When normal, decent people don’t fear death,
how can you use death to frighten them!
Even when they have a normal fear of death,
who of us dare take and kill the one who doesn’t!
When people are normal and decent and death-fearing,
there’s always an executioner.
To take the place of the executioner
is to take the place of the great carpenter.
People who cut the great carpenter’s wood
seldom get off with their hands unhurt.
The first four lines convey the abnormality of those who don’t have some level of fear with regard to death, and the abnormality of those who aren’t afraid to kill someone.
Most people fear death. It’s just a fact. Even though the Tao Te Ching tells us there’s nothing to fear from dying, Lao Tzu understands that that’s simply not reality for most people. And so the fear of death is woven into normal society. We’re all afraid to die, and we’re especially afraid to be killed. Even more so if the killer is the state, and I think this poem can be looked at from the perspective of a society.
What could be more abnormal than when the state kills its citizens? What kind of insane place is that to live?
The Death Penalty has been abolished in my state for over a century, but a few years ago Tim Pawlenty tried to get it reinstated.
Can you imagine the level of savagery needed to convince people who have no desire to kill their fellow citizens that they need to start killing prisoners and criminals?
But this is america, the home of barbarians and savages who cloak themselves in words like freedom and patriotism. I’ve been thinking about this a lot, though. How we’re one of the most savage countries in the world. We routinely murder our citizens right in the street. We shoot their dogs right in front of them for the crime of barking. We steal food from children and the poor and give it to the young men and women we send to die on foreign shores. We take money from teachers and hospitals and schools to make sure our police have tanks and our soldiers have weaponry so advanced no sane person would even consider fighting us.
We’re meant to be the height of civilization! The wealthiest country to ever exist! And yet we’re little better than pillagers, barbarians, pirates.
Anyway. I think of that after reading this poem because Lao Tzu is telling us that those who take on the role of executioner rarely find themselves undamaged by the job.
And we have made ourselves the executioner of democracies around the world, the executioner of our own people, the executioner of every Muslim country in the world. And now we’re setting our eyes on China.China! Who manages to look civilized compared to us. A nation that has nearly a billion people well below the poverty line. A place where dissidents are imprisoned permanently, where petty crime is punished with such severity that it’s almost better to be a real criminal than a kid caught with marijuana.
Of course, that description sounds a bit like america, too. The only difference is we have more prisoners and a billion fewer people.
We have destroyed our own nation through our savage policies. And that’s not even just talking about our policies of war and aggression. The way we allocate funds, the way we choose violence over textbooks, bombs over feeding and clothing the needy. We are a nation so riddled with the disease of violence that we can’t even consider that there may be a better way to exist. That there might be another way to behave.
The new federal budget is just an extension of rapacious capitalism that we’ve been practising for decades. People are shocked by it, and for good reason. It’s absurd.
But it’s an absurdity that we’ve been happy to go along with for decades, as long as we stated it in polite ways. And that’s what the US has learned most from totalitarian states: take away rights, choice, and care as politely as possible; make sure someone stands up and condemns it, but make sure she stands alone while 99 dudes nod or shake their head, depending on which side of the aisle they sit on. But make sure they stay sitting.
I suppose I’ve gotten sidetracked here.
The point is that choosing violence does things to you as a person, as a society. Every violent choice we make allows us to choose violence again, but this time with fewer pangs of conscience, with fewer cries of condemnation.
Even our most politicallly progressive, in america, are sill advocates of mass violence against foreign peoples. Sanders and Warren support all kinds of state violence. They just want it laid out more politely. Keith Ellison got smeared by his own party (!) because he had the audacity to say that Palestinians were also human and deserved rights.
Even the party that’s meant to stand up for a civilized way of life is full of barbarians, savages, who want nothing but war, and whatever treasures can be pillaged from the ruins.