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Hurting The Right People
It has happened before, but there is nothing to compare it to now. Spirits of harm and lack; spirits of solidarity and abundance.
I remember the way we talked right after the 9/11 attacks, and how we talked in the ensuing months and years. I remember the shared horror and grief over the massacre at the World Trade Center and elsewhere, but also the things that weren’t shared, like the decision about what to do in response, a decision that was supported almost unanimously by power but opposed by masses of people, even as it was cheered by masses more. I remember the sick feeling that grew over that autumn and that winter, as the talk swiftly turned toward retribution in whatever direction could be formulated, as it became clear that our response to civilian massacre was going to be more civilian massacre, that our retaliation to being hurt so badly was going to be to hurt others badly—more badly than we had been hurt, if we could, and it turned out we could.
It felt as if we were balanced on the edge of a knife and a long slow slide down the bloody side of it was being selected for us, in the name of our safety.
I remember the lurching feeling in the gut: that our appropriate anger was being put to inappropriate uses, being used by power not to honor our dead by holding to the best of our ideals, but to utilize our dead in order to abandon those ideals as dangerous and foolish encumbrances, unacceptable obstacles to all the pain and harm that we were going to need to inflict in order to be safe again. I remember how reputable and respectable all the lawbreaking and lying and looting was made to seem, because it was done in pursuit of safety. And I remember the way anyone who stood in opposition to that quick march toward more massacre was instantly, almost reflexively accused of being aligned with our attackers, coddling them, wanting them to win, even though what we were about to do aligned our spirits and actions not with those who seek a world without massacre, but with those who sought to increase it—like those who had attacked us, for example.
By “those” I mean human beings, by the way.
This is also what I mean by “us” and “we.”
What are we going to do?
We’re murdering the planet right now, in case you didn’t know. Or if we’re not murdering it, we’re making it uninhabitable for ourselves specifically, because we seem to believe we can’t afford to keep it inhabitable.
It seems like a bad time to engage in fights to murder each other, but the urges to murder the planet and to murder each other seem conjoined. It might be a good time to fight whatever urges are leading us to do such wasteful things in a time of great need.
This planet we’re killing; it’s the one we all live on.
By “we” I mean human beings, by the way.
The massacre of Israeli citizens makes me sick, and so does the grim and hateful global tradition of antisemitism that is growing stronger every day, which makes life unacceptably precarious for Jewish people everywhere.
The massacre of Palestinian citizens in retaliation makes me sick, and so does the history of subjugation and oppression and ethnic cleansing that preceded it, and the escalating talk of dehumanization we now hear.
Two different thoughts, it seems.
To say one makes you sick means you’re taking up for the other, or vice versa. To say both make you sick risks engagement in a both-siderism that ignores important context about aggression and oppression that brought us here, ignores the reality that every struggle for liberation has involved a fight of some kind.
That’s the word on the street, anyway. That’s the word on the airwaves.
Yet when I hear of massacres it makes me sick in a way that defies context. I don’t know what other reaction to have, nor does it seem an unhealthy reaction to massacre. We are a species defined at least in part by our ability to form ideas. It strikes me that we must have better ideas than massacre, which seems to be on its own side.
I think what if it were my own family dead on the ground. I think what if it were me ordered to leave but with nowhere to go, waiting for the white phosphorous that will kill everyone I love. I think how if they were all to die I guess I would hope I would die, too. I think about what that would feel like: one’s world shot to pieces, one’s life blown to bits. To not ever be able to put it right, to have never seen it coming, or to have seen it coming but not be able to stop it. It makes me sick.
What’s my point?
When you publish your opinions and people read them, there comes a certain expectation you’ll produce useful opinions, even if it’s only a self-aggrandizing expectation that you put upon yourself. Lately I’ve been without words. The daily news gives me that same sick feeling as I had some twenty years ago, even makes me wonder why I’m off on vacation instead of doing something about *waves hands at everything* yet it’s not clear what I could do, and I fear that whatever opinion I might offer could not possibly be useful. Perhaps by the time we get to the end I’ll have proved that fear well-founded.
I find myself uncertain where to begin, deeply aware of my own crushing ignorance on matters of geopolitics, of history, of ethics, of philosophy, geography, religion. I feel as if this is a pain so specific to groups to which I do not belong that I am an intruder broaching the topic; and yet also I feel as if my silence would contribute to a far larger conveniently disinterested silence of comfortable people witnessing a terrible distress that hasn’t yet touched them directly. I feel like I shouldn’t write about this and yet I feel compelled to.
My tendency is to to create an analogy, but no analogy I reach for seems apt. Every one of them fails, turns into something maladroit. Maybe this is something that is not like something else. Maybe it’s only like itself. A screaming comes across the sky. It has happened before, but there is nothing to compare it to now. It always seemed to me like a baffling way to start a novel, but maybe I finally get it. For somebody, every rocket is the first rocket; every massacre is the first massacre.
The ground seems shaky some days. One seeks a firm place to place one’s feet.
I know that this piece, written by Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg, speaks to my soul. I am tempted to recommend you abandon my ramblings and read it instead. But then in the next breath this seems cowardly to me, as if I am hiding behind a Jewish online acquaintance to stand in for me, as if on top of everything else she ought to act as my rhetorical armor in this moment. Doing this might even smack of antisemitic tropes, as if I were treating Jewishness as monolithic and fungible with Zionism and/or the state of Israel, or expecting every Jewish person to provide definitive answers for the rest of us to utilize about matters of deep complexity and grave tragedy.
Yes, maybe I am a coward. There’s little doubt that I am a fool.
Yet at the same time I don’t see how we expect to attend to these matters without listening to Jewish voices, any more than we could do so without listening to Palestinian ones. And it must be said, Rabbi Ruttenberg’s essay speaks to a moral clarity that cuts through complexities even while addressing them; a simplicity that avoids simplification. It speaks to a spirit that very simply doesn’t want human beings to get massacred, and opposes the intention to massacre and the urge for massacre wherever it arises. I dare hope I can stand there with her. I dare hope that most of us stand there.
It’s not always the easiest place for us to stand, I notice. There seems to be an instinct to seek safety for ourselves by bringing harm to others.
By “us” and “others” I mean human beings, by the way.
Yes, there seems to be an instinct to seek safety through harm; it’s an instinct that seems more entrenched the closer we get to the reins of power and privilege and the attendant ability to deliver either abundance or harm, but which we can see expressed by those who exist most directly in harm’s path, too. An instinct toward massacre, and also the things that create a massacre-rich environment: subjugation, marginalization, dehumanization.
It’s a popular urge, and often a very respectable one, by which I mean that often people who are seen as respectable hold to it, and often people can become respectable by espousing it, and often those who speak against this urge are made to be seen as disreputable, unless they live safely in the past, at which point they are held up as moral paragons even as their modern spiritual descendants are cast into disrepute.
In fact, the urge to harm others to create safety is so respectable an urge that I would argue that respectability is a leading indicator that the urge might be present in a policy, ideology, scrap of rhetoric. The more respectable the promoter of the urge to harm, the closer to the headwaters of harm that promoter seems to be, the more tools are at their disposal to pursue it, and the more effective they are at delivering it.
We can certainly see this urge in my country. If I look, I can probably see it from the window of the room from which I’m writing this, which is in Seattle. There are a lot of desperate people here, just like there are a lot of desperate people everywhere. A couple weeks ago Fox News came by this very area trying to frame the existence of unhoused people—human beings made desperate by lack—as a danger for people who are not so desperate, even though any fool can see that the people facing the most immediate danger are the unhoused people themselves. The good people of Seattle told the Fox News correspondents to take their story and shove it up their own assholes sideways, leaving Fox News with nothing left to do but huff and puff and air the footage of themselves getting dunked on as evidence of how hopelessly disreputable the people of Seattle are, for refusing to see their fellow human beings as a danger, for instead choosing to empathize with their fellow human beings about the danger they were clearly in.
The framing Fox News took as a given is a world of lack. That is, the idea there isn’t enough to go around, and so those without anything are extra people, who are in danger of taking what you have, if something isn’t done about them. The conclusion about what to do with extra people is usually left unsaid on Fox New, but not always.
I find the response by the good and disreputable people of Seattle against this ultimately murderous framework to be a cause for some hope.
Still, the urge to harm others in order to create a sense of safety for oneself is a respectable and popular one, and sometimes overwhelmingly so. It seems to me an urge rooted in a similar framing of lack.
There was a piece in the New York Times that came out deep into the Trump presidency, that concluded with a quote that became internet famous for a while. The quote came from a prison worker named Crystal Minton who was a single mom and at-home caretaker for her disabled parents. There had been a hurricane, and aide was slow to arrive, which compelled inmates to be transferred and forced staff to commute hundreds of miles in order to earn their paychecks. And now there had been a government shutdown, which meant that she and other jail workers would not be paid, which increased the already unendurable strain on her life.
Minton said this of Trump:
I thought he was going to do good things. He’s not hurting the people he needs to be hurting.
Hurting the people he needs to be hurting. I think about that a lot.
It sort of jumps out.
There are apparently right people to hurt, and if you hurt them, good things will come.
This seems to me to be the epitome of the spirit of lack.
This quote came from a person who was struggling, and she probably still is. She was made desperate from living in a society where life must be earned and the penalty for not earning it is death, and where those without are deemed extra people, not in danger but a danger. I think we can all sympathize with Minton’s plight; if you live in the U.S. you live in such a society, whether you are desperate yet or not, and if someday circumstance turns so that you are no longer earning your life, you will certainly join the increasing population of desperate people in this country.
But Minton was not only a desperate person living in desperate times. She was also somebody who believed the solution to her desperation was not the creation of a world where desperate people were not harmed, but rather a reorganization of the existing one, in which only the right desperate people were harmed, in which other people who were not her were made even more desperate than her. It struck me then (and still strikes me now) as a real giveaway of the whole Trump movement; a “quiet part loud” statement that yes indeed the Trump voter meant bad things for other people, and what they loved about Trump was his uncanny ability to identify the sorts of desperate people that other desperate people wanted to see harmed, and to promise in no uncertain terms that they would be as harmed as he could make them.
But here’s the thing: Trump was harming the people that she wanted harmed, and many others besides. The Muslim travel bans happened. The harassment campaigns against gay and trans and nonbinary kids cranked up, as did campaigns to disenfranchise Black voters, menace immigrants, encourage police brutality, demonize the unhoused, sneer at diversity, tear up infrastructures of regulation and protection that safeguarded disabled and chronically ill people like Minton’s parents or single mothers like Minton herself, demolished funding for relief from natural disasters like hurricanes, that identified the primary enemy as the government for which Minton worked and shut it down.
Minton’s life hadn’t gotten any better. It had gotten worse. The reason seems obvious: a world that believes in lack and escalates harm to people already suffering from lack, can never and will never make people more safe or less desperate; it will increasingly harm people, in increasing numbers, and it will increase desperation, and everything desperation brings. Yet Minton’s conclusion to the increased harm she experienced was not to change her ideas, and consider that perhaps making a world of hurt for other people meant also living in a world of bountiful hurt; her conclusion was to think that since she was hurting, that must mean that ipso facto Trump must not be hurting “the right people.”
So we see that this urge to harm others in order to increase our safety is not only popular and respectable, but tenacious.
I think when you believe in scarcity, you believe that there is only so much safety to go around. Perhaps you also believe that there is only so much harm to go around, too, and that by putting it elsewhere you put it far from you. The story reveals a belief in harm as something almost pressurized, as if increasing the harm done to others would naturally send harm away from you; the same way you make one end of a balloon puff up by pressing down on the other end.
And, if power wants, other people can indeed be made to suffer mass harm or even mass death, whether you support it or not, creating a world in which you will be harmed, as well, because a balloon is full of whatever gets put in there. Keep filling it with that, and eventually it’s full; there’s nowhere to press.
So what is being put into the balloon? What are we demanding gets put there? What are our expectations? I observe that the path to liberation is a struggle, and I believe it needs a fight—but what fight?
What would happen if we filled the balloon with a spirit of universal human solidarity informed by a spirit of abundance, where there are no right people to hurt? Where the hell would a promoter of massacres go in that sort of world?
If we are to fight for liberation, I think we might fight for that.
The massacre of over a thousand Israeli citizens makes me sick, and a rising global tide of antisemitism terrifies me a lot, so I can only imagine how that rising tide makes Jewish people feel, who are actually directly threatened by it, even though Jewish people are not the same thing as the Israeli state.
The notion of Palestinian citizens massacred in retaliation makes me sick, as does the rising spirit of subjugation and oppression that creates a massacre-rich environment, which they have quite obviously endured.
Holding both of these ideas simultaneously seems more precarious than it should, like trying to balance on a tightrope in a stiff wind. For many, not wanting one self-evidently means you want the other, or vice versa, even though it seems axiomatic that the only way to hold either idea is to hold both. Massacre seems to be on its own side, and seems to only want more massacre.
Are they two ideas? Today they seem to be one. Massacred citizens do not strike me as ‘both sides’ of an equation even if they sit on opposite sides of a border or a wall. If there are to be only two sides, the other side of this equation seems to be those with some combination of ruthlessness and power and reputation and will, who create a world to their specifications, pursuing those things that escalate the urge to massacre—a spirit of escalating hate, informed by a spirit of lack—and the more reputable they are as they pursue it, the more effective they can often be at delivering it.
I believe it is these spirits we must oppose. We must see where the spirt of lack starts, and align ourselves in unwavering opposition with an unshakeable belief that safety comes from abundance and creates abundance. We must see where it has progressed to solving the problem of extra people, and align ourselves against it with an unshakeable belief that all people are unique and irreplaceable works of art.
It seems to me we have to see these anti-human spirits wherever they are on the move, and cast them and their promoters into disrepute; recognize the ideas they generate, and demand better ideas, founded in solidarity, informed by abundance.
If we want peace, let us seek it first and exclusively in a spirit of solidarity and abundance, which believes that there is actually enough for all to share, and that abundance leads to more abundance. Or at least let us try.
By “us” I mean human beings.
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A.R. Moxon is the author of The Revisionaries, which is available in most of the usual places, and some of the unusual places, and is co-writer of Sugar Maple, a musical fiction podcast from Osiris Media which goes in your ears.