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Hagakure 葉隠れ (in the shadow of falling leaves)

June 19, 2010

I was perusing the Hagakure when I came upon something that I think is highly pertinent to what we have looked at in Berlin:
According to Lord Naoshige’s words:

There is something to which every young samurai should pay attention. During times of peace when listening to stories of battle, one should never say, “In facing such a situation, what would a person do?” Such words are out of the question. How will a man who has doubts even in his own room achieve anything on the battlefield? …

In our class the question was asked many times what one would do in the face of tyranny under the Nazis or under the GDR. I think that Naoshige’s point speaks directly to this: it is pointless to speculate. He further explains that if one is not determined from the start, uncertain even in the comfort of his own home, then when war does happen that person will be useless on the field of battle. Granted the Hagakure was written in the 18th century for a dying class of warrior nobility, but I think the abstract of Naoshige’s point is useful here: that it is pointless to try and speculate what any one of us might have done under the circumstances in Nazi Germany or under the GDR. The real point is that we should be prepared to do something in the event that it happens again.
And in fact, it has happened again, in 1994 in Rwanda around 800,000 people were killed in the course of around 8 weeks, in the Darfur region of Sudan it happened again and we did nothing: we don’t even know how many people were killed. For that matter we have constructed a global economic system that not only allows, but incentivizes human trafficking, the destruction of ecological systems, the exploitation of child labor, and could likely lead us to another war on a massive scale over scarcer and scarcer natural resources (think water in the Middle East and Africa.) A few statistics are in order: about one billion people worldwide do not have access to safe drinking water, and 2.6 billion people do not have access to any kind of improved sanititation.1 10 million children under the age of five die each year from perfectly treatable malnutrition, or about one every three minutes, if we include all the people that die from complications due to malnutrition, the number jumps up to between 35 and 55 million people a year, or about one every 15 seconds.2 It is ok though, in the US we grow enough food to feed all of these people, instead though we feed it to animals and eat them. The best part is that we have an obesity epidemic! A third of the people in the world can’t get enough to eat and we have an obesity epidemic! Even better, we have started to use ethanol from corn to fuel our cars, so now starving people get to compete with our vehicles to get a meal. And we all know how upset Americans get if someone tries to raise our fuel prices.
All that being said, my personal bias is that the ‘war on terror’ that GW constructed is extremely terrifying for a couple different reasons. The primary issue is that we now have a system that allows us to other people by labeling them terrorists and lock them up indefinitely without trial. For me the broader issue is what happens when we start seeing people who object to the global economic system that we have set up and they decide that their only recourse is terrorism? If someone has a perfectly legitimate political point to make I do not in any way endorse an act of violence as a means of communication, but what happens when they have no other way to communicate? To some extent this touches upon the notion of homo sacer that Lucy articulated for us: that is when someone’s life is given no value to the point that they can neither be sacrificed nor murdered, because both murder and sacrifice denote that the person’s life had value.
I think to a large degree when someone commits a suicide bombing they are communicating that their life does have value and that they are willing to sacrifice it in order to prove it. The harm that is done is also a part of the communication that their life has value, but I’m having a little more difficulty with how that works. It seems like the violence they do to themselves might be a form of communication but the act of violently taking the lives of others seems to nullify the moral message that they are trying to communicate. On the other hand it is telling that we place no value on the life of a suicide bomber: no one even gives a thought to the fact that this was a person too and that their life had value also. Really give some thought to the notion that a person had been driven by whatever forces to think that their only option in life was to die in order to harm another human being. What combination of hopelessness, hatred, remorse, isolation, and terror could drive a human being to kill themselves in order to harm another?
I think the most frightening thing of all though is that we don’t ask these kinds of questions in American society. We are happy to keep cramming McBurgers down our throats, drive our oversized military grade vehicles, and watch American Idol (a golden calf?) and when someone objects to our way of life—a way of life that does impact people worldwide—we decide that they are either crazy, or we lock them up indefinitely, torture optional of course. So to return to the original point; it is pointless to speculate about what we might have done in a given situation in the past, the real question is: What are we doing about the present?

1 http://www.nesc.wvu.edu/ndwc/articles/OT/FA06/OT_Fl_06_NNweb.pdf
See also http://www.who.int/water_sanitation_health/mdg1/en/index.html
2 http://www.wfp.org/hunger/stats
See also http://library.thinkquest.org/C002291/high/present/stats.htm
“Nearly one in four people, 1.3 billion – a majority of humanity – live on less than $1 per day, while the world’s 358 billionaires have assets exceeding the combined annual incomes of countries with 45 percent of the world’s people. UNICEF”
“For the price of one missile, a school full of hungry children could eat lunch every day for 5 years”

P.S. if you see a funny set of boxes in the title, that is the Japanese character for Hagakure, most people don’t have Japanese fonts turned on ^.^

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