Submitted by David Whish-Wilson on Wed, 03/11/2010 – 14:55

KILLING: Misadventures in Violence, Jeff Sparrow, MUP, 2009

 There is a great little passage on page 96 of this book. The author is travelling to the US to interview executioners and soldiers and slaughterers of animals. His subject is killing, and the effect is has on those who kill for a living. The binary in the literature is distinct. One school of thought has it that humans kill easily, when given the license to do so, and may even come to enjoy the act of killing. The other side of the equation suggests the opposite – that humans are hardwired to resist killing one another, and only military training is able to overcome what is an instinctive reluctance to kill another person. Jeff Sparrow has already done a fair bit of groundwork by the time he embarks upon the trans-Pacific flight – he has spent a night roo-shooting, and a day watching the stickers at work on the kill floor of a modern abattoir in Melbourne.

He has just taken his seat when his carry-bag is upended onto the floor of the aisle. His neighbour, a woman celebrating Kevin 07’s recent victory, is aghast at the titles that spill before her. Grossman’s On Killing, Theodore Nadelson’s Trained to Kill, Trombley’s The Execution Protocol, and a photocopied article by the neurologist Harold Hillman entitled ‘The possible pain experienced during execution by different methods.’

It is a somewhat comic moment because of his neighbour’s response, who subsequently turns to the window and doesn’t look at him for 14 hours – a result, as described by Sparrow, of what appears to her to be his unhealthy obsession with death.

Sparrow doesn’t aim in KILLING for a tone of neutral observation. He is very much a ‘character’ in his own book, charting his own responses to the increasingly bizarre and always enlightening series of interviews he conducts. He starts with the violence inflicted upon animals in the meat industry, the relentless, round-the-clock industrial scale of the killing, where flocks of sheep and herds of cattle enter one end of the abattoir and are disassembled into cuts of meat by the time they reach the other side. The workers do one job and one job only. One man stuns, another slits, another skins, another eviscerates etc etc, hour after hour, animal after animal, working robotically until they are entirely numbed to the reality of what they are doing. Sparrow doesn’t stint in his descriptions, although he isn’t about making judgements (at least, until he reaches the US, where the speed of the ‘production line’ is such that it leads to cruelty to both man and beast – the pace is so fast that the animals are rarely killed humanely, are often skinned alive, and where the underpaid workers are loathe to complain for fear of losing their jobs.)

The consensus amongst those who slaughter animals for a living is that they are enabled because of the difference between animal and human, although many interviewees describe moments of trauma when they meet a beast’s eye, by accident, and the beast is thereby individuated, ceases to become a product. This eye-contact is also something that troubles the interviewees who work in the area of executions – that moment when the ‘bureaucracy of death’ that has reduced the death-row inmate to the status of someone already dead – fails, and there is a haunting communication between executioner and soon-to-be executed. What Sparrow demonstrates so well, both in his descriptions of the industrial slaughter of animals and the sanctioned state homicide afforded by the death penalty, and ultimately in his interviews with returned soldiers, is the institutional nature of modern killing – how in every case the human agent is reduced to an actor with deliberately limited exposure to the bigger picture – whether because of the specialised tasks that are performed, in isolation, or the training that encourages a ‘don’t think, act’ degree of performance – reducing the nature of killing to moments of banality, by way of mechanical actions (such is the nature of modern warfare, in particular.)

Ultimately, the idea that ordinary humans are biologically conditioned to the extent that we physically cannot bring ourselves to kill others is determined to be false. The famous examples of soldiers in earlier wars who failed to discharge their weapons can be explained away by differences in training techniques and ideological factors, rather than biological hardwiring. Killing is easier for some than for others, as you would expect, particularly when facilitated by the common human ability of being able to compartmentalise.

My own experiences of witnessing violent death don’t disagree with this thesis. What I also identified with was that moment on the plane to LAX when Sparrow’s reading material spilled out across the floor, alarming the woman sitting next to him.

Violent death is not something that many people like to talk about, or have experience of in Australia, unless it’s mediated in text – movies, novels etc. And yet for those who have experienced witnessing violent death it is not something that is easily forgotten (indeed it is something that has haunted me ever since.)

My own experiences date back to when I was a teenage traveller, living in East Africa. Having run out of money I turned my hand to surviving on the black market. I made my money by exploiting niches in the currency market, where there was a great deal of money-changing, passing of stolen travellers cheques and forged US bills going on etc. I was never directly involved in some of the more violent aspects of crime in Nairobi, where I was generally based, but I was certainly witness to a great deal of it. Over the course of a few years I saw a couple of dozen murders, at first hand. Many were people killed for business reasons, like Shirley Finn, and some were executed by police. The most horrible were all the poor kids executed by mobs – beaten to death, hacked with machetes, or set alight.

Just to give an example, as it relates to the central theme of Sparrow’s book – in one particularly unpleasant case I was woken from my slum shack dwelling by the sound of a crowd, and emerged onto the street to find a boy about to be necklaced (garlanded with a rubber tyre), right outside my front door (which was at a crossroads.) The crowd, as was common then, were jeering and laughing and egging on the main protagonists. The boy, as was also usual, was utterly passive. He was doused in petrol and kerosene from my neighbour’s stoves. But the lighting of the match was delayed by the capture, around the corner, of another ‘mwizi’, or thief, another young boy of about thirteen or fourteen. This poor kid was dragged to the front of the crowd and also garlanded with a rubber tyre, also doused in petrol and kerosene. But instead of getting on with it and killing them both simultaneously, the main ringleader of the mob, a local ‘matatu’ or minibus driver – made the second boy watch while the first was set alight, then, when the first boy was nothing more than a charred torso with a blackened stump for a head, the second boy (mute with shock throughout) was thrown onto the ebbing flames and set alight himself (the only time I tried to intervene in one of these mob justice ‘aktions’ I was punched so often and so violently that I feared for my own life until I was able to flee – such is the contagion of righteous anger.)

Towards the end of my time there guns became more prevalent, and as a result I also witnessed many murders by gunfire. I saw men executed at close range with both pistols and AK47’s, or when the killers didn’t want to waste a bullet, clubbed to death with rifle butts.

But what was most disturbing to me wasn’t the nature of the violence, but how normal it was in that context – the fact that the average citizen of the shanty slums that surrounded the Nairobi city centre saw this kind of killing often – children especially (of course the people of the slums of Nairobi are no more violent than anybody else – merely more desperate – and the point I’m making is that mob violence is ‘licensed’ violence – and that where violence is culturally tolerated it tends to be practiced. The fact remains that, as someone who lived in the Muthare Valley slums at the time, I was myself often the recipient of great generosity and kindness. Considering the degree of poverty and overcrowding in these slums, the people of Muthare Valley were generally peaceful and caring of their neighbours.) The mob violence murders however were outbreaks, or ruptures in this general peacefulness – essentially public spectacles of a particularly gruesome kind, designed to visit lethal violence upon the bodies of young men as a means of discouraging crime – the end result of poverty and competition and desperation – the product of a particular variation of modernity. The rationale behind it pointed to the ineptitude of the poorly paid and under-resourced police force – a way of ordinary people claiming back the streets from criminals (albeit criminals who often lacked shoes and were only stealing for food).

But there was always more going on than this. Very rarely was a thief dispatched grimly and quickly – more often the torture was prolonged and savage, almost to the point of being ritualised, much like the executions of the European middle ages (interestingly, in Perth as well as many places in the Western world, public executions were eventually moved ‘indoors’ in the 19C, primarily because it was felt that the public were enjoying them too much.) Again, while there was an element of punishment and making an example of the unfortunate victim – there was always more to it than that. Huge crowds used to gather in the street to watch these random executions, both in the slums and sometimes in downtown Nairobi. In other words, while not everybody participated in the actual murder of the thieves, very few people failed to stop and watch when a thief was being murdered, myself included (transfixed by a state of what Sparrow describes as sensory overload, and low-level horror…)

Looking away from such a thing is harder than you might think, despite the horrific nature of what you are witnessing. Killing might be easier for some than for others, it might be justified by a particular social and economic environment, it might even be commonplace – but it is always taboo, it exerts a fascination (albeit one that is perhaps only acceptable, in our own culture, when mediated in the forms of crime fiction, television murder narratives, the six o’clock news etc.)

Ordinary people of both sexes involved themselves in these murders, both young and old. The police, perhaps sensibly, never tried to intervene. In the minutes of ordeal before the boys were killed, the atmosphere was often characterised by fluctuating waves of angry shouts and awkward laughter. Sometimes people danced, cheered, sang – enraptured. The drawn-out moment of death finally approached, as one or two took the initiative. It might be a paving stone, or a tyre iron, or a tyre necklace, set ablaze. Even at the moment of death, of delivery for the victim, the atmosphere remained ecstatic and crazed.

Then the deed was done, the victim was ‘gone’, and it was now that something very unusual happened – a peculiar silence inevitably settled over the crowd (I have witnessed this look of recognition also come over the face of individual killers, at other times, even men who were comfortable with killing.)

What were they all looking at – and what did they see? This is something that Sparrow describes well, when he talks about watching a kangaroo that has been shot, finally die – “the shock of watching something die came from an instinctive empathy, a recognition that the terrible transition creeping over the animal in the dirt would eventually afflict me and the people I know. Their limbs would twitch and spasm…as their central nervous system went catastrophically awry; they would whimper and then be no more.” Later, this perception is reinforced by the somewhat more frank observation of a Viet Nam veteran, when he says that “…it was very matter-of-fact and undramatic…it reminds you of the simplicity of your own mortality. There’s nothing complicated about it. Things don’t happen; the sky doesn’t fall. It [only] reminds you that in an instant, you’re converted into something that’s basically a sack of shit…”  The murderous crowd, despite having worked themselves up into a state where ‘everything is possible and nothing is forbidden’, are brought crashing back to earth by the sight of death, the banality of the corpse in particular, the material evidence of their deed, but also their own mortality.

Or, in the words of execution ‘technician’, Fred Leuchter, the subject of Errol Morris’s documentary Dr Death, “I think if you see someone die, if affects you. When somebody dies, we all die a little bit, and if you are close to the death, you die more… [You’re] never the same.”

Jeff Sparrow set out in Killing: Misadventures in Violence, ostensibly to understand how a Gallipoli veteran might come to think that souveniring a human head from the battlefield might be acceptable, a journey that took him to some of the darker places in the human heart. By the end of the book, despite exploring that place of taboo and fascination, where, to paraphrase military theorist Carl von Clausewitz ‘the light of reason does not move here in the same medium…it is not refracted here in the same manner’, Sparrow finally pauses to ask himself – “what was the vocabulary to express that? What could it possibly mean? Finally, I thought I understood. It meant everything. It didn’t mean a thing.”

In another context, on another subject, this answer might be regarded as rather glib. But it was precisely in trying to understand the integration of this opposition in the faces of all those I saw who witnessed violent death, myself included – it means everything – it means nothing – that drew me first to the writing desk, and continues to draw me there.