Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The Evil That Men Do

The murder of a teenage girl in my hometown has set me on a course of rather gloomy reflections. The person accused of the crime, a teenage boy, is alleged to have convinced her to play hooky from school, then, at her home, perhaps while attempting to rape her, he is accused of shooting her in the chin, a wound that would not in itself have been fatal. He is then, however, alleged to have covered her with a blanket, which he proceeded to set on fire, whether to cover the crime or merely for the thrill of seeing another living creature burn I don't know. She died of smoke inhalation. While she died, the boy is alleged to have looted her house, taking (among other things) that other favorite of a species bent on rapine and destruction: a video game.

Reading between the lines, my wife, a mental health professional, speculates that this girl, who was described as "simple" and "trusting" and who could neither read nor write, was mentally retarded.

So there you have it: a boy who snuffs out the life of a profoundly innocent creature merely because, I suppose, it fulfilled some need of his own. And in that respect, he's pretty much like the rest of us.

Assuming he doesn't get the death penalty--and though he's being tried as an adult, I hope he doesn't, because what's the point of adding more death to the original death?--he'll spend sixty or so years in prison. There, he'll perhaps learn to feel bad about what he's done. But what can he ever feel, what can he ever do, to justify, atone, or compensate for this act?


Which brings me to the human species of which he is, sadly, all too representative. We've caused untold chaos on this planet, much of it directed against ourselves, much of it directed against other species and the planet itself. What have we ever done, what can we ever do, to justify, atone, or compensate for our acts?


Those seeking to find extrinsic value in human life--that is, value that goes beyond our value to ourselves--can point at a number of accomplishments as evidence that, despite all the bad we've caused, we're still capable of producing good. But I'm not buying any of it.

Art and music? Sure, they're nice to look at and listen to, but all they do in the end is fulfill our own needs. They have no extrinsic value whatsoever.

Technology? Most of it has been bent toward the destruction of human and non-human life and the gutting of the planet. Some of the rest has been dedicated to making us feel good about how smart we are: landing on the moon, for example. And the rest has either helped prolong or enrich human life or attempted to fix some of the planetary messes we ourselves have caused. So again, none of it has value beyond what it produces for us or, in the latter case, what it would not have needed to produce had we never come along in the first place.

Human rights? Well, if there hadn't been human wrongs, there'd have been no need to develop human rights. All the human rights movements throughout history have done little more than move us marginally closer to respecting each other in ways that the simplest caterpillar instinctively respects its fellow caterpillars. And even if we go all the way--that is, even if we arrive at a point where all human life is treated with dignity and care--we'll have done no more than fulfill another intrinsic need, a need to value ourselves.

The human species, in short, is exactly like every other species in this fundamental respect: we seek to fulfill our needs and preserve our lives. There are only two differences between us and everything else. On the one hand, we've needlessly deprived trillions of other organisms--human and non-human--of the same desires; and, on the other, we appear to be the only species capable of recognizing, conceptualizing, and articulating these desires. In consequence, we seem to think that fulfilling them is inherently more significant than the fulfillment of those desires in and by other species.

We even have recourse to God to provide extrinsic justification of our biological needs. All I can say to that argument is, if it's true that the most depraved, destructive species the planet has ever known is God's personal favorite, then God has some serious issues.

Maybe we make the argument for God because otherwise, we couldn't live with ourselves.

In the end, these reflections are not despairing (much less suicidal). I want to live just like everyone else. I enjoy life. I enjoy music, art, certain forms of technology, Nature, my family, my writing, and lots of other things besides. I've done some good to other human beings and non-human beings in my life (and also some bad). I just don't think the things I've done justify my existence.

That teenage girl wanted to live, too. Maybe that's all she wanted. And no matter what the person who did this to her may do in the future, the one thing he most assuredly cannot do is give that back to her.

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