The Killing Feels

Humans aren’t the only animals who kill each other for individual or collective gain. So, in a sense, us killing each other is natural. What perhaps aren’t so natural are our rationales for killing each other and the distances we kill each other from. Could we lay out a history of these rationalities and distances to describe a scale of human devolution? When we had only our bare hands to wring the necks of folks who offended or threatened us, we likely were more thoughtful of the personal and social consequences. Was this more naturally good? After all, it’s not easy to wring someone’s neck effectively—or to get away with it in simple tribal societies.
Among collectives of humans there have always been conflicts; and therefore, there has always been a need to resolve them quickly and efficiently so we can get back to our routine struggles. If an antelope and a jar of millet won’t make up for what’s lost, taking a life is the next simplest solution, as long as it is sanctioned. And who better to kill some poor bastard than someone who spends his hot days running down antelope to feed the family back home.
For reasons we can start arguments about, male humans ended up in charge of running down and killing things. Perhaps this made sense early on. The tools of the trade have always been somewhat awkward and heavy. Maybe if women had designed them this wouldn’t be so. In any case, men are usually in charge of war plans and armories.
Over the millennia, our technical capacity to kill has held hands with our emotional capacity to kill. As we get better at it, we seem to feel better about it. The farther away we can do it from, the better we feel about it. I think this is one scale of human devolution. The more efficiently we can kill, the more emotionally removed we are from killing. On those occasions when we do kill closely and personally, it is all the more horrifying. Being killed by a sniper bullet while loading groceries into your car is pretty bad. Being robbed at gunpoint and then shot in the chest is awful. Having a madman attack you with a knife inside your home is unimaginably horrible. So, to be moral, we kill from a distance whenever possible. We kill with robots.
A spear is a robot: an old-fashioned, simple-minded, obedient, deadly robot. Or maybe it’s the spear’s thrower who is deadly. It’s hard to tell. It doesn’t really matter; the spear is issued a simple command, and if programmed correctly, it ends up effectively situated in the abdomen of an opposing animal—perhaps a human animal. It’s the same with arrows, bullets, cannon balls, and bombs. They are all robots, and they all give us a weird kind of standoff-ish grace. And unlike the modern electromechanical contraptions that we formally confer as robots, these old-fashioned instruments don’t need to be coded with the Three Laws of Robotics to prevent them from changing their minds and killing the same humans who launched them.
Sometime in the late nineteenth century we learned we were able to manufacture and deploy these simple robots with amazing efficiency and effectiveness. This was so to such an extent that it became important to attack not just the soldiers who were aiming their simple robots at us, but also the manufacturers and delivery systems of their robots. We learned to kill opposing soldiers face-to-face only as a last resort. It is preferable to kill them before they arrive at the battlefield. It is very best to kill them while they’re sitting on the crapper. Also, it is good to bomb the opposing bomb factory before it can make bombs to bomb your own bomb factory. Ultimately, it is better to reduce a city to ashes than to have soldiers face each other on the field, bayonet to bayonet. Such personal confrontations just aren’t right. They are much too natural.
What we need is to not risk putting soldiers through any of this. What we need are no soldiers at all. The bullets should just fly back and forth across unmanned battlefields. Complicated robots should be given guns and ranks and ill-fitting boots and then sent to kill opposing robots. They could be given their own ammunition factories and their own robotic workers with their own robotic laws and their own Jiffy Lubes and robot department stores and metal churches with Tesla coil altars.
Because there would be so many robots, with their necessarily complicated infrastructures, we would install their societies on Mars and then instigate battles remotely with electronic insults sent through the sub-ether from Earth. We humans would walk around our planet with destructor buttons in our pockets that we would press whenever we felt offended by another human. Every time a destructor button would be pressed, some Martian robot would send some other Martian robot to Robot Hell.
And so it would go until one day some pissed-off Irishman finds an old bayonet in his grandfather’s footlocker and decides he has a much better way to settle an old score with the Italian across the street who stole his warp core. He’ll settle it the natural way.

Sept. 22, 2012

 

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