By Lee Hall
Reprinted from Satya (February 2007), pages 42-44.
In a song often called one of the past century’s greatest, John Lennon sang,“Imagine there’s no country.”
Is it easy? Should we try?
As it is, we interact with the world as citizens of countries, rarely questioning the nation’s existence. The sacrifice of our children’s blood proves it. Leaders talk of vanquishing evil, and we agree that outsiders officially constitute enemies. “We wish so desperately to split apart evil from good,” explains Holocaust psychologist Richard Koenigsberg, “and that’s when the killing begins.” As an industry of news and foreign policy analysis steps in, treating the slaughter of human beings as a normal and inevitable part of politics, we learn to brush aside our natural reaction—war is insane!
In October 2001, Donald Rumsfeld called terrorism “a cancer on the human condition” to explain the beginning of the massive bombing of Afghanistan, in which villagers were mutilated and killed in droves. Since the invasion of Iraq three years ago, hundreds of thousands have been killed; torture has proliferated and children have been jailed. Fear of the “cancer” allowed a critical mass of North Americans to accept diminished civil liberties, mass detentions, and cutbacks in basic services—such as public transportation, needed to lessen our strain on fossil fuels.
Imagine people from varied areas of social activism investing our collective energies into humanity’s prospects for transcending this cycle.
But how? When activists go forth to debate with positions that are not sane—“Speak truth to power,” goes the slogan—they’re arguing with the artificial power of authority, and they immediately feel oppressed. Perhaps the better way, rather than to oppose this artificial power, is to propose an alternative way of thinking. One by which we might cultivate our own power.
Organized human warfare appears to comprise a mere fraction of one percent of humanity’s three million-year existence. Granted, this recent period fashioned our current social structure, with all its pressure to equate domination with success. Our treatment of other animals provides a harrowing model in this regard, for today they are objects of a dominion so complete we rarely think of ourselves as vanquishers even as we consume them. Laws constructed by and for the people refer to other animals as natural resources, scientific models, pets, food or entertainment. We’ve systematically obstructed our ability to perceive them as beings with their own interests and experiences.
Our schoolbooks are full of generals and cowboys, action figures who overwhelm the terrain, its inhabitants, and history itself. We exalt the pioneering spirit of the ranchers— these days, more accurately called the profiteering spirit of corporations—while clear-cutting and predator control schemes wipe out countless animals. In a culture that takes violence for granted, no wonder we’re so concerned about our rights. Yet we lack even the simple right to move freely across our own habitat.
Some living beings, such as nectar bats and the desert plants they pollinate along their routes, depend on human borderlands to simply exist. Roadbuilding for patrols near the Tijuana Estuary disturbs coastal sage scrub birds. Border construction has disrupted the lives of the few remaining Sonoran pronghorn antelopes. And there’s no relief in sight.
The Secure Fence Act, passed last October, authorizes 700 miles of new fencing along the Mexican border, walling off the entire state of Arizona. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff has vowed to "integrate fencing with the appropriate balance of tactical infrastructure, advanced technology and Border Patrol at every inch of the border." To that end, the department awarded a contract to Boeing for a "virtual" seal of the entire country, north and south. The plan calls for 1,800 watchtowers, able to transmit live video to agents’ handheld computers. Agents will also be able to launch aerial drones from the back of patrol vehicles. Known as the Secure Border Initiative Network, it’s all expected to cost billions. It will, moreover, channel more young people to jobs involving social control, as the border patrol surpasses the FBI’s 12,500 employees to become the largest national law enforcement agency.
How can the aware activist best organize in this situation? Advocacy for genuine fair trade policies would be a critical step, as higher wages in financially poorer countries would mean fewer people desperate to migrate. Moreover, no activist genuinely committed to justice can ignore the deaths along the Mexican border—472 in 2005 alone, not counting those who died on the other side of the line. The low value of these lives comes into focus when we note that U.S. officials didn't even have a systematic record of human border deaths until 1999.
Since its banks were privatized in the early 90s, Mexico has faced a series of economic crises, during which time the U.S. augmented the original wall—surplus steel from the Vietnam War—with two fences, 15 feet tall, partially illuminated with stadium lights and topped with barbed wire. Stepped-up enforcement reduced complaints from San Diego homeowners, while pushing ill-equipped and desperate people into the Sonora Desert.
"They'll be wandering," one aerial surveillance agent recounted, describing the desert crossers. "You'll see them dropping clothes, personal effects, things of that nature. Perhaps the next point you'll see them is disrobing, taking their clothes off."
Headaches and nausea set in. As the blood thins, the pulse speeds up to compensate. Then seizures, or unconsciousness. Lack of blood circulation eventually shuts down the heart. Fluids leak from failed organs, leaving a mark at the scene of death. After a week in the desert heat, the body will appear mummified.
Winter deaths in dunes and canyons begin with intense shivering and fumbling hands. Memory fails, replaced with hallucinations. Then, the muscles grow rigid and the pulse slows down. The pupils dilate, the skin turns bluish. Eventually there’s internal bleeding, heart and respiratory failure, and death.
All of this is reported impassively by the General Accounting Office, which in 1999 observed that sealing off traditional migration routes meant “illegal alien traffic would either be deterred or forced over terrain less suited for crossing,” where officials “would have the tactical advantage” and that “shifts in apprehensions have been associated with a change in the causes and locations of alien deaths along the border.”
But people kept coming, the need to feed their families outweighing their fear of death. So officials threatened to prosecute those who offer to help exhausted migrants. Duncan Hunter, the U.S. Representative from San Diego County who’s now a Republican presidential candidate, associated migrants with criminal tendencies. “Since border fence construction began in 1996, crime rates in San Diego County have been reduced by more than half,” Hunter declared.
Compare the criminalization of nonviolent activities currently affecting animal advocates, and it seems logical that both communities’ resistance to this prosecutorial trend can and should be joined. Note the linkage of fear-mongering, attitudes about migration, social control, and disrespect for the ecology in the “Real ID Act of 2005,” which gives the U.S. government unprecedented authority over states’ driving permits, identification cards and related data, and through which the Secretary of Homeland Security can waive federal, state and local environmental laws to facilitate border construction.
Note further that a 2004 report commissioned for the Pentagon warned that an abrupt climate change would likely trigger widespread war as wealthy countries become “virtual fortresses” against multitudes of environmental refugees. If so, current border spending presages a terror far more profound than most citizens imagine: that of survivors escaping their flooded lands. Already, rising sea levels in the South Pacific have forced nearly 3,000 Tuvalu islanders to leave their homes. (The Australian government refused to take them, but New Zealand has agreed to accept 75 Tuvaluans annually.)
How ironic that vegan activists, whom many of our lawmakers appear to associate with terrorism, offer a way to offset global warming—without the terrifying effects of militarized borders. Vegetarianism—the prudent act of cultivating crops and eating them directly—spares precious water and oxygen-giving trees. In contrast, animal farming contributes heavily to acid rain and is a major source of methane, a gas that packs more than 20 times the warming potential of carbon dioxide. Animal agribusiness generates 65 percent of human-related nitrous oxide, a gas with about 300 times the warming potential of carbon dioxide. And it expands our population’s footprint by clearing forests solely to grow feed for animals bred to be killed.
If, to quote Henry Beston, nonhuman beings are “other nations,” then vegetarianism is our declaration of peace. Given the ecological havoc wreaked by domestication and animal farming, vegetarianism now appears as a key to peace within humanity as well. In a profound way, it challenges the tallest of fences, the ones humanity long ago erected between ourselves and the rest of our biocommunity.
You may say I’m another dreamer. But if we can imagine taking down our fences, we may well be capable of ensuring continued life on Earth.
This article is reprinted from Satya, a monthly publication focusing on vegetarianism, environmentalism, animal advocacy, and social justice.