Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Half an Hour, Jan 13, 2016

Late last fall my cat Bart died, then Jay Cross died, and finally 130 people in Paris died, all within a few weeks of each other.

Bart's death was not felt widely beyond my own immediate family, Jay Cross's death was more widely felt, and of course the impact of the Paris attacks was worldwide.

They all felt about the same to me.

It seems shameful to admit this. The sheer number of people killed in Paris should give the event more significance, shouldn't it? And surely the loss of Jay Cross is of more significance than that of a cat.

But it set off in me a chain of thought that I cannot escape, and which runs around and around in my head even to this day.

After the Paris attacks, I felt like I was the only remaining opponent to war, the only person who did not at once rise to the challenge and call for the degradation and destruction of those responsible.

I felt that way after 9-11 as well. I felt the United States would feel it had to attack someone (in this case Afghanistan, and then for good measure, an innocent bystander in Iraq) but I didn't have any sense of what good it would produce. And as the intervening fifteen years have shown, no good at all.

We heard a lot in those years about the fight to bring democracy to Afghanistan, to improve the lives of women, to increase self-sufficiency and end poverty. All of those are noble goals, but none of them were really the reason for the war in the first place. They were fictions we told ourselves as the occupation wore on and on.

I have a similar feeling about the bombing campaigns in Syria. The flow of refugees has made it plain that all anyone has accomplished was to make life miserable for the general population.

How many Syrian dead does it take for their deaths to become as meaningful as those in France, or here in Casselman? What is the calculus of death?

It seems to me that the fighters for ISIS have, like so many idealistic youth before them, been the victims of the great con, that theirs could be and would be a 'meaningful' death. In this regard, it doesn't matter what they are fighting for - it could be for religious purity, it could be for the advancement of society, it could be 'for peace'.

What I realized on that fall day is this: there are no meaningful deaths.

Bart's passing was as peaceful and timely as could be hoped. He slipped away without a murmur the morning after his failing kidneys took away his sight. His last night was peaceful; he slept beside me, twitching and dreaming of play-games, listening to classical music. He always loved music.

But it was still wrong, it still hurt like a deep knife, and it was still pointless.

Why is there death at all? It is part of the package deal that makes us human (and him feline). It's part of the same mechanism that underlies thought and sentiment, perception and cognition.

It's how humans (and cats) evolve. It's how they have come to be at all. Death is what enables the dynamic interaction and reproduction of the species to create new versions of themselves. It is the ultimate feedback mechanism informing a mechanism driven by the interplay between small things.

It was a great mechanism for getting us to the point where we are conscious, self-aware, adaptable, and even caring beings. But it's no longer needed, and there's no 'off switch', and it's clear to us now that the same objective can be achieved without doing away with the participants.

Assuming we even wanted more evolution, we can imagine means much more subtle than the cudgel that is death. We can tweak the DNA with gene splicing, we can induce change with tailored phage, we can decide. And similarly, socially, we can create a new government, or a new society, without the need to exterminate any proportion of its members.

A nation is not better because it arose out of the ashes of revolution. A cultural identity is not forged on the battlefield. These are not the engines of birth, they are the engines of destruction, elimination, of utterly needless death.

We do not need to destroy in order to be able to see.

All I ever feel when I think of death is a feeling of loss. It was never "someone's time". It is never made up for by the fact that he led "a beautiful life". It matters naught that he died for "something greater than himself." It's means nothing that "he died with dignity." That's all the big con.

In truth, it is death itself that is the enemy. It is death itself that is the blackness that erases the light. It is death itself that is ultimately the most pointless, banal, distressing part of a person's existence.

Nothing can convince me that some social, political, economic or religious ideal is "worth" a life. Nothing is left behind by death, even the death of a vanquished foe, but loss and emptiness. Where once there was life, now there is only silence.

Today we talk about the morality of accepting refugees, as though there were actually a moral question regarding the desirability of allowing people to be bombed, starved, beaten or drowned into submission.

The existence of borders blocking the flight of people to safety is an affront. The waste of human lives in the name of a nation, a religion, or an idea is offensive to the sight and mind.

No matter how pointless or meaningful we are told that it is, each death is to someone the ultimate tragedy. All deaths are the same. Once we come to realize this, together, we can begin thinking about how we can live together, work together, and begin to cherish this most beautiful thing in the world: life.

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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Last Updated: Mar 30, 2021 6:17 p.m.