Tuesday, July 31, 2012

"You Are All Vermin"

     "Do you want to know what FBI agents and other law enforcement officials think of regular citizens?  They think you are all vermin."
     This is what a retired Chief of Police told me.
     It is so far from a what I consider a normal, humanistic perspective that it borders on insanity.
     Is it necessary for our public officials to be inculcated with loathing, the way military recruits "need" to be purged of doubt or the capacity for affection in order to decimate entire towns?  Isn't this what makes torture and extermination of large sectors of humanity possible?   The war in Bosnia, ethnic cleansing in Darfur, the horrible tortures inflicted on people in Burma--these and all crimes against human beings are possible because a state of unfeeling has been fostered, and feeds on the poison of apathy.  Screams of pain become a form of amusement.  Sadism is unleashed from places the rest of us keep locked up.  In this state, the suffering of others doesn't matter.  It doesn't even register.
     What does matter to people who have been trained not to care and to go after others like hawks  driven by instinct to swoop and snatch the necks of their prey and swallow blood?
     Is it the need to reinforce an already entrenched mindset of attack and cruelty, to guard against the germination of a single seed of tenderness?  Are kindness and sympathetic thought impossible if you're guarding the city gates against marauders and destroyers?  Do you yourself need to become a destroyer?
     Is it power--an elixir so addictive that one can never, ever get enough?  Does power make people ruin everything around them in the hope of sustaining their personal positions?
     Or is it pure laziness--an unwillingness to discriminate, which surely must be the highest human function, the most admirable form of intelligence?  An intelligent mind discriminates good from bad, certainly, and the subtle gradations of good and bad, as well as the circumstances in which actions and their ethics are enacted.
     But a truly intelligent mind also separates personal, neurotic interests--including pride, envy, power and the desire to avoid shame (motives which operate below the surface of consciousness and take courage to isolate)-- from decision-making.  Intelligent people don't see, everywhere they look, danger (which would be paranoia), or criminality (which would be misanthropy)--they don't think of everyone as vermin.  They may, on the contrary, be able to see vermin, in context, as a good thing.
     In Plato's Republic the task of discrimination is considered the domain of the wisest men of all--and these most intelligent of human beings are accorded the greatest power:  they are the ones who keep order in society.  If the most authoritative people in the land fail to act with strength and wisdom, the social order falls apart.
     The Republic is Plato's esteemed work on the proper governance of people.  Socrates and Glaucon use logic to ascertain who, among human beings, should be permitted the lofty task of ordering and guarding the state--and what qualities they must demonstrate for the state to survive.

             It becomes our task, then, it seems, if we are able, to select which
          and what kind of natures are suited for the guardianship of a state.
             Do you think, said I, that there is any difference between the 
          nature of a well-bred hound for this watchdog's work and that of a
          wellborn lad?
             What point have you in mind?
             I mean that each of them must be keen of perception, quick in
          pursuit of what it has apprehended, and strong too if it has to fight
          it out with its captive.
             Why, yes, said he, there is need of all these qualities.
             And yet we must have them gentle to their friends and harsh to
          their enemies;  otherwise they will not await their destruction at the
          hands of others, but will be first themselves in bringing it about.
             True, he said.
             It may be observed in other animals, but especially in that which
          we likened to the guardian.  You surely have observed in well-bred
          hounds that their natural disposition is to be most gentle to their
          familiars and those whom they recognize, but the contrary to those
          whom they do not know.
             I am aware of that.
             And does it seem to you that our guardians-to-be will also need,
          in addition to being high-spirited, the further quality of having
          the love of wisdom in his nature?
             Yes, he said.
             The love of wisdom, then, and high spirit and quickness and
          strength will be combined for us in the nature of him who is to be
          a good and true guardian of the state.
             Let us so assume, he replied.

     Our social order is patterned after the Ancient Greeks, and the model of that world has been given to us by Socrates.  The Republic outlines the principles underlying our constitution.  I keep trying to match it up against the reality of my day-to-day experience of American politics.
     I would like to believe that now, twenty-three hundred years later, we have inched ahead--in the manner Socrates advised--toward the ordering and guardianship of society by intelligent, high-spirited individuals with a capacity for discrimination--with philosophia--the Greek word for love of wisdom.
     Our "guardians of the state," the highest in the land, are our legislators--and our law enforcement officials. They should be ferreting out crime, not attacking citizens like me whose work serves as a foundation stone for the maintenance of a healthy republic.
     Let us all hope our country is being safeguarded by people who know what they're doing.

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