As a college student, after reading Lord of the Flies for the second time (I’d first read it as a young teenager), I asked the professor in my philosophy of literature class if he thought humans were inherently evil. He responded by asking if I was pursued by daemons. Taken aback, I replied that I didn’t know anything about “daemons,” much less if I were being pursued by them, but I did know that Golding’s book struck a powerful chord and I suspected then that it would, along with possible daemons, pursue me for the rest of my life.
As he explained, daemons are, in the classical Greek sense, forces or spirits that animate our passions, whatever they might be, positive or negative, and that some people are possessed, or pursued by them, more strongly than others. He told me that great composers, artists, and writers are pursued by daemons. His favorite example was Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche.
This talk of daemons was intriguing, but my compelling interests were the questions Golding raised in his great book, the essential characteristics of human nature, the varieties of human personality, the urge to dominance, violence and, finally, the nature of evil itself.
In light of the orgy of mass-murder tearing this agonized country apart, perpetrated for the most part by young white men like those on Golding’s island, Lord of the Flies reads like a handbook. In my life’s experience the tradition of random massacres began August 1, 1966, when the godfather of mass murderers, Charles Whitman, strode up the stairs of the University of Texas Tower to the observation deck and commenced shooting. His tally at the end of the day was 16, including his mother and wife the day before. Another person died 35 years later from causes attributed to the shooting.
Seventeen is middle-of-the-road by today’s standards but still a hideous toll. Of course Whitman didn’t have the technological advantages of contemporary shooters or he might have killed many more. But in terms of advanced weaponry and body count no deranged individual has the capacity for mass slaughter as does the state, and no state in history has spent more of its resources on the development and deployment of weapons than the United States of America.
On April 20, 1999, the evening of the massacre at Columbine High School, Bill (I never inhaled; I did not have sex with that woman; I only took four trips on that plane) Clinton addressed the nation, admonishing us to resolve our conflicts using words, not weapons, this on the 27th day of the 78-day NATO bombing of Yugoslavia. At the memorial service for the victims of the massacre, Vice President Al Gore intoned, “In a culture rife with violence, where too many young people (my emphasis) place too little value on a human life, we can rise up and we can say, no more.” Soon after his pontifications, F-16s flew over the solemn gathering in missing man formation as people passed teddy bears to each other.
After the shooting in the movie theater at Aurora, Colorado, on July 20, 2012, in his weekly address to the nation, Barack Obama said, “Even as we come to learn how this happened, and who’s responsible, we may never understand what leads anyone to terrorize their fellow human beings. Such evil is senseless, beyond reason.” It happened that I was in Quito, Ecuador, at the time, teaching English to a group of university students. Curious for their perspectives on the rampant violence in the United States, I assigned them (by chance, the day before the shooting) a short essay on this subject. The following day, Friday, cognizant of the grim coincidence of the assignment, the students read their papers. In their modest English they covered the gamut of causes in a manner that is never articulated by U.S. politicians, including the supposedly intelligent and liberal Barack Obama.
The causes they wrote about ranged from drug use, pharmaceutical and street, family breakdown, violent entertainment, poverty and severe economic stress, class divisions, racial animosities, the wild array of chemicals in the environment and their unknown synergistic effects, the vast quantity and easy availability of weapons and, last, but hardly least, the almost absolute militarization of U.S. society and its ultra-aggressive foreign policy. As I tell my friends, they fucking nailed it. Mr. (“I’m really good at killing people”) Obama may never understand what leads anyone to terrorize their fellow human beings, but my students in Ecuador did, and if he’d like to read their essays, I’ll gladly mail them to him for his edification.
It is difficult for most U.S. citizens to comprehend the fear with which the rest of the world views their country. For our leaders though, fear, obviously, is preferable to respect. Implicit behind every geopolitical move this country makes is the threat of military action, up to and including the use of nuclear weapons. For Democrats and Republicans alike, “All options are on the table.” This is terrorism. One of my students, a very bright young man majoring in physics, and a writer of poetry, in his beginning English, wrote this of the United States:
“The war with Iraq is an example of USA violence. That war is the tare of a plan to conquist the world. USA always wants to control other countries. There is many ways to do that: economicly, ther politolicaly or with militar power. The Iraq War started in 2003. A lot of inocent people died for that reason. It’s effect in the world is very heavy, because all of the countries in the world are scared and quiet. The nuclear bombs, the guns, the toxic gas, all of this things could become in the devil for us. The war means the total destruction of Iraq. It means the lose of the oil too. It still affecting the world because USA will do the same thing in South America. USA doesn’t have natural resources. It will need air, water, trees and wildlife. Actually, with a new war all of our Amazon region could be of they. That is the reason for our union. If all South America works together USA won’t do something like the Iraq War with us.”
Almost as terrifying as the mass shootings themselves, now seen as “normal,” is the militarized response of police units armed to the teeth in full battle regalia. But all of this is the logical outcome of a thoroughly militarized culture. These are the same police that are waiting in the wings or sometimes on display during what few antiwar demonstrations that still occur in this tormented and fearful country. How tiresome, but it bears repeating: The USA spends more money on its military than the next seven countries combined. The USA has over 800 military installations around the world. The USA has been at war 222 of its 239 years as a republic. We are constantly propagandized by ads for the military, and told to honor our “brave men and women in uniform,” but once these brave men and women return from the Empire’s wars they are forgotten and treated despicably. Our new liberal darlings, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, Tulsi Gabbard, Ro Khanna, and a slew of other “progressives,” including my two liberal senators from New Mexico, Martin Heinrich and Tom Udall, recently voted for Trump’s $738 billion military spending bill, one of the largest ever.
As a student I didn’t fully understand my professor’s question about being pursued by daemons, but I do now. We are pursued by the daemons of militarism and war. William Golding knew all too well the terrible irony of our situation:
“I should have thought,” said the officer as he visualized the search before him, “I should have thought that a pack of British boys–you’re all British, aren’t you?–would have been able to put up a better show than that–I mean—” “It was like that at first,” said Ralph, “before things–” He stopped. “We were together then–” The officer nodded helpfully. “I know. Jolly good show. Like the Coral Island.” Ralph looked at him dumbly. For a moment he had a fleeting picture of the strange glamour that had once invested the beaches. But the island was scorched up like dead wood–Simon was dead–and Jack had. . . The tears began to flow and sobs shook him. He gave himself up to them now for the first time on the island; great, shuddering spasms of grief that seemed to wrench his whole body. His voice rose under the black smoke before the burning wreckage of the island; and infected by that emotion, the other little boys began to shake and sob too. And in the middle of them, with filthy body, matted hair, and unwiped nose, Ralph wept for the end of innocence, the darkness of man’s heart, and the fall through the air of the true, wise friend called Piggy. The officer, surrounded by these noises, was moved and a little embarrassed. He turned away to give them time to pull themselves together; and waited, allowing his eyes to rest on the trim cruiser in the distance.