cause irreversible harm to self or unrelated others. Death, that ‘horror’ is still a sin in most religions (of faith or materiality). No one expects you to kill yourself in pursuit of your ends; to them, to end yourself leads nowhere, so the calculation of gain or loss that precedes self-annihilation is outside the normally charted territory of probabilities of expected responses to pressure. And, because this is ‘off the charts,’ acts of self-annihilation as well as their acteurs are seen as cowardly for their refusal to continue to fight along the same lines as their baffled opponents who stand waving the red flag when the others have left the field.

In cases of terror randomness, difficulty of prediction of target and timing, and the fact that the affected persons are not related directly to the acteurs contrive to take the events ‘off the charts’ of calculable responses. However, the steady rise in calculated acts of terror against similar targets in the last decade has brought terrorism into the narrow spectrum of global public consciousness (and therefore the narrow spectrum of expected political topics in all nation-states).

The fulcrum of both types of acts of annihilation is the sense of responsibility and the nature of the social/public/civil contract that binds each person in human community, whether they believe in it or not. By harming ‘brethren’ one harms the target. The element of spectacle ensures that many bear witness to the disruption of order, and the public’s sense of self-protection and imaginative horror (what if it was me?!) put pressure on the target–the one most visible and therefore obliged to act–in both offense and defense.

We see, and serve both terrorist and target by witnessing and bringing our responsive horror into the public space. Something has threatened the edges of our ordered world, and we think if we bring it to light it might be dealt with. But acts of spectacular rupture are dealt with only by enlarging the spectrum of responses to them, as much as by enlarging the observers’ capacity to tolerate the new types of acts and acteurs. Quite an immunization process, these exposures. For the public, reeling with horror, quite quickly finds one narrative or another to contain and explain the range of previously unthinkable acts.

The whole is an interesting perversion of the idea that ‘there but for fortune, go you or I,’ each act the fine split between ‘you’ and ‘I.’

Update: March 30, 2015. Continuing the conversation on terror as spectacle, this article by Yuval Noah Harari in _The Guardian_.



All outcomes are trickster justice, all histories trickster narratives. Choice interfaces the dual and ambivalent components of ‘what is’ and ‘what will be.’

Choice itself is both volition and consent. To foreclose on one set of possibilities is to set another unseen few in motion; to control for the other later on is to choose to ignore yet others. And so on into multitudes of choices and sieves.

The serious figure of the clown presides over the momentary revelations of chance. To insist on its absence is to ask for the obliteration of ambivalence, and thus to foreclose the possibility of proportionate justice by long division. For the loss of chance is the loss of unreason, and that makes bewilderment out of history.

Dualities must not be understood as contrasting things, unintegrated, oppositional, even if it is considered ‘modern’ (not ‘primitive’) and enlightened to regard human persons and behavior as arranged around principles rather than the ‘concrete ambivalence’ that constructs most of our material reality.

Neither should dualities in their material examples be considered ‘point and counterpoint’ in an intellectual chorus. For that would not question the order of the small world in which the duality manifests, only argue about its order of things. And in their fixing of the problem (abstract morality and moral exceptionalisms) they would leave out all the world of ambiguity, thus confirming other-worldly power and this-worldly reason.

There is no order, no one Reason, nor even a given moral code. “All antinomies are bound into the ritual cycle” of choice. Choice interfaces the dual and ambivalent components of ‘what is’ and ‘what will be.’ All outcomes are trickster justice, all histories trickster narratives.

–Ref: Paul Radin. The Trickster: A Study in American Indian Mythology.

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