It’s usually through a thousand tiny cuts of reduced kindness (each one individually invisible to any but the most capital-G of Gods and the most conscientious and self-scrutinizing of saints) that a surplus workforce is driven from the fold and into the waiting arms of a war, prison, slave labor, insufficient medical care, or other population-control device. You might be reminded of the short story, “The Lottery,” in which a small town gathers for a bizarre but strangely familiar game of “draw straws and stone the loser to death.” But the real game we play as a society is much more subtle, constant, and universal than the stoning in that story, for in our game we mostly throw pebbles and grains of sand, and we wait until no one else is looking. We’re like a quantum computer, with each of us a little component that sort of votes one way and sort of votes the other, and out of this ambiguity, a collective verdict is reached. Countless times each day, the elimination of a human life is achieved without any of us quite having decided it should be so. And yet we did vote. Society is a quantum killing machine.
If you doubt me, consider four cases:
In the first case, a man runs up to you screaming that his daughter is hanging off a ledge partway down a nearby cliff, and he cannot quite reach her to pull her up. He asks if you might be able to help. You happen to be a trapeze artist, and you know that you might be strong enough to lower the man down the cliffside so he can reach his daughter, and then pull them both back up. You know as a professional acrobat that this will be difficult, and that doing this might injure you so that you can’t perform as a trapeze artist again. Do you help the man?
The second case: same man, same daughter, same predicament. But this time it’s not your body you can risk to save the girl; it’s merely a fine, expensive gold-filament stereo cable you just bought for your home entertainment system’s surround sound speakers, thirty feet long and just possibly what’s needed to rescue this girl. You know that using this cable as a rescue rope might very well destroy its ability to function as a stereo cable. Do you help the man?
The third case: same man, same daughter, only now she’s not on a cliff; now the man approaches you just outside a doctor’s office, extremely distraught, crying that his daughter needs an operation for her brain tumor or she’ll die. He has no medical insurance, and the surgery costs $50,000 more than he has. He’s not in his right mind and has somehow decided on impulse to ask the first person he sees for help. And that person is you. You just so happen to have recently inherited $50,000. The money sits in your bank account; the checkbook sits in your pocket as you stare at the man and consider his request. Do you help the man?
The fourth case: same man, same daughter, same predicament. Only this time, a little light bulb pops up over your head–or is it a little red man on your left shoulder? You realize that you could give the man a portion of what he needs to help his daughter. Maybe $25,000–half of what you have, demonstrating that you love your neighbor as yourself and therefore are willing, as few others would be, to share half your fortune with him in his time of need. Or perhaps, you decide, you’ll give him $10,000–enough to give him hope, and enough to inspire others to come forward to complete the fee. Or perhaps, remembering that your spouse just got fired, and you just resolved to tighten your household’s financial belt, you decide to shave your charity a bit from what it otherwise would have been. After all, God knows if times weren’t tight you would have been perfectly willing to give $10,000… and so you give $9,000. You smile at the man, write out your check, hand it to him. He sees the amount, his eyes light up with joy. You are a hero! You drive home immensely satisfied, if a little unsure how to tell your spouse you just gave away so much money.
Six months later, you find out the man’s daughter is dead. Starting with your generous contribution, the father had rallied the community to his daughter’s aid. By the day the doctors announced that his daughter’s tumor had grown inoperable, he had raised $49,000 for her surgery. Just think–if he had only gotten $1,000 more, his daughter might be alive. So: Did you help the man? Or did you just help his daughter die? What mattered more, what had greater impact, what was more REAL: The $9,000 you gave? Or the $1,000 you didn’t?
Now imagine that in the fourth case it wasn’t $1,000 you held back. It was ten dollars. One dollar. Fifty cents. A penny. Now imagine it wasn’t that you held back money, but that you hesitated to give the money for six months. Three months. A month. A moment. At what point do you cease to be partly responsible for that girl’s death?
An acrobat refuses to risk injury to help save a girl from falling. We call him guilty. An audiophile refuses to risk losing his expensive cable to save a girl. We call him guilty. So the question is a real one: At what point do you cease to be partly responsible for that girl’s death?*
I used to think that Jesus equated lust with adultery, and rage with murder, just to point up that every distinction between what we will in our minds, and what we actually act out, is utterly circumstantial–that if we plot a sin, we have only the fortune of our circumstances to thank for our not having actually committed that sin. And I still believe this. But the idea of society as a quantum killing machine drives Jesus’ point further home: by our own human standards, there is no clear line between a small act that contributes to another’s misfortune and ultimate demise, and a large contribution to another’s demise worthy of the term “manslaughter.” If twenty men can be participants in a wrongful death, then so can twenty thousand. Though we often wish otherwise, guilt is not a pie the size of the victim’s loss, to be divided among those who caused the victim’s loss. By this logic we continually “seek justice” in the form of a single or a handful of scapegoats to blame for great wrongs, and when we’ve seen those scapegoats to their fate, we feel the work of justice is done. But I propose that a fair share of what we feel, when we feel that justice has been done, is simply the pleasant sensation of being let off the hook. For even if we’re not guilty in the matter at hand, some part of us knows, that real and accurate justice in the case of a single victim, would be the work of a million million years and a million million million human minds. Our justice is always flawed, and there is a word for flawed justice: injustice. Our justice has the same relationship to real justice as a child’s mud pie has to a master chef’s pie. Our justice is injustice.
Real guilt is not a pie the size of the victim’s loss. It can rarely be eaten in one sitting, by one or a few people. Real guilt is a pie the size of a million tiny cuts, fruit of all the private lusts and rages we didn’t quite contain. And thus five loaves feed five thousand, and the last supper lasts until we’ve all had a chance to eat.
*The answer to this boondoggle of a question–at what point do we cease to be guilty of shortchanging or failing our fellow human being–is actually so simple a five-year-old can grasp it: it’s the golden rule. If I have loved my neighbor as myself, in a given moment, to the best of my ability, my imagination, my empathy, my energy, my resources, then I am freed of any vestige of guilt for his sufferings.