Finding Nemo

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

A Long Way Gone by Ishmael Beah

Somehow back from true hell
"The five men were lined up in front of us on the training ground with their hands tied.  We were supposed to slice their throats on the corporal's command.  The person whose prisoner died quickest would win the contest.  We had our bayonets out and were supposed to look in the faces of the prisoners as we took them out of this world.  I had already begun staring at my prisoner.  His face was swollen from the beating he had received, and his eyes looked as if they were watching something behind me.  His jaws were the only tense part of his facial expression; everything else seemed calm.  I didn't feel a thing for him, didn't think that much about what I was doing.  I just waited for the corporal's order.  The prisoner was simply another rebel who was responsible for the death of my family, as I had come to truly believe.

The corporal gave the signal with a pistol shot and I grabbed the man's head and slit his throat in one fluid motion.  His Adam's apple made way for the sharp knife, and I turned the bayonet on its zigzag edge as I brought it out.  His eyes rolled up and they looked me straight in the eye before they suddenly stopped in a frightful glance, as if caught by surprise.  The prisoner leaned his weight on me as he gave out his last breath.  I dropped him on the ground and wiped my bayonet on him.  I reported to the corporal, who was holding a timer.  The bodies of the other prisoners fought in the arms of the other boys, and some continued to shake on the ground for a while.  I was proclaimed the winner, and Kanei came second.  The boys and the other soldiers who were in the audience clapped as if I had just fulfilled one of life's greatest achievements.  I was given the rank of junior lieutenant and Kanei was given junior sergeant.  We celebrated that day's achievement with more drugs and more war movies."

Ishmael Beah was 12 years old when he performed this act.  A little boy, caught up in one of the most evil, gruesome, and pointless wars that was ever fought, the Sierra Leone civil war.  At first the government troops that fed him drugs and forced him to fight protected the villagers, but after a short time they were raping and murdering everyone in their path.  They had become indistinguishable from the rebels which they fought.  The killing became an end in itself, it was to establish power, to capture ammunition and guns, to kill for the joy of killing.

The book is written very plainly, but in a strange way it makes the horrific things that take place that much more powerful.  After reading it, I found myself questioning the very idea of the inherent goodness of humanity.  It is a must read for anyone who wonders about the true nature of the human soul.  Anyone, it seems, is capable of truly evil acts when put into the wrong situation.

Darwin, still evolving
The answer to this question may come from another author, David Sloan Wilson, recommended by my brother Nathan.  Wilson writes in Evolution for Everyone that our morality, or "goodness," only applies to people we think of as our "tribe."  Anyone within our tribe we must respect, not lie to, not murder, not steal from, because our tribe in turn protects us from enemies, ensures we are fed, and provides us emotional support.  However, anyone we label as "out-of-tribe" is an enemy, someone we must fight and kill in order to protect our own group.  In fact, Wilson says this group selection is how we evolved as a species!  Each group or tribe of humans actively competed against one another, which strengthened and reinforced this instinct of tribalism that today is called nationalism, racism, or any of the many other "-isms".

A Long Way Gone shows that this is true to the ultimate extreme.  Two groups, ostensibly fighting for higher causes, devolve into competing bands of humans fighting to the death for nothing but territory and status.  They become savages, young boys performing barbaric acts on one another, maiming innocent old men, raping woman and murdering babies in a true hell on earth.  It is the essence of evil.  And perhaps it is indeed our very human nature.

The only solution, as I have pointed out in other posts, is for people to expand their concept of "Tribe" to the entire human race.  To find the common bonds of humanity that make us all alike.  We all have the same desires and goals in life, and that is to find happiness.

And the best way to break down those barriers, I believe, is through travel.  Every time I go to a new country I find that the shock of a new culture becomes less and less, because I see more and more that we are all the same.

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