When Life Became Worthless

The trenches were the beginning of the end

The trenches were the beginning of the end

In my previous post, I mentioned that I have a theory that two key macro-events  in the 20th century were the fuel for the near lightning speed decline of civility around the world. The first of these macro-events will be discussed in this post – and can be clearly tracked to a specific year, 1914.

Not quite 15 years into the new century, a “warm-up” to the collapse of civility began. As European powers were drawn into World War I by an entanglement of alliances between legacy empires (Ottoman, German, Russian, Austro-Hungarian, etc.), the taking of human life reached a horrifying level. As many as 10 million military deaths and 8 million civilian deaths were attributed directly to the war, which did not include any deaths associated with the collateral damage of the war, such as famine and disease. Killing on this scale had never been experienced in the world – and little did anyone know that it was just a prelude to what has become the most dangerous century in human history.

After World War I, Europe settled into an uneasy truce where most of the problems that contributed to the conflict were neither resolved nor eliminated. In fact, the French and Germans in particular not only failed to resolve any problems – they actually placed their old border dispute issues in the same tea kettle and then proceeded to warm it up over an even hotter fire. War compensation treaty agreements from Germany to the other European powers was so high, that Germany’s economy collapsed and inflation grew by hundreds of percent – sometime just from week to week. Out of an uncivilized war had come an uncivilized peace, which set the groundwork for the complete annihilation of the worth of individual human beings. While the after-effects of unresolved conflict in Europe led to the political rise of a bad Austrian artist with an inflammatory speech-making ability – men named Trotsky, Stalin and Lenin overturned an imperial government and then began a power struggle amongst themselves that would lead to an authoritarian rule that would have an equally devastating impact on the devaluing of human life.

When the opening salvos of World War II were heard, the elimination of human life occurred on such an enormous scale that the entire world became, and remains to this day, insensitive to the value of human life. Adolf Hitler was personally responsible for as many as 20 million deaths – and proved single-handedly that the extreme end of incivility is inhumanity. Josef Stalin, after eliminating his co-conspirators, embarked on a hellacious reign that conservative estimates credit with the deaths of more than 60 million people.

In the 20th century, the human capability for inhumanity caught up with our technological ability to carry out that inhumanity. The 20th century was the deadliest era in human history. Pol Pot killed 1.7 million people. Hutus and Tutsis slaughtered (and continue to slaughter) each other by the hundreds of thousands. Kurds were assaulted with chemical weapons. And, lest we in America get carried away by the idea that we have a moral “high ground” when it comes to despotic regimes killing thousands; I would encourage you to read “A Legacy of Ashes – A History of the CIA”. Between 1946 and the present day, the US government has sent tens, if not hundreds of thousands of foreign nationals to their deaths through covert operations.

While killing is the ultimate act of incivility, it is not the only heinously anti-civil act. Along with millions upon millions being killed, millions upon millions were raped, mutilated and enslaved in the 20th century as well. Effectively, the value of human life was assigned a “zero” in the 20th century. And, when a life is worth “zero”, individuals, governments and dictators have no need to recognize the intrinsic value in each human being. The stage is set for the elimination of civility.

The macro-effect that I set out to describe in this post is the mass desensitization that we all have succumbed to when it comes to the intrinsic value of human life. When 300,000 Africans are wiped off the face of the earth, with no help or intervention from anyone – why should we be surprised by a 15 year old pulling a trigger and blowing the brains out of a class mate, teacher or parent? We’d like to convince ourselves that these are two separate and unrelated activities – that one represents governmental responsibility and the other personal responsibility. But, these are the things we tell ourselves so we can sleep at night. The collective conscience of the world has been numbed to the incivility of life-taking; we all pretty much accept that it is part of living in today’s modern society. The sad thing is, it does not have to be.

Estimates on the number of people slaughtered in the 20th century due to war, authoritarian regimes, covert operations and war induced famine and disease range anywhere from 250,000,000 to 500,000,000 people. If you doubt how desensitized the global world population has become to the possibility of death at another person’s hand – take this point into consideration. Instead of viewing these deaths across a 100 year time horizon, let us say that they all occur in tomorrow.

You might want to wish yourself into a European vacation before you try this thought experiment on for size. Every man, woman and child in the United States – when you wake up tomorrow – is gone. The population of the US missing over 100 years; “that’s life”, “people die in war”, “what are you gonna do?”. The population of the US missing in a day? – the ramifications are mind boggling.

The ultimate act of incivility is the taking of a life. The exercising of incivility on a mass scale is an act of inhumanity. And, inhumanity exercised over a long time-continuum has enforced the wildly erroneous belief that some (if not all) lives have an intrinsic value of zero; leading to a diminished capability for civility on a personal, local, national and global level.

Maybe Darfur and The Congo aren’t places on a map; maybe they are measurements of our conscience and civility.

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2 Responses to When Life Became Worthless

  1. Phil Mariage says:

    Richard, would you please email me? I would like to speak to you about being a guest on our PR program, Yesterday, Today & Tomorrow – the generational crossroads of history. I will be taping a program on Civility and have read your Blog. Thanks, Phil

  2. john kerkhoff says:

    I truly think the real fault of humans is that we institutionalize war by putting off individual moral rage until it explodes on a grand scale. we all let little injustices slide off our backs until one day the masses become enraged enough to kill. individuals simply don’t like killing alone; only the brave enough and often times psychotic enoungh do an individual kill. when I see a school shooting, there is a part of me that knows these are the canaries in the coal mines. they are acting against moral injustices, but we label them as demented. too often people only gain the courage to act out or kill when shiny hats and uniforms are made available for them to wear. most all want to kill…we are in fact horrible creatures. we pretend we are all quite cival, but the second there is a chance to put on a uniform and shoot a gun most everybody jumps at the opportunity. we are simply lazy creatures that never stand up for anything until the state gives us an opportunity to murder. militaries murder people…there is no such thing as colateral damgage or freedom fighters. we simply line up one group against another and let our bruised little egos try to rack up enough kills to satisfy our blood lust. we then salute the flag one last time, take off the uniform, and pretend we are good citizens once again in the market for a new wash machine and car. humans are truly scum, don’t pretend otherwise.

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