American Relativism and The Murders We Commit

9/11:Hiroshima :: 3000:100000+

America killed almost 100,000 people on this day in 1945 at 8:15 in the morning. Thousands would be added to the death toll in the coming weeks, months, and years. It was a bomb that would change not only the war, but the world. Many argue the use of the atom bomb catalyzed the Cold War and the era of nuclear proliferation. At the time it was justified as a quick end to the war, meant to save millions of American lives. Afterwards, it was justified as a necessary action: a technological show of power so great, it would necessitate peace. Oppenheimer himself — who declared “I am become death, destroyer of worlds” and then penitently fought nuclear weapon expansion after the war — whitewashed the death he had become:

The atomic bomb made the prospect of future war unendurable. It has led us up those last few steps to the mountain pass; and beyond there is a different country.

When we use terms like “collateral damage” or forward arguments about the military importance of a terrible action, we distance ourselves from the human toll and suffering we are responsible for. Can women, children and other civilian survivors ethically be considered “collateral damage”? Are they merely the “casualties of war”, as if the morbidly named Little Boy that dropped the equivalent of 15 kilotons of TNT was as impersonal as a tsunami. But Little Boy was not an act of nature. It was a decided act of man, dropping a bomb on people as a child might sadistically pour salt on pesky garden slugs. And these were not “casualties” or destroyed assets. At 8:15 in the morning, they were people starting their day: everyday people rushing to work, doing laundry, trudging through chores and dragging their children from bed.

I think it interesting that when we redefine people as necessary “casualties of war” or “collateral damage” we are also bounding that definition geographically. When 9/11 happened, the outrage that innocent lives were taken on American soil has left a trail of death, warfare, and surging religious extremism (on both sides) for over a decade. It has unleashed a trail of death proportionately unimaginable. It was almost nothing compared to the unprecedented blast of x-ray heated air to fireball and send a shock wave in all directions faster than the speed of sound. The Cold War of the Atomic Age was more shock and awe than murderous shockwave. And there were 3,000 civilian US citizens killed by Little Boy. But, that does not matter. We killed them. We decided knowingly or afterward that 3,000 American civilians were relatively equal to 100,000 Japanese civilians in their homes and on their land. This was acceptable. We do not hold that same standard when it happens in our homeland.

Americans — people in general — have a nasty predisposition to bind people as numbers, things, and nonhuman entities according to distance or distancing differences. We use language to parcel out humanity like bits of meat. We categorize people to fictionally determine them as different and thereby less human than ourselves. Americans also cleave people into chunks and group them out in less-than-human camps: in Abu Ghraib, and Guantanamo; in legal slavery and institutionalized racism; in hate crimes and bigoted speech; in gender-specific considerations. It is ironically very human.

People use difference to justify ends, skipping over the violence and suffering of the means that accomplish those things. We make humanity a spectrum on a relative scale without asking who is doing the weighing and where do I change from human to “the cost of” whatever wars we are waging. We bind ourselves to a relative value by lashing others with labels. It is a scourge of systemically dehumanizing solipsism and apathy that precede all acts of violence. And I wonder, why do we need violence so much that we create distance? It is harder to kill humans than destroy “enemies” and “threats”. There is so much that we already suffer in the world without competing to see who is more human. There is no scarcity of suffering and there should be no scarcity of empathy. There are no categorically pure enemies. We are all born from parents and hopefully someone loved us. We all fight for what we think is good. We flinch in the face of evil. We kill for fear. We die for love. We eat. We live.

On 9–11 at 8:46 in the morning, 3,000 Americans were killed while starting their workday. They had pulled on clean clothes, hurried through the subway, and left their homes and families with coffee in mind. They were not Japanese. It was not Hiroshima. There was not an ongoing war. But, were they really that much different than the people who died in Hiroshima that day?

We need to feel the consequences of the wrong we do in order to be good. Because there is no good that cannot handle empathy for everyone involved. And there is no country or person who should be beyond scrutiny or forget the undeniable wrong we are capable of — often in the name of good. We need to suffer when we see pain without finding ways of looking away. There are no justifications that soften the pain someone experiences. Consequentialism is dangerous. We have all done things wrong in the dark. Perhaps nothing as commonly wrong as looking away — of doing nothing, of killing our own compassion, by choosing to not feel that human in their moment of being. They were children once. Everyone is born innocent. And if not because it is morally right, understand that there is no utility in scaling humanity and grooming apathy. It sets off a chain reaction, a competition for suffering and a race towards preemptive acts of violence.

If you prick us do we not bleed? If you tickle us do we not laugh? If you poison us do we not die? And if you wrong us shall we not revenge?

There is no winner in that race. Even if you win, you are only human while you have the power to create the distinctions. One day, you will be someone’s “them”.

The proliferation of language we carve down and weight people with for relative value — it is a more lasting weapon of mass destruction. It ensures that we will endlessly hurt each other without noticing the mutually ensured harm. And if we do have to kill, because sometimes violence is inevitable, let us make sure that the victims remain human. That we grieve for their deaths and the consummate loss to our collective humanity. With every violent act, there is a proof that what is human is not as unquestionably good as we would like. But we can be better.

This video discusses the reality of the wars we don’t see and the humanity of the people we don’t know. They are not casualties of war. They are casualties of people.