Thursday, February 28, 2008


No man is an Island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the Continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friends or of thine own were; any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankind; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.

--John Donne, Meditation XVII

On the whole, I consider myself extremely pro-human--radically so, in fact. I've spent most of my professional life as a psychiatrist being "involved in Mankind". And, when you think about Donne's quote above, it boils down to the reality that when you define the essence of what it means to be 'human' or a part of 'mankind'; it define thee.

Mike Baker explains this quite eloquently:
Just the other night, while having our usual Wednesday happy hour at the office of the interns asked if I thought it was morally okay to be happy that the senior Hezbollah terrorist Imad Mughniyeh had just been blown up in a car bomb in Damascus, Syria.

A young, idealistic intern, just at the beginning of life’s journey — all full of beans and optimism. As I silently pondered how the folks at Bakers make their bourbon so yummy, I also took a minute to consider how best to answer the intern’s stupid question. The pause clearly made me look wise. Wise and sensitive to her concern.

I sat down, snagged a couple of cashews, which I think go really well with bourbon, and stared hard at the intern.

The fact that just that morning I had declared it “Mughniyeh Finally Got What He Deserved By Being Blown Straight To Hell Day" at the office, with a banner, refreshments and everything, clearly had made her think I was insensitive to his death.

The rest of the staff sat quietly waiting for an answer. “Did I think it was morally okay to be happy that Mughniyeh got all blowed up?"

Time for an answer....

I said that every human life starts out as precious; something to be treasured, valued and treated with dignity and respect.

But then some of those lives veer off track, becoming murderers, pedophiles or in Mughniyeh’s case, a butchering terrorist with the blood of several hundred innocent people on his hands. At the point where these individuals choose to carry out heinous acts, they opt out of civilization and all those lofty, righteous ideals regarding the treatment of human life.

That’s the point where I no longer feel a moral obligation to worry about how they are treated. If you choose to become a terrorist, I choose to view you as less than human. We’ve all got free will. Ain’t life grand?

Now, of course, there are loads of people who bang on about the values of our country, and how treating even one terrorist improperly eats away at our principles and makes us less American.

Whether celebrating the termination of a bloodthirsty killer or using an aggressive technique in very limited circumstances to gather information from the high value detainee who doesn’t respond to kindness, the theory goes that we are debasing ourselves, chipping away at our humanity, causing the rest of the world to hate us or contributing to the destruction of our planet.

Something like that.

Well, take a deep breath, count to three, and in a clear, strong voice say, "What a load of crap."

John Donne was wrong, you see, because his geographical metaphor does not begin to capture the complexity of the human experience. 'Clods' of dirt make no choices in the course of their inanimate existence and are battered by the waves of environmental reality. Every clod is at the mercy of these forces and cannot choose to betray 'clodness'. But there are some human beings who willfully and deliberately betray their humanity, and because of that betrayal, their continued existence diminishes me and every other human being who remains involved in mankind. This happens, not in some theoretical or abstract sense of the concept of 'mankind', but in the real lives of real human beings living on planet earth.

These human-but-not-human monsters that live among us, who delight in destroying, defiling and dismembering their fellow humans, deserve many bells tolling in celebration of their passing from this time/space continuum to a place where they can rot for the rest of eternity--as mere, inanimate clods of dirt.

As Baker suggests, they made a deliberate choice to leave the human family; and, truth be told, the human family is much better off without them.

Instead of thinking of mankind as Donne's continent, think of it as a living, breathing collection of flesh and blood. People like Mughniyeh-- or any other terrorist who joyfully commits him or herself to butchering his fellow humans in the name of some abstract utopian ideal-- has devolved from a human being to nothing but a cancerous growth eating away at the entire body of humanity. As long as that cancerous growth is allowed to grow, the entire body is 'diminished.' When the Mughniyeh cancer is cut out, the body becomes healthier.

I don't know about you, but I can live with that metaphor; and further, like Baker, my humanity (and longevity) is only enhanced when any cancer preying on the body is completely and thoroughly obliterated.

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