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By Louis René Beres
Here on earth, tragedy and disappointment seemingly afflict every life that is consecrated to serious thought. This is especially true in matters of world politics where every self-styled blogger is now an “expert” and where any careful search for deeper meanings is bound to fall upon deaf ears. Nonetheless, if we wish to better understand war, terror and genocide, we must finally be willing to search beyond the endlessly clichéd babble of politicians, professors and pundits.
How, then, shall we survive, both as a civilization, and also as a species? This is not, by any means, a silly question. Rather, although almost never addressed meaningfully, it remains the question of supreme importance and urgency.
To venture purposefully toward an answer, we must acknowledge that the outer worlds of politics and statecraft are inevitably a reflection of our innermost private selves. More precisely, it is only within the opaque mysteries of individual human mortality – mysteries focused on the timeless and universal preoccupation with personal power over death – that we can ultimately discover the core truths of our collective survival.
These truths will be sobering. The standard assumption that we shall obviously endure as a species is simply not supported by science. Virtually every species (more than ninety-nine percent, to be more exact) that once walked or crawled on this increasingly-broken planet has already become extinct. The dinosaurs, once absolute rulers of the earth, have left us only their crushed bones as mementoes.
Nor should we draw any reasonable hope from myriad private and collective human accomplishments. From an evolutionary perspective, intellect and intelligence are plainly overrated. The bacteria, who lack both, have been around a great deal longer than we have. Their future survival, too, is plainly more secure.
Though gleefully unacknowledged, especially in schools and universities, there remains a palpably yawning gap between humankind’s technical understandings, and its passions. Cruelty, undimmed and undiminished, continues to wear a distinctly human face.
More than we care to admit, education and enlightenment have too-little bearing on the human prospect. Surely, we understand, steadily expanding technologies of mega-destruction have done nothing to make us more responsible stewards of the earth. Instead, with an utterly unhindered arrogance, entire nations and peoples continue to revel in every conceivable form of barbarism and extermination.
What, exactly, is wrong with us? Somehow, shameless human bloodletting persists even while the most predatory of other animals manage to live together in less murderous habitats. There is also endless killing among these “lower” animals, but it is mostly survival driven. Almost never is it aimlessly destructive, wanton, or merely gratuitous.
Paradoxically, some essential truths remain both evident and well hidden. As a species, whether openly or quietly, we too-often take a conspicuous delight in the pain and suffering of others. In German, my own first language (I am Swiss born), there is even a precise name for it. Scholars and writers call it “Schadenfreude.”
What sort of species can tolerate or venerate such a hideous source of pleasure? And to what extent, if any, is this venal quality related to our steadily-diminishing prospects for survival?
“Our unconscious,” wrote Freud, “does not believe in its own death; it behaves as if it were immortal.” What we ordinarily describe as heroism may in some cases be no more than denial. Still, an expanded acceptance of personal mortality may represent the very last best chance we have to endure.
Acceptance can come from personal encounters with death. All things move in the midst of death, but what does it really feel like to “almost die?” What can we learn from experiencing “near death” (no one can “experience” death itself), and then emerging, whole, to “live again?”
Can we learn something here that might benefit the wider human community, something that could even move us beyond Schadenfreude?
Death “happens” to us all, but our potentially meaningful awareness of this expectation is regularly blunted by delusion. To forthrightly acknowledge that we may all be mere flesh and blood creatures of biology is evidently more than most humans can bear. “Normally,” there is even a peculiar embarrassment felt by the living in the presence of the dead and dying. It is as if death and dying were reserved only for others, as if it were an “affliction” that can never possibly darken our own eternal lives.
That we typically cling to promises of redemption and immortality is not, by itself, a species-survival issue. It only becomes an existential problem, one that we customarily call war, terrorism or genocide, when these assorted promises are forcibly limited to certain segments of humanity, but are then simultaneously and violently denied to other “unworthy” segments.
In the end, all national and international politics are epiphenomenal, a symptomatic reflection of underlying and compelling private needs. The most pressing of these needs is undoubtedly an avoidance of personal death.
Generally, it is not for us to choose when to die. Our words, our faces, and our countenance will sometime lie well beyond any considerations of conscious choice. But, we can still choose to recognize our shared common fate, and our outright interdependence. Such an incomparably powerful and private recognition could even carry with it an equally potent collective promise.
Much as we like to please ourselves with various qualitative presumptions of hierarchy and differentiation, we humans are all pretty much the same. This is already clear to scientists and physicians. Our most important similarity, and the one least subject to contrary argument, is that we all die.
Whatever our divergent views on what happens to us after death, the basic mortality that we share can represent the very last best chance we have to coexist and survive.
There is one more core observation. We can still care for one another as humans, but only after we have first acknowledged that the judgment of a common fate will not be waived by any harms that are inflicted deliberately upon the “unworthy.” In essence, modern war, terror and genocide are often authentic expressions of religious sacrifice, and may therefore actually represent desperate human hopes of overcoming private mortality through the killing of “outsiders.”
In the end, only a dual awareness of our common human destination, which is death, and of the associated futility of “sacrifice,” can offer real medicine against an otherwise incessant war of all against all. Only a person who can feel deeply within himself or herself the unalterable fate and sufferings of a broader humanity will ever be able to embrace genuine compassion, and thus reject destructive spasms of collective violence.
There can be no private conquests of death through war, terror or genocide. Never. To survive as a species, therefore, a uniquely courageous and worldwide embrace of mortality, empathy and caring will be indispensable.
Just how to make such a redemptive embrace possible and practicable should now become the single most urgent question before us all.
Louis René Beres was educated at Princeton (Ph.D., 1971) and is Professor of International Law at Purdue University. He is currently examining unexplored connections between human death fears and world politics. Born in Zürich, Switzerland, at the end of World War II, he is the author of ten books, and several hundred articles, on international relations and international law.
For further reading, we recommend Overcoming Evil: Genocide, Violent Conflict, and Terrorism by Ervin Staub.