I’m Confused — I Thought Murder Was Wrong!

25 Feb

When I got to the age of around 16-17, I first started to realize about the enormity of death. It horrified me. The thought of not existing any more, of being swallowed-up into oblivion, was simply terrifying. It was the stuff of nightmares. So I ended-up doing what most people around me seemed to be doing — I kept busy, constantly distracted myself with stuff to do and never talked about dying. In the West, there is this unacknowledged conspiracy: that if we don’t talk about it and if we try not to think about it, then it’s as if death doesn’t actually exist.

That’s why when someone sadly dies ( we usually use the euphanism “passes away”), many of us don’t know what to say to the bereaved. We are just not used to talking about the awful subject and so we are lost for words. It’s happened to me as well. All I can think to say is:”You are in my thoughts at this difficult time” or “If there’s anything I can do, don’t hesitate to ask.” It’s an awkward subject to broach, especially if the bereaved person is in a state of shock, as if they never imagined that death could claim someone close to them.

When I was a late teenager this fear and dread of death provided me with the strength and motivation to make one of the most important decisions of my life. I decided not to avoid the taboo subject anymore. I also vowed that I would no longer be knowingly responsible for any unnecessary death. You might think that that’s an obvious and reasonable stance to make in our “civilised” society. Afterall — murder — the deliberate taking of another’s life, is our most serious and condemned crime. Everyone agrees with this, except perhaps for the odd psychopath. Underpinning this is one of the Ten Commandments: ” Thou Shalt Not Kill.” Surely everyone agrees with that? Or do they? It was as I reached my later teens that I sadly realized that many don’t. The first thing I discovered was that I belonged to a species that was constantly taking each others’ lives, in the phenomenon known as war. ( see previous post — “Realizing About War.”)

Human beings unfortunately spend inordinate amounts of money, time and effort figuring out new, more efficient and more horrific ways to kill each other. In the 20th Century alone we had: artilliary bombardment, poisonous gas, machine guns ,shrapnel, grenades, aerial bombing, incendiary bombs creating fire-storms, concentration camps, starvation in ghettos, Atom and Hydrogen Bombs dropped on unsuspecting civilians, nuclear missiles, germ warfare, land and sea mines, cluster bombs and napalm — to name but a few. They are just from the top of my head and I’m not a military expert. All that’s on top of the more mundane shooting and stabbing. We like to blame the murderous campaigns or weapons of mass-destruction on evil ogres such as Adolf Hitler , Saddam Hussein or Colonal Gadaffi. We also blame evil organisations such as the IRA or Al Quaida. It always seems to be someone else’s fault, but we’re all at it really. There has been warfare somewhere in the World every single year since the end of the Second World War, which was supposed to have brought us peace in 1945. Also, wasn’t the Great War of 1914-18 supposed to be have been “the war to end all wars”? I think this continuing situation is tragic. It has led to untold misery and appalling loss of life. It’s still happening today in Afghanistan, Syria and Somalia, to name just 3 war-torn countries.

So why isn’t everyone a peace campaigner? It’s a very good question which I cannot properly answer. I have tried to be a peace campaigner. I have: marched, petitioned, lobbied MPs, been in vigils and sit-ins, discussed, debated, written letters, canvassed door to door and taken part in all kinds of peaceful protests. I have even acted in a play “what I wrote”( with apologies to Ernie) called “Protest and Survive”.  But war rages on and the horrendous threat of a nuclear holocaust still hangs over us. In fact, unbelievably, peace campaigners have been branded and castigated as: cowards, defeatists, traitors or extremists. In the days of the so-called Cold War when our enemy was supposed to be the Soviet Union, peace-campaigners were also labelled as : commies, reds or pinkoes. When I was active in CND in the 1980’s, my group in Tyneside was expelled from the pub where it met because it was upsetting the drinkers to have communist-sympathisers and traitors meeting in the room upstairs. A sympathetic local hotel owner took us in.

These days it is difficult to criticise the British army’s involvement in the war in Afghanistan ( or “The War on Terror”) despite all the suffering and killing on both sides, because so many people have relatives or friends fighting out there. Saying that you are against the war and in favour of peace would be seen by many as being disloyal and unpatriotic. One little known ( and trivial) consequence of Britain and America’s illegal invasion of Iraq was that I broke up from my girlfriend of that time. At first she seemed to agree that it was wrong to use armed force to bring down another soveriegn country’s government and that it would be setting a terrible precedent. However, once our troops invaded, she thought it was important to close ranks and support “our boys”, probably taking her cue from the overtly chauvenistic tabloid press. So even those close to me disagreed with my idea that war was wrong. I saw this as a fundamental moral isue and found it impossible to continue the relationship. Maybe I should have chosen somebody from the million who marched through London proclaiming ” Not in my name.” At least the unprecedented size of the peace march reassured me that I was far from alone in being opposed to war.

My simple idea that war is wrong has turned out to be very controversial and troublesome for me. Human beings seem to be naturally prone to kill each other and concoct endless excuses in order to carry on doing it. It seems that if one has a “just cause”, then it’s OK to kill and OK to die. However, what constitutes a just cause is highly controversial. Is it acceptable to kill or die for land, for living-space, or for natural resources such as oil? Is it OK to take or sacrifice life for: a political cause, a religion or an economic system? The matter gets even more confusing when the original cause of a war is forgotten or changed. For instance, Britain entered the First World War to defend Belgium’s neutrality, but during the course of the conflict, British and other allied troops violated the neutrality of Greece. In the Second World War we entered  to support Poland against Hitler’s totalitarian Germany only to sacrifice the Poles to Stalin’s totalitarian Soviet Union in the peace negotiations at the end. How can you tell I was a History teacher? Sorry! To cut a long story short, it seems that all humans need is a cause ( ie — an excuse) and they will kill each other on a massive scale.

The second big decision I made when I was 17 was also to do with not wanting to be involved in unnecessary killing. It was my decision to become a vegetarian. ( covered in previous blogs.) Animals, birds and fish have lives too, I said to myself, and human beings have no right to extinguish those precious, unique lives, simply to provide a” tasty” meal. Once I’d made that fundamental decision, I couldn’t imagine anything more revolting than agreeing to a living creature being slaughtered for me and then eating its dead body. To my surprise, my Christian parents disagreed. They were against murder but thought there was nothing wrong in murdering animals in order to eat them. It upset me that they were kind and compassionate people but didn’t extend that compassion to the creatures we shared the world with. I tried to argue with them and point out the hypocracies of their position, but to no avail. It was if I was speaking a foreign language. I even sang one of their favourite Methodist hymns at meal time:  “All things bright and beautiful,  All creatures great and small,  All things wise and wonderful,  The Lord God made them all.” Then I would dramatically get up and leave, leaving them to eat one of God’s creatures that had been “sacrificed” to accompany their potatoes and veg. For the rest of life I would be a vegetarian as well as a peace campaigner — a painful double-whammy in some peoples’ eyes.

As you know, most people agree with my parents rather than with me. Human beings rule the world and are indisputably at the top of the food chain. I think that humans should use their position of absolute power responsibly and compassionately in accordance with their own rule of “Thou Shalt Not Kill.” However, I am naive to think this. Being in a position of total dominance is like being a Nazi in control of a concentration camp. Just like the wretched inmates of Belson or Auchswitz were mistreated, abused and slaughtered by the so-called “master race”, so the inmates of the animal kingdom are mistreated, abused and slaughtered by their human “masters”. It’s a very simple example of Robespierre’s adage: ” Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely” To me, it is utterly depressing that the majority of humans choose to use their power “corruptly” rather than “compassionately”. However, as soon as I open my mouth and start saying stuff like this, I am quickly shouted down and accused of: preaching, being emotive or even being extremist. It seems that one is labelled as an  “extremist” if one disagrees with the majority view. The majority of human beings have deemed that other living creatures have been put on this earth to serve us, by providing us with: food, clothes, labour, sport, companionship and bodies for scientific experimentation. In other words: other creatures are expendable. Unfortunately, only a small minority share my belief that animals should be allowed to live their own lives without interference from us. I think a true test of a civilised society is how the strong treat the weak. Do the former care for the latter and protect them, or do they neglect, abuse and exploit them? I think responsible human beings should pose this question with regards to the animal kingdom as well as to the weaker members of their own species.

I am no longer afraid of death. As I get older I have grown to accept its inevitability instead of resisting it. As the trials and tribulations, heartaches and problems of life take their toll, I am gradually getting round to viewing my own future death as a welcome release. However, I still value my life so far, as it has brought me so much joy, happiness and fulfillment. I am now 62 and am still clinging on to my simple teenage belief that the unnecessary taking of life is wrong. No amount of name-calling, sneering, mocking, aggression or criticism will change my mind. This simple, basic belief has led to much trouble and anguish in my life, because so few other people have shared it. Sometimes I feel as if I was born into the wrong world. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to live in a world that valued and celebrated life rather than one that revels in death and destruction? That’s called a pipe dream.

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4 Responses to “I’m Confused — I Thought Murder Was Wrong!”

  1. Gerry Fenge February 25, 2012 at 6:28 pm #

    Not sure what your answer would be to the Hitler dilemma: fight him (and his regime) or not? True, we couldn’t eventually stop Stalin grabbing Poland, but we did end up doing what we could (with a lot of help, of course): freeing Western Europe. Ending the death camps. Helping pave the way for an unprecedentedly peaceful Europe. Helping pave the way for democracy (close to extinction) to become the hope and aspiration for people all over the world.

    Actually, how about the Kaiser Bill question: did he need stopping? And, if so, how? (And should it have been via unconditional surrender to forestall any ‘backstabbing’; gripes from the likes of Adolf?)

    Quite agree we’re a murderous lot, though…

    As for death, that’s another topic. Don’t believe in it myself.

    Thanks for giving me lots to discuss, though.

    • scrapstu1949 February 25, 2012 at 7:39 pm #

      Nice to having you commenting again Gerry. You’re right — the reasons for war are complicated and I’m not saying that going to war is always wrong. Self defence is a good reason to fight. However I don’t agree with going to war to export democracy as they claimed to be doing over Iraq and Afghanistan. I was really trying to make the point that in a long war the original reasons for fighting are often ditched and/or changed. Sometimes it seems that war is an end in itself. — or maybe to ensure the profits of the armaments industry. That’s the situation described in Orwell’s “1984” and that was supposed to be a nightmarish vision of the future. it now seems to have come to pass. I agree that the harsh terms of the 1918 settlement led directly to German feelings of persecution and Hitler’s rise. I guess you have the solace of your religion to deal with death. I unfortunately don’t, so I have tried to come to terms with it in other ways. Have you read Pascal Mercier’s ” Night Train To Lisbon”? It has some very interesting things to say about life and death. Thanks for reading this.

  2. Catherine Bates March 19, 2012 at 3:54 pm #

    Hi dad! I have finally got around to reading this – I am shocked that CND got stopped from meeting up in a Tyneside pub. Which pub was it? I keep forgetting to tell you that my boss Lesley’s partner is the head of UK CND. He also teaches Peace Studies at Leeds Met. I found your points about the contradictions in world war particularly interesting. Thanks for the blog!

    • scrapstu1949 March 20, 2012 at 11:31 am #

      It was the pub on the corner by the traffic lights just above where the bus station used to be. It was called The Fat Ox I think but has changed names since. The hotel that rsecued us was at the top of Victoria Ave. I think i need to join CND again — i have all the literature. I would like to see the Peace Studies syllabus. I think it used to be centred on Bradford Uni.

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