Post Classifieds

Words Can Kill!

By Robert Patton
On January 26, 2012


Last week, members of the Lyndon community received an email reporting that some foreign students had been subjected to verbal abuse and "stereotyped insults." Although the email did not include specifics, it's likely that the insults involved ethnic slurs. It's an unfortunate fact that we humans have used our literary skills to come up with foul sobriquets for just about every ethnic, religious, racial, political, and economic group on the planet. This is nothing to be proud of and is a long way from Martin Luther King's hope that his children would be judged by the "content of their character."

We can agree that this kind of behavior is reprehensible. But what you may not know is how threatening it is to human life on Earth. It's a common belief that the ability to hurt—even kill—our human brothers and sisters is part of the makeup we inherited from our more brutish ancestors, but this is not really true.

Almost all of us have a block against harming others when we see them face-to-face as fellow human beings. In World War 2 it took more than 50,000 rounds of ammunition to kill a single German or Japanese soldier. Even when trained to kill, few soldiers have the stomach to  shoot or thrust a bayonet into the body of another human being and then watch dispassionately the look of agony as the enemy drops to the ground and dies.

In World War 2, less than one out of seven American soldiers actually fired at the enemy. Yet this may have been an improvement over the Civil War. Most soldiers in either blue or gray uniforms had single-shot percussion rifles. They were trained to stand and fire, reload and fire again.

The target was a line of troops typically a short distance away. Since the load and fire cycle only took about fifteen seconds. a line of 800 soldiers should be able to hit four or five hundred enemy soldiers in the first minute. Instead there were just a handful of hits because most never even fired their weapons at the other side.

In wartime, artillery fire, heavy machine guns and explosives cause most casualties. These are weapons that deal death at a distance relieving the killer of the responsibility for killing.

Now we have the ultimate weapon to kill at a distance, drones that can be directed from a comfortable office on the other side of the planet. There is no need to see bloodshed, either of insurgents or of innocents targeted by mistake. All in a day's work, then home for dinner and a few hours in front of the TV.

Now what does this have to with the danger of racial slurs? Simply this. In war, military leaders have found that the way to overcome the resistance of their troops to up-close-and-personal killing, is to dehumanize the enemy. It may be hard to face and kill an enemy who, like yourself, has a spouse, children, parents, brothers and sisters at home. It's much easier to kill a Nip, a Kraut, a towel-head or a gook.

The same is true of the other side. Viet Cong soldiers referred to Americans as "big hairy monkeys." And they often ate monkeys. In public, bin Laden called us Crusaders; who knows what he called us in private.

None of this is new. The Inquisition didn't torture and burn people. Their efforts were directed against heretics, witches and those in league with Satan. The Spanish conquistadores had no problem enslaving or slaughtering the indigenous peoples of the Americas. To the Spanish mind this was not really murder. In fact, if savages would accept Jesus before death they were sent to heaven by the weapons or flames that took their lives.

Roosevelt, thought of by many as a great humanitarian, put American citizens with Japanese ancestry in camps surrounded by barbed wire and machine gun towers. And millions of Jews who would have escaped to America from Hitler's Reich were denied that privilege and ended up in gas chambers. Eleanor, an icon of early women's liberation, didn't like Jews.

So the next time you hear an ethnic or racial slur, remember that this is but the first small step to genocide.

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