What matters: reflections on a 9-year-old girl with an Uzi



Earlier this week, an instructor was training a nine-year-old girl to shoot with an Uzi, aiming at the image of a man some yards away. She inadvertently killed a real one, her instructor. A terrible occurrence on so many levels, but for the moment let’s consider the video that was inadvertently taken of what turned out to be a slaughter. It went viral. In other words, the accidental video of a man being killed functioned on some level as some sort of lurid entertainment (I can’t see any other purpose in watching such a video – and no, I won’t even reproduce the photo).

On a Facebook thread, as my friends and acquaintances expressed horror of the popularity of the video, I pointed out that this was perhaps not so surprising in a culture where a contemporary idol such as Kim Kardashian rose to fame with a video of herself engaged in sexual intercourse – or was that Paris Hilton? Or both? The femmes du jour become interchangeable at this point. The common point of reference is that sex and death have become casual entertainment for voyeurs, which is all of us. (One can include, I suppose, simulated sex and death in movies and TV shows, since part of the brain does not distinguish between reality and the filmed recreation of it – if you experience horror or arousal at either, you prove my point.)

The idea that the human person has any kind of innate dignity, that we draw a veil over at least sex and death (as well as bowel movements), that any kind of human activity might be private or intimate – increasingly strikes people as arbitrary and an anachronism, especially if sex, death, or a marriage proposal are click-bait. We are losing a language to even discuss such matters in a culture where the greatest fear is boredom and becoming fat. People are feeling increasingly uncomfortable at any kind of depth, any view of their roles as something other than a consumers of videos, electronics, sports, as “seekers” of the most shallow and transient kind of “happiness.” We’re a long, long way from Antigone, who sacrificed her life to honor and bury her slain brother – she disappeared in the rear-view mirror decades ago.


Zen-inspired Dutchman

Here’s where I’m going: a few days ago I said the maiden name of ISIS is nihilism, and a few readers quibbled with me. The ISIS murderers have religious beliefs that impel them, and therefore they have “values” – of course, I responded that the religious beliefs are the merest fig leaves for mayhem. As William James wrote, “for all sorts of cruelty, piety is the mask.” Few people will express absolutely no value for anything – and such masquerades can easily be disproved. Hold a man’s head under water for a minute and he gets real pretty fast. (I love telling that to my non-dualist friends and others who deny the existence of the real.)

A few years ago, back when I imagined I still had room somewhere in my home for another book or two, I was rummaging through the $1 bin at the Stanford Bookstore and I ran across this quote in a small book:

“A much abridged symptomatology of modern Nihilism would include: disregard and detachment of all values except the immediate satisfaction of the narcissistic individual and herd impulses … atrophy of all notions of relatedness and responsibility to other humans, to animals, plants, the earth … degeneracy of the sense of beauty, truth, goodness, hence total mistrust of disinterested service … degradation of all fellow beings to the status of Things … progressive debility of all the higher functions by unrelenting and total bedevilment by electronic noise and imagery, media trivia, spectator sports, laugh shows, quizzes, commercials, propaganda for whiskeys, presidents, celebrities, gadgets, space trips…. Unavoidable consequences: alientation from self and environment – consumer addiction – identity crisis – existential vacuum – depression – mass psychosis – violence – sexual depravity – drug and alcohol addiction – teenage and all other categories of suicide, including our own’s collective incubation.”


Out of Africa

The book out of Woodstock, Vermont – What Matters – was written by a guy I’d never heard of, Frederick Frank (1909-2006), a Dutchman who served as a doctor on Nobel peace laureate Albert Schweitzer‘s staff in Africa, and was also an artist. He went on to publish 30 books about Buddhism, especially focusing on the Zen variety, and also a memoir, Days with Albert Schweitzer. Not normally my thing, but I thought he was dead-on about our times.

Here’s more:

“All consistent egocentricity is insane. Nihilism is the collective and endemic form of this insanity.

Whosoever, by ineffable grace, or sheer good luck, has survived this century of insanity, of Hitler, Stalin, Idi Amin, Papa Doc, Pinochet, of Auschwitz and Hiroshima, of Bhopals and Love Canals, yet still underestimates the contagious virus of Nihilism as Absolute Evil, hardly merits his survival.”


“In our nihilistic chaos every national, every ideological collectivity has dishonored itself utterly. Gulag, gas chamber, torture cellar, apartheid, induced famine, nuclear holocaust, have routinely been justified with an ad hoc gnosis of ideological twaddle and demonic hypocrisy.”


“The difference between ‘democratic’ and ‘totalitarian’ Nihilism is the difference in semantics, in ritual, in rhetoric and in categories of victims.”



Guess who?

So I wonder … René Girard writes that opponents come to resemble each other more and more, all the while insisting on their differences. “They” cover their women in body bags, “we” think “freedom” is putting them in string bikinis and encouraging them to starve themselves to death so they fit into them. Same disease, different symptom. We both have a fascination with weaponry, used in a way that devalues human life and responsibility. I’m not going to belabor the equivalence with a terrorist, genocidal, wannabe state that beheads children and crucifies those it dislikes – it would be obscene to do so. While you may not have full-blown leprosy … what’s that funny spot on your back? How long has it been there? Maybe you want to check it out.

Nihilism? Maybe we ought to look in a mirror.

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8 Responses to “What matters: reflections on a 9-year-old girl with an Uzi”

  1. Bill Peschel Says:

    Oh for fuck’s sake. You’re really equating a curiosity about a youtube video showing death with people who commit the real thing and film it and want you to see it? You’re really equating a culture that celebrates beauty and sex with a culture that condemns both (and homosexuality as well)?

    Perhaps your standards for condemnation should be simplified to this: a culture that kills what it fears does not deserve to live. Now apply it in real life. A Southern Baptist meets a Jew. He’ll pray for his soul to convert him. A devout Muslim meets a Jew. Finish the picture yourself.

  2. Cynthia Haven Says:

    As I say in the piece, Bill, “I’m not going to belabor the equivalence with a terrorist, genocidal, wannabe state that beheads children and crucifies those it dislikes – it would be obscene to do so.” But I do think there is something wrong with a “curiosity” to watch people in a video getting killed, a real-life snuff video. I think there is something wrong with *any* culture that is increasingly denying our dignity as human beings. The scale of difference may be different, but the disease is the same.

    I would also question whether we are a culture that “celebrates beauty and sex.” Sex, in any case, is not supposed to be a spectator sport.

  3. George Says:

    The brush seems a bit broad. I don’t think that either Kim Kardashian or Paris Hilton qualifies as a teen idol, though it has been some years since I spent much time around teenagers. I would like to say that in a healthier state of society, they would be unknown and ignored, but an awful lot of counter-examples come to mind.

    More to the point, does Frank offer a definition of Nihilism, or simply a description, that it is bad? As a physicisan, he knew the distinction between symptomatology and etiology.

    As for BP, I don’t know what the requirements are for Muslim devoutness. I have worked with a number of Muslims, one of whom was concerned to make Friday prayers and certainly kept the Ramadan fast, the other of whom made the Haj. Both worked on perfectly cordial terms with all us Kaffirs. Equating Islam in general with ISIS or Boko Haram is not useful.

  4. Cynthia Haven Says:

    Ohhh, I don’t know. I could have painted it a good deal broader. So many examples come to mind. But for your sake, I’ll change “youth idol” to something else – I didn’t mean “teenage,” in any case, but I can’t imagine a genuine adult being interested in their celebrity. Perhaps a lack of imagination on my part.

    Franck’s book is just a series of observations – hey, what do you expect for a buck? – but a number of them seem to apply to our culture. A lot of it the effects of technology.

  5. Cynthia Haven Says:

    Postscript to above: Curiosity isn’t innocent. In my post on the murder of James Foley a few days ago, I quoted a mutual friend who wrote on her Facebook page: “I will remember James Wright Foley as I last saw him: laughing, engaged life, intelligent. He was executed today by ISIS. Please, for the love of all things decent and human, do not post or ‘share’ any images from his beheading. I’m begging you. Please allow this courageous journalist the dignity and respect he so deserves. Rest in Peace, James.” How do we imagine the family of these people feel about their dear ones being the subject of a “viral” snuff video? Shouldn’t we bring that to bear on our clicking habits?

    Isn’t part of conscience bringing other lenses to bear on our behavior and choices? Some of those lenses involve potential harm to others. In this case, the pain we are bringing to others is unimaginable. Isn’t conscience pretty much part of civilization and civilized behavior?

  6. Stephen Says:

    Your second and third paragraphs are spot on as a diagnosis of the contemporary Western distemper. Edmund Burke called this condition untutored liberty. A free society must be guided by spiritual values, or its freedom is purposeless. Freedom is a grounds–a condition–but it doesn’t on its own direct choices to ends. For that we need the depth whose absence you lament. The freedom to be ever more nihilistic (a freedom compounded by technological power) will lead to no good place. Once again, thank you for a helpful, thought-provoking piece of writing. The Book Haven is a wonderful corner of the Web.

  7. Cynthia Haven Says:

    Thank you, Stephen. Technology has been a great catalyst for this. Certainly the French Revolution allowed opportunities for ghoulish observations of beheadings, but they didn’t have the advantages of youtube close-ups to show a man’s head being sawed off, available for encore viewings by millions.

  8. Johnny Griffin Says:

    You are right this kind of video have become an entertainment and it is becoming a kind of trend. Before TV was pushing this kind of content but it was not becoming an obsession into society while now values are lost and sadism is taking its place. I don’t understand if this is related with this hopeless society where many people are frustrated and search a way to discharge their painful life into something.