I kill for my own amusement. Indiscriminately. Out of curiosity. I pull the legs off spiders to see them wiggle. I tear the wings of butterflies, because they won’t hold still long enough for me to see their patterns. I take wings from flies and hold them up to the light. Gossamer and perfect. And mine. I squash newly hatched frogs because I wonder what they might look like dried and flat in my scrapbook. I cut worms in half, is it really true that they grow to form two wholes? I explore the world alone. The woods outside my house. Full of life… and death.
When I’m older my history books teach me about the second world war. My classmates and I wonder how on earth could people be so motivated, so persuaded to kill? So many people. Pictures of gas chambers, piles of shoes, bodies cast aside like soulless cloths, skin and bone empty of any recognizable animation.
We watch films. There are people crying, emaciated, but still determined with defiant will. I read The Diary of Anne Frank. Anne and I, we are friends, wondering about our teenage bodies and the first smatterings of love. Me from my isolated childhood. And Anne from her isolation behind a bookcase in Amsterdam. And then one day, she’s gone. Dead. I don’t understand how the Nazis can be immune to the suffering they cause. Anne, the girl I loved was treated like an animal, like the insects I once lorded over. Were the Nazis human? How did they become like that? Think like that?
Our teachers explain that people were brainwashed. That they were scared for their own lives. That they wanted to survive in the ‘in-group’. They assure us, that now we know. Nothing like that can ever happen again. But me and my friends shake our heads. We still don’t understand. We above all, we will never participate in such an atrocity. There must be something wrong with them, the Nazis. A sickness. That they would do something so terrible, that they would lose all compassion and humanity, be so insensitive to another being’s suffering. That those responsible are able to live with their guilt, their shame and that so many were even happy about the acts they committed. It all seems incomprehensible.
In my 20s I read the history of IBM who built their company by creating machines to catalog the Jewish people for the third Reich. Why did they do it? I buy Mein Kampf on the black market to try and get inside the head of Hitler. Then I fall asleep to it. He might have been a great orator but he was a rubbish writer. I shake my head and I still don’t understand.
In my 30s I read about women stoned for adultery, hanged for killing their rapists, stabbed by their families for dishonoring their name. Really? Don’t they see the parallels? Aren’t their killers frightened of the people they’ve become? Then the Iraqi war arrives. And with it Americans and British troops with their boots propped on naked men wearing hoods over their faces. The soldiers are smiling. Immune. Sending a holiday pic for their mates back home. Say cheese.
I realise that this sickness, it has not gone. On the contrary, it is everywhere. Still. But I, I am not a part of it. I hate it. And I will fight it with every bone in my body.
As a new-found feminist I denounce objectification, the act of treating men or women, as things. It is, I am told by Terry Pratchett, the true definition of sin. But I am still confused. Because objectification is everywhere, magazines, television. Even more confusing is that in certain situations people like to be treated like things. Power dynamics in the bedroom or cogs in the corporate wheel serving a defined function. People are commoditized and no-one, so they tell me at work, is irreplaceable. How bad is objectification really? Looking at a pair of boobs on a billboard…harmful, human or both?
Then I have children. I fight for equality. For my boy to treat women with respect, be proud of his integrity and for my girl to love herself and speak her mind without fear.
Then one day my 3 year old daughter brings me a spider with only 4 legs.
“Look mummy, his legs come off really easily.”
She picks another off to demonstrate. And as I look down at the spider, struggling to support his body weight, images from my own childhood start to flash through my mind. I say
“Poor spider. Don’t do that darling. And try to imagine how it would hurt if someone pulled your legs off.”
“Oh no” my daughter says confidently patting her leg. “Mine are attached too firmly to come off. He’s not like me, his don’t hurt. Look how easily they come away.”
She pulls off another one, delighted. He’s a scrabbling mess in the palm of her tiny hand. And I can hardly bear to look.
Chills run down my neck as I see her innocent smiling face. Say cheese. Like a horror movie, it’s how it all starts. It’s part of all us and part of me.
This disregard for life. Our ability to objectify, dehumanize. Make people into animals. And then separate ourselves from them as if we are somehow superior. We do it all the time.
How can I teach my children that respect for life, all life is important? Whilst we put women to death for being raped? Whilst we wage war on out-groups? Whilst we kill animals for our own pleasure? Some beings are worthy of life. Others arbitrarily, are not. And in that moment I am scared. Because after years of shaking my head, I suddenly understand how it was done, why it is still everywhere and how murder can be so easy.