Most laboratory animals live in bleak environs. With mice, each cage typically contains a single animal. There is bedding, food, and water. There is very little space.
A lab mouse will be illuminated for many hours each day – sometimes twenty-four, sometimes slightly fewer – by fluorescent lights. It will hear the constant thrum of ventilation fans and refrigerator compressors. At least once a week, an apex predator – wafting stress-inducing smells, especially if it’s male – will reach into its home and grab it.
Chances are, it will see other mice. A rotating cadre will fill adjacent cages during its tenure in the lab. They will never touch.
Our cruelty makes for bad science, too.
When social animals are stored in isolation, their bodies and brains decay. Neuron growth slows, which impedes learning. Lifespan is curtailed. Obesity rates increase.
If we stop mistreating laboratory animals, though, new research might be inconsistent with past results. When describing mice, scientists don’t say that deprivation stunts brain development. Instead we write things like, “If a lab is studying the impact of stress on the growth of new neurons, for example, and then it lets mice exercise on a running wheel – which has been shown to spark neuron growth – the study could be jeopardized” (from David Grimm’s recent news article for Science magazine).
We give ourselves a very skewed view of neurology if we let ourselves think that a creature’s normal habits are stimulating neuron growth, rather than admitting that deprivation stops it. For decades, most researchers thought that neuron growth ceased in adults. Even in the 2005 paper demonstrating structural plasticity, the authors wrote that “such changes are only seen in response to external perturbation,” because brain development is sluggish in lab mice housed in normal conditions, i.e. those little cages.
Of course, some scientists do care about the well-being of their furry test tubes. For instance, biologist Daniel Weary, who told Grimm “Our dream is that our animals live a better life with us than if they had never been born.” Animals in Weary’s lab get to touch actual dirt.
Maybe not the highest bar, but the lives of most animals on our planet are worse than if they’d never been born.
Most social animals – like mice, rabbits, and humans – aren’t going to be very happy when they’re housed in isolation. Former U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy considers loneliness to be a public health crisis, leading to health risks as bad as smoking or obesity.
Unfortunately, most biomedical research is done with research animals amongst whom pervasive loneliness is standard. And our political system gives outsize influence to wealthy corporations that earn more money when people feel lonely.
We shunt humans into jail when we feel that their behaviors are unacceptable for the world at large. Incarceration sends a message: don’t beat your family; don’t steal; don’t sell drugs; don’t take drugs; don’t be late for an appointment with your parole officer; don’t be too poor to pay your court fees. To my mind, some of these offenses are worse than others.
The hope is that either the threat of incarceration deters people from these things, or that the experience of being incarceration cures them of the inclination. (Or a third rationale – that seeing offenders punished will pacify others’ sense of fairness – which seems to encourage the evolution of cooperation, but, like many other evolved behaviors, seems unnecessarily vicious for the modern world.)
Instead, we’re imposing loneliness on people who most need the help of friends and neighbors to turn their lives around. Somebody screws up? We store that person like a lab mouse.
I was recently chatting with somebody who’s done nine months so far for a parole violation – and is still waiting for his court date, which keeps being rescheduled. (He’s already told the judge that he’ll plead guilty, and the prosecutor wanted to send him to rehab, but his PO nixed the deal.)
“It’s a lot better now, in J block. Everybody said, you don’t wanna move from A block, you’ll get no bingo, you’ll get no … I don’t care about any of that. We can look out the window, see people walking on the street.
“I spent almost an hour, the other day, watching this leaf blowing back and forth in the wind. I was staring, thinking I’d say to the judge, ‘you can pile on whatever other charges you want, I’ll still plead guilty, I’ll plead guilty to all of it if you just let me out there to look at that leaf blowing around up close. Just five minutes, just lemme see something!
“In D block, that was the worst. All we could see was the parking garage. On weekends, we’d see nothing, not even cars. So I was starting fights every day. I’d be like, hey, turn the TV to, I don’t know, some channel I don’t even like, just so I can start something with somebody. Cause a fight would at least be something to do.”
In the King James version of Genesis, Adam and Eve began their lives as vegans. They ate nuts and fruit.
Then they ate Yahweh’s special fruit, so he expelled them from Eden. Yahweh said, “In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground.” Adam and Eve would no longer live in a land of such abundance that they could survive on the raw produce of trees – instead, they’d have to cook bread.
And Yahweh rubs it in – even if you work hard, and procure food, and survive a while, still you will die. You humans are mortal.
(To the other deities, Yahweh offers an aside: “Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil: and now, lest he put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever: Therefore the Lord God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from whence he was taken.” Yahweh does not mention to the humans that their mortality was curable, His own doing, and His plan all along.)
In the beginning, bread was a curse.
Soon, however, the Western world treated bread as a mark of civilization.
In The Odyssey, Odysseus and his crew sail to Laestrygonia. Not knowing that the island is overrun by voracious giants who might slay and eat them, he asks who eats bread there. In Emily Wilson’s new translation, he says:
I picked two men, and one slave as the third,
and sent them to find out what people lived
and ate bread in this land.
Bread is alchemy. Flour and water and a speck of yeast aren’t enough to support a human life, but if you let yeast eat the flour, then bake it, suddenly you have a food that could nourish you for weeks.
In jail, meals are served with flimsy slices of airy white bread. I’ve eaten one meal at our local jail – the guards let us stay for dinner with the men after class one week, just after one man’s partner was murdered.
(The trio charged with murder – a woman and two men – were incarcerated in that same jail. The woman was placed into a holding cell adjacent to the dorm where the murdered woman’s partner lived. He stayed up all night, shouting to her through the wall. He was telling her to forgive herself.)
We received green beans, spaghetti, a slice of white bread, a cookie. To drink, our choice of milk or sweet tea. I’ve been told that our jail has better food than almost any other.
If you fold your spaghetti into the bread, they told me, you get to have a taco.
At the end of our poetry class recently, a man showed me his ear gauge, a round disc of purple and green.
“I’m surprised they let you keep it,” I said.
“They didn’t. It’s bread.”
“Bread. I made it here.” He popped it out to show me – it wasn’t quite as shiny as the stuff you’d see on Etsy, but otherwise looked just as nice. “While I been in, I must’ve went from a quarter inch to, what’s this, over an inch?”
“Bread,” I said, shaking my head. I felt hesitant to touch it.
“I been making all sorts of things. You need bread, and some pencil shavings, colored pencil, you know? I been making flowers, little sea turtles. I made a whole lot of flowers. Gifts for people, when I get out. It’s like therapy. While I’m making them, gives me something to think about, you know? It helps. Keeps the mind busy.”
The next week he brought a few of his sculptures to class. The flowers were incredible, each an inch or two tall, with green stem and leaves, petals in blue and purple. His sea turtle was only a quarter inch across and intricately detailed. Like netsuke, except …
“Bread?” I asked him again.
“Yup,” he said, leaning back in his chair.
I’d previously read about Robert Martinson making a chess set from bread, but I’d assumed the pieces would look gross. In “Solidarity under Close Confinement,” Martinson wrote about his experience being incarcerated for 40 days with the Freedom Riders in the 1960s. He reported that “chess sets and objets d’art could be molded from paste made from chewed bread and dried in the ventilator … I gloated over a tiny nest of buttons, string, chicken bones, and chess pieces – an affection I now find difficult to remember.”
Martinson was appalled by what incarceration does to people: “Of course, the persons we had become in our cells were difficult, boring things.” After his release, he studied prisons, hoping that the way we punish people could be made less awful. He was hired by the state of New York to address recidivism: did any type of programming reduce criminal behavior by ex-felons?
A turning point occurred with the publication of Robert Martinson’s 1974 essay, “What Works? Questions and Answers about Prison Reform.” Martinson ran some numbers and announced that rehabilitation programs have no positive effect on recidivism rates. This was the research that conservative pundits and politicians had been waiting for, and they made Martinson famous as they legislated a drastic turn from rehabilitation to harsher punishments.
With calls to “stop coddling” prisoners, prison education programs were slashed, weights were removed from the yards, the quality of prison food declined, prisoners were deprived of materials for arts and crafts, and so forth.
Even though Martinson really should have realized that this would be the consequence of his publication (and subsequent speaking tour), he was devastated. After all, he was a firm believer in social justice. He had risked his life to join the Freedom Riders. He began to study incarceration because he hoped to improve prisoners lives. As a result of his research, he’d written that prisons “cannot be reformed and must be gradually torn down.”
That’s not what happened. Instead, we started sending more people to prison, and made the prisons worse.
Which is why Martinson soon recanted his findings. It was true that the education and counseling offered in prisons weren’t very effective at staving off future crime. It was also true that the education and counseling offered in prisons were terrible.
If the available “education” is just a guard and some textbooks, is it surprising that few people are rehabilitated by it? What about counseling – with untrained counselors told to do “whatever they thought best” during five or so short meetings with their patients each year?
Nobody cared about Martinson’s 1979 publication, “A Note of Caution Regarding Sentencing Reform,” in which he apologized for flaws in his earlier work. By then, the punitive reformers had already gotten what they wanted: a lefty intellectual arguing that nothing works and so prisons should be cheap and miserable.
Martinson was horrified by the damage he’d wrought. That same year, he committed suicide – in front of his teenage son, he leapt from the window of their ninth story apartment.
I’ve never bought meth or heroin, but apparently it’s easier now than ever. Prices dropped over the last decade, drugs became easier to find, and more people, from broader swaths of society, began using. Or so I’ve been told by several long-term users.
This is capitalism working the way it’s supposed to. People want something, others make money by providing it.
And the reason why demand for drugs has increased over the past decade can also be attributed to capitalism working the way it’s supposed to. It takes a combination of capital (stuff) and labor (people) to provide any service, but the ratio of these isn’t fixed. If you want to sell cans of soda, you could hire a human to stand behind a counter and hand sodas to customers, or you could install a vending machine.
The vending machine requires labor, too. Somebody has to fill it when it’s empty. Someone has to fix it when it breaks. But the total time that humans spend working per soda is lower. In theory, the humans working with the vending machine are paid higher wages. After all, it’s more difficult to repair a machine than to hand somebody a soda.
As our world’s stuff became more productive, fewer people were needed. Among ancient hunter gatherers, the effort of one person was needed to feed one person. Everyone had to find food. Among early farmers, the effort of one person could feed barely more than one person. To attain a life of leisure, a ruler would have to tax many, many peasants.
By the twentieth century, the effort of one person could feed four. Now, the effort of one person can feed well over a hundred.
With tractors, reapers, refrigerators, etc., one human can accomplish more. Which is good – it can provide a higher standard of living for all. But it also means that not everyone’s effort is needed.
At the extreme, not anyone’s effort is needed.
There’s no type of human work that a robot with sufficiently advanced AI couldn’t do. Our brains and bodies are the product of haphazard evolution. We could design something better, like a humanoid creature whose eyes registered more the electromagnetic spectrum and had no blind spots (due to an octopus-like optic nerve).
Among those billions of unnecessary humans, many would likely develop addictions to stupefying drugs. It’s easier lapse into despair when you’re idle or feel no a sense of purpose.
In Glass House, Brian Alexander writes about a Midwestern town that fell into ruin. It was once a relatively prosperous place; cheap energy led to a major glass company that provided many jobs. But then came “a thirty-five-year program of exploitation and value destruction in the service of ‘returns.’ “ Wall street executives purchased the glass company and ran it into the ground to boost short-term gains, which let them re-sell the leached husk at a profit.
Instead of working at the glass company, many young people moved away. Those who stayed often slid into drug use.
In Alexander’s words:
Even Judge David Trimmer, an adherent of a strict interpretation of the personal-responsibility gospel, had to acknowledge that having no job, or a lousy job, was not going to give a thirty-five-year-old man much purpose in life. So many times, people wandered through his courtroom like nomads. “I always tell them, ‘You’re like a leaf blowing from a tree. Which direction do you go? It depends on where the wind is going.’ That’s how most of them live their lives. I ask them, ‘What’s your purpose in life?’ And they say, ‘I don’t know.’ ‘You don’t even love yourself, do you?’ ‘No.’ “
Trimmer and the doctor still believed in a world with an intact social contract. But the social contract was shattered long ago. They wanted Lancaster to uphold its end of a bargain that had been made obsolete by over three decades of greed.
Monomoy Capital Partners, Carl Icahn, Cerberus Capital Management, Newell, Wexford, Barington, Clinton [all Wall Street corporations that bought Lancaster’s glass company, sold off equipment or delayed repairs to funnel money toward management salaries, then passed it along to the next set of speculative owners] – none of them bore any personal responsibility.
A & M and $1,200-per-hour lawyers didn’t bear any personal responsibility. They didn’t get a lecture or a jail sentence: They got rich. The politicians – from both parties – who enabled their behavior and that of the payday- and car-title-loan vultures, and the voters of Lancaster who refused to invest in the future of their town as previous generations had done (even as they cheered Ohio State football coach Urban Meyer, who took $6.1 million per year in public money), didn’t bear any personal responsibility.
With the fracturing of the social contract, trust and social cohesion fractured, too. Even Brad Hutchinson, a man who had millions of reasons to believe in The System [he grew up poor, started a business, became rich], had no faith in politicians or big business.
“I think that most politicians, if not all politicians, are crooked as they day is long,” Hutchinson said. “They don’t have on their minds what’s best for the people.” Business leaders had no ethics, either. “There’s disconnect everywhere. On every level of society. Everybody’s out for number one. Take care of yourself. Zero respect for anybody else.”
So it wasn’t just the poor or the working class who felt disaffected, and it wasn’t just about money or income inequality. The whole culture had changed.
America had fetishized cash until it became synonymous with virtue.
Instead of treating people as stakeholders – employees and neighbors worthy of moral concern – the distant owners considered them to be simply sources of revenue. Many once-successful businesses were restructured this way. Soon, schools will be too. In “The Michigan Experiment,” Mark Binelli writes that:
In theory, at least, public-school districts have superintendents tasked with evaluating teachers and facilities. Carver [a charter school in Highland Park, a sovereign municipality in the center of Detroit], on the other hand, is accountable to more ambiguous entities – like, for example, Oak Ridge Financial, the Minnesota-based financial-services firm that sent a team of former educators to visit the school. They had come not in service of the children but on behalf of shareholders expecting a thorough vetting of a long-term investment.
This is all legal, of course. This is capitalism working as intended. Those who have wealth, no matter what historical violence might have produced it, have power of those without.
This is explained succinctly by a child in William Gaddis’s novel J R:
“I mean why should somebody go steal and break the law to get all they can when there’s always some law where you can be legal and get it all anyway!”
For many years, Gaddis pondered the ways that automation was destroying our world. In J R (which is written in a style similar to the recent film Birdman, the focus moving fluidly from character to character without breaks), a middle schooler becomes a Wall Street tycoon. Because the limited moral compass of a middle schooler is a virtue in this world, he’s wildly successful, with his misspelling of the name Alaska (“Alsaka project”) discussed in full seriousness by adults.
Meanwhile, a failed writer obsesses over player pianos. This narrative is continued in Agape Agape, with a terminal cancer patient rooting through his notes on player pianos, certain that these pianos explain the devastation of the world.
“You can play better by roll than many who play by hand.”
The characters in J R and Agape Agape think it’s clear that someone playing by roll isn’t playing the piano. And yet, ironically, the player piano shows a way for increasing automation to not destroy the world.
A good robot works efficiently. But a player piano is intentionally inefficient. Even though it could produce music on its own, it requires someone to sit in front of it and work the foot pumps. The design creates a need for human labor.
There’s still room for pessimism here – Gaddis is right to feel aggrieved that the player piano devalues skilled human labor – but a world with someone working the foot pumps seems less bad than one where idle people watch the skies for Jeff Bezos’s delivery drones.
By now, a lot of work can be done cheaply by machines. But if we want to keep our world livable, it’s worth paying more for things made by human hands.
Each child receives genetic information from its parents. Some of this information conveys distinct traits. And some of these traits increase the chance that an individual will have children of his or her own. If those children are also good at having kids, the underlying genetic information will spread.
The DNA sequences that evolution enriches don’t necessarily make a creature better – in fact, they often accomplish the opposite. A gene that made its bearer 10% happier would not spread through the population. Happy people are less fearful and more likely to be die in tragic accidents.
(Infection with Toxoplasma gondii seems to make mice happier. The parasite produces a rate-limiting enzyme for dopamine synthesis to increase the chance that Toxoplasma-infected mice blithely stroll along and get eaten by a cat.)
All that evolution “wants” is for a gene’s bearer to have children who have children who have children, and so on. This necessitates survival, yes – you can’t have kids if you’re dead, and in many species, orphaned children are less likely to ever have kids of their own. But evolution doesn’t need a gene’s bearer to be clever – brainless starfish evolved from a bilaterally symmetric forebear that did have a brain. Evolution doesn’t need a gene’s bearer to be nice – bullies seem to have plenty of children, and sexual assault is an instinctual mating strategy in many species, including ducks and orangutans. Maybe humans, too.
So, who controls which genes are passed on?
In most species, whichever parent puts the most effort into raising children gets to choose.
In The Evolution of Beauty, Richard Prum describes the experience of tropical birds, like manakins, who live in regions where food is plentiful. The female parent raises children entirely on her own – males reside elsewhere in fraternal performance troupes. And so the female birds have absolute say in deciding who will and will not fool around. The females visit large numbers of males and decline most of their overtures. Why should she settle for anything less than the absolute sexiest gentleman in the forest? She’ll find him eventually, and since he never helps any of his children’s mothers with child-rearing, she knows he’ll be available.
Male smooth guardian frogs protect their fertilized eggs and young tadpoles. Large choruses of females will surround and serenade each available male, hoping to sway his desire. Since males do all the parenting, they are very selective.
That’s the usual system – you do the work, you get to choose.
Unfortunately, in many species, others attempt to subvert mate choice. You know – those ducks. Orangutans. Humans.
Myriam Gurba’s Mean is alternately comic and horrifying. In a chapter titled “Omnipresence” (after the trauma, danger seems to be everywhere), Gurba writes:
A stranger chose me to rape.
There was no nepotism involved.
Basically, I got raped for real. (I’m being cheeky here.)
Stranger rape is like the Mona Lisa.
It’s exquisite, timeless, and archetypal.
It’s classic. I can’t help but think of it as the Coca-Cola of sex crimes.
You never predict that rapists are lurking in the sun, sky, and trees.
In The Evolution of Beauty, Prum writes:
Of course, it has long been clear that sexual coercion and sexual violence are directly harmful to the well-being of female animals. But the aesthetic perspective allows us to understand that sexual coercion also infringes upon their individual freedom of choice. Once we recognize that coercion undermines individual sexual autonomy, we are led, inexorably, to the discovery that freedom of choice matters to animals.
Sexual autonomy is not a mythical and poorly conceived legal concept invented by feminists and liberals. Rather, sexual autonomy is an evolved feature of the societies of many sexual species. As we have learned from ducks and other birds, when sexual autonomy is abridged or disrupted by coercion or violence, mate choice itself can provide the evolutionary leverage to assert and expand the freedom of choice.
Many of the trappings of human civilization exist solely to subvert mate choice. Powerful males did not want human females to exercise sexual autonomy, because what if she picks someone else? And so men made marriage, Biblical commandments against both adultery and thinking about adultery, and a propensity to murder (or, on contemporary U.S. playgrounds, heckle) loose women.
Human males wanted to control the flow of genetic information without doing the work of parenting. Just like ducks, whose females evolved corkscrew-shaped vaginas because only those individuals with complicated genitalia could exercise free mate choice amidst generations of rape culture.
Rape culture isn’t specific to Homo sapiens, after all. It’s a disease of any species in which those who don’t put in the work decide they ought to make choices for others – and nobody stops them.
(Humans do perpetrate more sexual violence than other species, especially violence against non-humans. Interspecies sexual assault strikes most people as outlandish, unless it’s being done on our behalf. Farms, puppy mills, and zoos are major assault factories. We assent to forcible fertilization because it produces large-breasted chickens, cute puppies, and caged “wild” animals for our screaming children to ogle.)
Not all species rape. In some, coalitions of females defend each other. In others, males enforce fairness. Those who believe in justice can punish interlopers, providing females with the right to choose. Feminism isn’t the exclusive provenance of females. Injustice hurts everyone, and anyone can feel aggrieved by it.
His eyes are closed, the thin jail blanket covers his head, but with bright fluorescent lights shining just a few feet from his face, he can’t fall back asleep. He begins to ruminate: “what have I done?” His mind is tormented by “visions of the outside that I don’tsee anymore.” This will be another hard day.
In Why We Sleep, Matthew Walker describes numerous research studies showing the ways that we’re impaired when our sleep is disrupted. The vast majority of people need at least 7.5 hours of sleep each night. When sleep deprived – either by missing an entire night’s sleep in one go, or sleeping six or fewer hours a night for several days in a row – people have difficulty regulating their emotions, miss social cues, and struggle to learn new information.
Prolonged sleep deprivation is widely recognized as torture. All animals will die if sleep deprived for too long, typically done in by sepsis: otherwise innocuous bacteria proliferate uncontrollably and poison the blood. Less acute forms of sleep loss – consistently getting fewer than 7.5 hours per night – will ravage a person’s immune system and increase the risk of cancer.
When interrogators deprive people of sleep (yup, the United States is a member of the illustrious group of nations that still tortures people this way, alongside regimes in Iran, Iraq, Libya, Saudia Arabia, and the like) it becomes very easy to elicit false confessions.
In the former Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin’s memoir, White Nights: The Story of a Prisoner in Russia (which is quoted in Why We Sleep), he writes that when the KGB denied him and his fellow prisoners the opportunity to sleep,
I came across prisoners who signed what they were ordered to sign, only to get what their interrogator promised them. He did not promise them their liberty. He promised them – if they signed – uninterrupted sleep.
Inside the jail, the overhead fluorescent lights are not turned off until midnight. At that time, it becomes easier – not easy, but easier – to fall asleep. But the inmates will be jarred awake four hours later for breakfast.
Despite their chronic sleep deprivation, people in jail are expected to learn new habits; people who have self-medicated for the entirety of their adult lives with opiates or amphetamines are expected to find all new ways of living. Sometimes their behaviors really were undesirable – robbery, domestic violence, neglecting children while blinkered on drugs.
But people struggle to learn new skills – sober living among them, although this was not directly assessed in the studies Walker cites – if their brains don’t undergo a large number of electroencephalogram-visible waves called “sleep spindles” during the final hours of sleep. If a person sleeps for six or fewer hours each night, the brain never reaches this stage of sleep.
Wake someone up too early day after day, you stifle learning.
Wrest them into fluorescent wakefulness each morning for a four a.m. breakfast, keep them basically sedentary because a dozen people are packed into a small cement room and the facility is too understaffed to give them “rec time,” constantly elevate their stress hormones by surrounding them with angry, potentially dangerous compatriots, and you ensure that they won’t sleep well. In addition, chemical withdrawal wrecks havoc on people’s sleep cycles. They stagger bleary-eyed through months or years inside. They chug “cocoffala” – commissary instant coffee stirred into Coca-cola – hoping to feel some semblance of normalcy. Instead, they get the jitters.
And then, finally, they’re set free – usually to probation, expected to follow more rules than the average citizen.
“I’m gonna be out next week,” a dude told me.
“Congratulations! You’ll get family Christmas after all.”
“Eh, it’s not so great. I’ll be back before New Years.”
“They say I gotta do probation two years. I slip, they’re sending me to prison.”
“Can you do it?”
“Two years? I’m not gonna make it two weeks. Way I see it, I get out, I gotta call up Judge Diekhoff, tell her it’s been real and all, but we gotta start seeing other people.”
He would’ve struggled to change his life in the best of circumstances. But he certainly couldn’t do it sleep deprived.
I was named after the doctor who delivered me, a friend of my father’s from medical school.
Dr. Curtis is a gynecologist who has written several popular books about pregnancy. When a woman asked for a tubal ligation after her tenth delivery (two of her children had died in infancy, but by then she was raising eight, ranging in age from a high school sophomore to her newborn), he performed the surgery.
This woman’s husband had given his grudging permission before she came in, but he later decided that irreversible sterilization must be against the will of God. He began to harass Dr. Curtis. He convinced his wife that she had done an evil thing. The couple became so distraught that the hospital forgave their medical bills, hoping to stave off litigation.
This angry man never did bring a lawsuit against Dr. Curtis or the hospital. Instead, he convinced his wife to give him back his guns – she’d hidden them as his rants became increasingly vitriolic. But she caved.
Fully armed, he drove to the hospital, planted enough dynamite to level half a block, and stormed inside to find the doctor. Dr. Curtis noticed him, called the police, and left. The angry man took hostages – nurses, mothers with infants, pregnant women – whom he threatened at gunpoint as he searched the hospital.
One of these hostages – a recently-hired nurse – saw an opportunity to wrest his gun away. She pulled the shotgun from his hands and ran. He pulled out another gun and shot her in the back, killing her.
Three hours into the crisis, one woman delivered her baby – the newborn began life as a hostage. Fifteen hours into the crisis, the police had found the dynamite and began to negotiate. The angry man wanted the police to escort his wife and Dr. Curtis into the hospital, so that he could murder Dr. Curtis in front of her.
The police declined this offer.
Eighteen hours into the crisis, the angry man surrendered. He was taken to jail and charged with murder – the nurse he’d shot in the back – amidst other crimes. He took a plea for thirty-five years because the prosecutors said they’d seek the death penalty.
In jail, he extolled the other inmates with his virtues. He was better than them, he said. His plan was righteous.
The other inmates beat the shit out of him. Repeatedly. It seems they had a difference of opinion as to who was better than whom.
The angry man tried repeatedly to escape. He was transferred from state to state – he’d be transferred after altercations with fellow inmates, botched escapes, and suicide attempts. During one of the botched escapes, he fell from a fence and broke both his legs.
His lawyers recommended an appeal – he was not in his right mind when he pled guilty, they said. That much I agree with, I suppose. I’m not sure he was ever in his right mind. But I think it’s likely he would have attempted murder again if he was released.
Shortly before his appeal hearing, he succeeded in breaking his own neck with a sheet tied to the wall with shoelaces. (Inmates at Bloomington’s jail wear lace-less orange crocks. Less risk of suicide that way … although there have still been several in the past few years. Jail is a miserable place to be.)
It’s not clear to me how a tubal ligation could be against God’s will but suicide was fine. Maybe the angry man knew that his logic was faulty. His defense attorney said that “One of his biggest regrets is that they didn’t kill him at Alta View Hospital.” Just like the members of ISIS, Christian terrorists would rather lose their lives in action.
This country has a long history of Christian terrorism. Numerous seemingly respectable people support the murder of doctors who enable women’s right to choose when to have children. In Danny Davis’s The Phinehas Priesthood: violent vanguard of the Christian Identity movement, he writes that:
Many Christians will be surprised to discover that similar beliefs and moral values are present in the Identity worldview. In some denominations, the only initial difference will appear when the idea of a biological Israelite heritage to present day European Anglo-Saxons is seen.
These terrorists believe that human life begins when a sperm cell fuses with an egg to form a zygote with a full compliment of chromosomes. Given this belief, they think that abortion is murder – especially later in a pregnancy, when the developing fetus begins to look like a miniature human. Because a gynecologist might perform several abortions each day, they believe that God would want them to murder the doctor.
(Human life does not begin at conception. A large number of zygotes – probably between fifteen and twenty percent, but possibly higher since women do not always realize that they ever were pregnant – will self-abort due to chromosomal abnormalities. Also, although most miscarriages are caused by blameless genetic problems, the rate of miscarriage is higher in women who are overweight. Why do Christian terrorists not target McDonald’s? Their food probably terminates more pregnancies than any gynecologist.)
Davis also writes that:
In his book, Mix My Blood with the Blood of the Unborn, Paul Hill details his public defense of anti-abortion shooters Michael Griffin and Shelley Shannon. Shortly after Griffin’s attack Hill penned a very articulate letter “describing such murders as ‘justifiable homicide.’ ” In the same letter he gave his Biblical reasons against abortion and explained the need for “Phineas actions” to protect the unborn.
Christian theology has a long tradition of defending awful behavior that supposedly fulfills the will of God. In Fear and Trembling, nineteenth century philosopher Soren Kierkegaard writes (translated by Walter Lowrie):
It is now my intention to draw out from the story of Abraham the dialectical consequences inherent in it, expressing them in the form of problemata, in order to see what a tremendous paradox faith is, a paradox which is capable of transforming a murder into a holy act well-pleasing to God, a paradox which gives Isaac back to Abraham, which no thought can master, because faith begins precisely there where thinking leaves off.
Fear and Trembling has the beginnings of a lovely work of philosophy. I have always enjoyed Kierkegaard’s description of the sort of person he considers second best in the world, the knight of infinite resignation. This sort of person, according to Kierkegaard, accepts that our efforts are guaranteed to be fruitless – Camus would later argue that this is true of all of us, since we are all guaranteed to die, and eventually humans will go extinct, the universe will become a frozen void, and all trace of our existence will have dissolved into an entropic nothing – but doesn’t stop striving even when though failure is inevitable.
[The knight of infinite resignation] does not give up his [doomed] love, not for all the glory of the world. He is no fool. First he makes sure that this really is the content of his life, and his soul is too healthy and too proud to squander the least thing upon an inebriation. He is not cowardly, he is not afraid of letting love creep into his most secret, his most hidden thoughts, to let it twine in innumerable coils about every ligament of his consciousness – if the love becomes an unhappy love, he will never be able to tear himself loose from it.
That’s great, Kierkegaard! But then why would you also write that “The paradox of faith is this, that the individual is higher than the universal”? Abraham does not need your defense. Whatever he believed God to have said, stabbing your son is wrong.
According to the King James translation of the Bible,
Abraham built an altar there, and laid the wood in order, and bound Isaac his son, and laid him on the altar upon the wood.
And Abraham stretched forth his hand, and took the knife to slay his son.
Because Abraham believed it was God’s will, he was ready to murder. And so set Kierkegaard off on his convoluted reasonings, arguing that when the faithful believe themselves to be fulfilling the will of God, their vile actions should be seen as righteous.
At least the story of Abraham ends with the man refraining from murder. Not so the story of Phinehas, patron saint of violent white supremacists. In this story, God was angry because the Israelites were marrying foreigners, which might lead them to eventually abandon their religious traditions. Rather than let them drift away, God figured he should smite his chosen people. But Phinehas patched things up with God by murdering.
Again from the King James translation:
And, behold, one of the children of Israel came and brought unto his brethren a Midianitish woman in the sight of Moses, and in the sight of all the congregation of the children of Israel, who were weeping before the door of the tabernacle of the congregation.
And when Phinehas, the son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron the priest, saw it, he rose up from among the congregation, and took a javelin in his hand;
And he went after the man of Israel into the tent, and thrust both of them through, the man of Israel, and the woman through her belly. So the plague was stayed from the children of Israel.
And those that died in the plague were twenty and four thousand.
And the LORD spake unto Moses, saying,
Phinehas, the son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron the priest, hath turned my wrath away from the children of Israel, while he was zealous for my sake among them, that I consumed not the children of Israel in my jealousy.
Wherefore say, Behold, I give unto him my covenant of peace:
And he shall have it, and his seed after him, even the covenant of an everlasting priesthood; because he was zealous for his God, and made an atonement for the children of Israel.
In the United States, Christian terrorists have referenced the story of Phinehas to justify murder. In Matthias Gardell’s Gods of the Blood: The Pagan Revival and White Separatism, he writes that:
In 1990, hardcore Identity ideologue Richard Kelly Hoskins suggested that individual zealots could atone for Israel’s transgressions by assassinating homosexuals, interracial couples, and prostitutes. Hoskins believed such zealots belonged to an underground tradition of racial purists, the Phineas Priesthood, and traced its history into antiquity.
After all, most of the Bible does depict Yahweh as a bloodthirsty god. Yahweh himself murders a lot of people. He was initially worshiped with animal sacrifice. And he has a chilling disregard for the lives of women and children – in the story of Job, for instance, his wife and children are killed, but all is made right again when Job receives a new, better wife and new, better children. These people are simply possessions, and only Job’s suffering has moral weight.
In my high school Spanish class, we read a short story by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. A bulb breaks, spilled light fills the room, two boys at home alone float atop the photons.
I spoke very poor Spanish. I knew the word for “swim,” but not for “drown.” The story ends with a party thrown by the boys for their classmates. The other children brought no rafts. Light pours down and the boys’ boat rises and their classmates die. The little corpses bob amidst furniture, fistfuls of condoms, and a television flickering with nudity.
The flood of light is dangerous.
In jail, there’s a moment each day when everyone’s agony is synchronized. A guard yells “chow time” at four fifteen a.m.. The men brace, their brief solace snatched away. The lights go off at midnight and then it’s less hard to be locked up. Eyes closed, maybe even sleeping, the jail is not so different from any other place.
“When the lights come on,” T tells me, “that’s when the darkness comes.”
And so that final second – after a guard yells, before they flip the light switch – is excruciating. All the guys agreed.
T spent his final days here hoping no one would come from California. He’d served his full sentence and unless they extradited him – which they could only do if a representative showed up in person – the judge had to release him. “They’ve got less than two weeks,” he told me, and then, at our next class, “they’re down to four days.”
T asked me once, “Is it selling out, thinking I’m going to dress real different once they let me out? I used to wear, you know, jeans, some baggy shirts, but I’m thinking now, I get out, I want to dress real nice. I don’t want them to mess with me, you know?”
It isn’t selling out. It’s shameful, sure – but he’s not the one who should feel ashamed. Everyone else in this country should feel ashamed that he can’t dress the way he wants, not without drawing undue attention from the police. My pallor and Ph.D. let me wear my hair in dreadlocks, dress in tattered clothes from Goodwill or the dumpsters, and still be treated with respect.
To be treated as well as me, T, with his melanin and Hispanic accent, has to look much “nicer.”
We demand most from those who’ve been given least.
The first poem T wrote was a lyrical persona piece from the perspective of a threatened woman. After he finished reading it aloud, the class clapped and someone asked to hear it again. T started to read a second time, but then choked up and began to cry. He’d never had a room full of people actually listen to him. Twice.
Another man hugged him. After about ten seconds he said he was okay and continued reading. And after that day, he wrote two or three poems each week.
On his final day in class, he was shivering beneath a blanket but was happy – “four more days and they have to let me go!” He planned to stop by Pages to Prisoners, maybe volunteer.
California came to collect him with two days to spare.