Reflection 44: Congolese Consciousness

January 2, 2009

(Copyright © 2008)

In this blog I have presented consciousness as a means of assessing novel situations so to derive and execute appropriate courses of action. Which sounds all very judicious and reasonable. But consciousness has its dark side. What can we make of the human mind when it perpetrates vicious acts inflicting excruciating pain and suffering—and even death—on other beings?

 

When I went through basic training at Fort Ord in 1955, I was taught to kill with pistol, rifle, and bayonet. I remember the infiltration course, Sarge leaning against a framework of beams holding a straw dummy suspended spider-like in its web, him shouting “Kill, kill, kill!” as I met the dummy, me thrusting bayonet into straw, so tired I could barely gasp a weak echo, “khill.” I was a mock killer.

 

But there are real killers in the world. As conscious and aroused as they are cruel. And fully conscious victims of atrocities, often women and children. And fully conscious indirect victims (it is safer to kill a wife than her husband, the intended victim, who gets off being humiliated). And fully conscious witnesses. And, drink in hand, fully conscious watchers of the news seated in comfortable living rooms on the far side of the world.

 

Here, too, is the human mind making sense of real life situations.

 

Journalist Ann Jones has a devastating piece on pages 16-20 in The Nation (Dec. 29, 2008): “A Crime Against Society: Rape destroyed the social fabric of Congo. Now women are beginning to repair it.” The gist is that women are trying to put social life in eastern Congo back together again. But the heart of the article is her depiction of the atrocities that Congolese women have suffered—and are still suffering:

 

Men singly or in gangs rape women and girls of all ages. (Recorded victims range in age from 2 months to 83 years.) Men also cut off women’s nipples or breasts, mutilate or cut off external genitalia, and eviscerate living pregnant women to remove and kill fetuses. After rape, men commonly insert foreign objects into the vagina: sticks, sand, rocks, knives, burning wood or charcoal, or molten plastic made by melting shopping bags. Killing the rape victim by firing a handgun or rifle inserted in the vagina is a common practice; some victims have survived. Rapists have blinded many women, apparently to prevent identification, and left countless others to die in the forest after chopping off their arms and/or legs. Soldiers also abduct women, and especially girls as young as 10 or 11, as captive “wives.”

 

Reading these words, I cannot imagine the women and girls’ suffering, but I can feel sympathy for the victims. I am stunned. Shocked that such things can happen. This is beyond truth and reconciliation. My urge is to round up the soldiers, cut off their penises, and leave them to die. Beyond that, I try to put myself in the killers’ place. What would drive me to perform such violent acts of deliberate cruelty? Who are these men, and how can they find such behavior appropriate? Ann Jones suggests a few answers in her article, but none of them justify the acts she depicts.

 

Then I remember crimes against humanity committed in other locations on other occasions. The Holocaust. Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Darfur. Pearl Harbor. Incendiary bombings of Dresden, Tokyo, London. Assaults on Native Peoples everywhere. Napalm and agent orange in Vietnam. Mai Lai. Civilian deaths in the current Iraq War. Israeli bombings of Palestinians in Gaza.

 

Such horrors as Ann Jones relates are not limited to eastern Congo. Every one of us can be trained or driven to commit atrocities. And when questioned afterwards, we justify our actions because we feel we had ample reason to do what we did under mitigating circumstances. Consciousness always makes sense to itself. We did it because. . . (select your rationale of choice).

 

Those of us alive today are the survivors of atrocities. Born to survivors, who were born to earlier and earlier survivors, back to the beginning. Consciousness has been with us the whole way. Consciousness of drought, flood, famine, disease, war, cruelty of others, our own cruelty.

 

Does that excuse us, or make us a better, tougher, or more deserving class of people? Are we one bit nobler or more moral than the soldiers of Congo? As far as consciousness goes, is morality even relevant? Is the precious cargo of our genes the only thing that counts?

 

In Congo, countless women died horrible deaths. And even if they survived brutalization, part of them is dead. If soldiers are the victors, what kind of world—what kind of consciousness—have they won for themselves? As survivors, what kind of consciousness have we won for ourselves? If one eats while another starves, what kind of world is that? If one “earns” billions by victimizing others while billions scrape by, what kind of world?

 

We know what kind of world because we wake up to it every day. Consciousness has much to account for; it is no justification in itself for simply surviving. It comes at great price. Our assignment, should we chose to accept it, is to honor the suffering that got us where we are and sustains us today.

 

How honor suffering? By being aware of it, remembering it, and conducting ourselves accordingly. By doing our best by all concerned, which is everyone. Women as well as men. Children as well as adults. Aborigines as well as settlers. Workers as well as management. Strangers as well as friends.

 

Here it is a new year. In 2009, let us be fully conscious of those who suffer and die for us, that we may live the bravest we can on their behalf.

 

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