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The Carletonian

The Carletonian

The Carletonian

What is Killing?

<all St. Petersburg the “city built on bones.” Beneath the city’s melancholy streets lie the bodies of tens of thousands of laborers who perished in this great battle of man against nature: building an imperial capital from scratch on a foggy swamp teeming with disease. Doesn’t our larger society, too, like this city over bones, rest on a foundation of great violence? The threat of violence at least seems fundamental in maintaining our current way of life. As the species-level hegemon of the globe, humans have the power to kill any other animal at will. There is no fear of predators for us, which allows us to enjoy entertainment such as Shark Week on Discovery. On an intraspecies level, we inhabitants of the United States support the great potential for violence of the most powerful military on earth, and enjoy the security that accompanies the status of a unipolar superpower. Within our localities, interpersonal violence is constrained by the superiority in force of our society’s only legitimate violence, which is that wielded by law enforcement.

The curious effect of this great potential for violence has been that most of us, on a day to day level, do not have to engage with the act of killing anymore. Perhaps there is less killing in the first place as a result of Hobbes’ Leviathan pulling us out of the state of nature. But there is such a thing as killing that is sanctioned by the Leviathan. And modern society makes every effort to ensure that this kind of killing is out of sight and out of mind as much as possible. Adam Smith’s legacy concentrates blood on the fewest possible number of hands: the hands of those who have specialized in killing. As for the rest of us, whose positions in the modern economy don’t depend on the sight of blood, we generally relate to the sight of blood with repulsion. Not that the fact of spilt blood necessarily bothers us. Rousseau was subtle when he wrote that human beings are characterized by an aversion to seeing another person suffer. “Seeing” is the crucial word here. Our nausea at the sight of blood may restrain us from violence, but in the interest of flexibility, we would also be okay with violence if it were to be well hidden…

Let’s talk about food for a bit. I think that vegetarianism and the factory slaughter of animals for meat, despite being diametrically opposed philosophies on food, are at the same time different developments of the same concept, in the sense that both represent modernity as distance from blood pursued to a sophisticated incarnation. The difference lies in how honest we choose to be with ourselves. Our repulsion with killing compels us to control our cognitive dissonance somehow: for omnivores ignorance pushes discomfort out of the mind, and for vegetarians a sense of apartness from the system puts discomfort to rest.

Of course, there is a non-modern “solution” to the meat problem as well, which is accepting blood and letting go of nausea. In the world in which my grandmother grew up, wringing the chicken’s neck for dinner was just a normal household chore, no different from sweeping the floor or washing the dishes. A more rustic way of life that is far from that which is modern seems to be connected with accepting killing for food. I credit this group with overcoming their discomfort with killing in the most honest way, but I think that I might be too modern to live as they do. I have never been hunting and have only a vague memory of going fishing a long time ago, which might also understandably raise some doubts among my readers about how legitimate this op-ed is. A good portion of my knowledge about the experience of killing for food comes from watching a video of someone skinning a deer (in under two minutes!) on YouTube to write this piece. Despite the man’s skill and artistry, it’s pretty gross. It’s even worse than the part with the tauntaun in The Empire Strikes Back. I also googled “how to field dress a deer.” Could you, following the recommendations of the Minnesota DNR, take down a deer, then “cut along the midline of the belly from the breastbone to the anus,” while avoiding “cutting into the intestines and stomach,” and then, “after opening the body cavity, reach inside and begin cutting the diaphragm, lungs, and heart away from the body wall”? The thought of it makes me pretty queasy. Therein lies the allure of the deception offered by the supermarket. How is a supermarket like an iceberg? Because there exists an immense infrastructure, most of it cleanly hidden from view, leading up to that slice of beef lying in the meat cooler.

Modern life means that killing is done by “someone else,” unless you happen to be that someone else. Another modern phenomenon is that killing is more and more done by “something else”. The mechanization of killing seems to go hand in hand with the specialization of killing. This is true of factory farming, but it seems to be also true of the legally sanctioned ways in which human beings kill each other. Think of the possibility for remote killing that was first realized with the development of the V-2 rocket, and has recently been brought to a new sophistication with the development of drone warfare. Consider also the evolution of the standard method of capital punishment in the United States, from the firing squad to lethal injection today. Each era brings a more technological solution to the problem of capital punishment, in the search for a method of killing that contains less killing in its essence. In 2008 Chief Justice John Roberts held that lethal injection is acceptable because the procedure does not pose a “substantial risk of serious harm.” Does he really believe that harm and killing can be neatly separated from each other by the use of technology? It is clear where this ridiculous debate is going to conclude: sooner or later, we will recognize that not even technology can take the feeling of cruelty out of the act of killing. At that point capital punishment would end, or else be reborn in a most ferocious form…

I guess my main observation is that there is nothing that fills the role of Shiva in modern society: there is no respect accorded to the destruction of life, despite the fact that it happens in many forms that are sanctioned by society every day. Killing is an object of nausea, which is hidden from view as a result. And here, where I should offer a conclusion I instead leave questions. What does this absence of a Shiva-figure mean for our society? What are the distinctions and the commonalities between the killing of animals versus fellow humans, which I unfairly left unclear? What should be the implications of these distinctions or commonalities on our diet? How does the possibility of killing interact with the certainty of death? It seems that I am too green to answer these red-blooded questions, but I hope there is the possibility of the flaws in my writing leading to new insights for someone else.

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