…that so many people consider killing as acceptable behavior?

“Why Is It…?” was designed by Dr. Steiner to address readers’ questions about human behavior from a social psychological perspective in order to inform and stimulate dialogue about the ways in which our thoughts, feelings and behaviors are influenced by the presence of other people. Dr. Steiner holds a Ph.D. in Applied Social Psychology. In addition to working as a university educator over the last 17 years, she conducts individual and group consultations in matters of social relationships and behavior. Readers are invited to submit their questions anonymously in one paragraph or less to Dr. Steiner at [email protected].

Q: Why is it that so many people consider killing as acceptable behavior?

A: I once saw a three-year-old boy stand over a tree frog and eagerly say to his young playmate, “Let’s stomp and kill it!” And as I sit and write this column (while listening to the war-based video game blaring from a television in the next room) – I ponder the years that I’ve devoted to understanding and eliminating our social tendency for violence, destruction and the taking of life. This topic actually represents an interesting segue from last week’s column on our tendency to place differential value on the lives of human vs. non-human animals – as I’ve since read a column stating that we’re now considering removing wolves from the “protected species” list because of instances where hunting dogs have fallen prey to wolf attacks, while their owners were hunting bear.

Upon reflection, this irony in reasoning perfectly exemplifies the profound and disturbing contradiction underlying our moral values and social behavior toward the sanctity of life. The decision to lift the protective sanctions for the wolf population grants us permission to “kill” wolves – in order to save the lives of our hunting dogs – that are being “protected” in order to assist hunters in the “killing” of another animal. In this surreal scenario of self-confirmatory rationalizations – we are appointing ourselves as “Gods” – deciding the fate of which life forms are deserving of life or death.

In last week’s column, I cited Biblical references to highlight the inherent contradictions in our approach and relationship to animals. However, religious beliefs and practices have consistently played a role in our moral responses to killing other humans for millennia. Isn’t it ironic, that while religion is designed to instill a basis of morality and spiritual ethics within individuals – it has formed the basis for the greatest degree of bloodshed, warfare and killing in human history?

“Thou shalt not kill” (Exodus 20) – one of the primary religious “commandments”– is a clear, unambiguous spiritual directive that addresses and pertains to a majority of our society’s members. Yet, these same individuals (who consider themselves devout followers) also support the NRA, capital punishment, the hunting of animals, and vehemently defend the engagement of U.S. military operations – all of which involve the sanctioned act of “killing.”

When faced with this paradox, many are quick to resort to the “self-defense” posture. However, “offense” and “defense” are simply two sides of the same coin – with the “heads or tails” being determined by one’s own, subjective perspective. The wolf is “defending” his/her right to survival when engaging in predatory behavior. But from the perspective of the human hunter’s desire for power and control – the wolf attack is deemed as “offensive” – and hence, justifies the hunter’s right to kill.

In applying this concept to a geo-political example, Americans may view the attacks of 9/11 as “terrorism” while those on the “flip-side of the coin” may very well have viewed the attack as “defensive,” in retaliation to the perceived threat that American/Western postures have imposed across much of the global population. Whether fueled by religious, political, or economic motives – humans can always generate an argument that justifies a willingness and necessity to kill – despite moral/legal laws to the contrary.

There is little difference between “hunting” (open-season on certain animals) and “war” (open-season on certain humans). And the only difference between “murder” and “heroism” is that the hero “kills” in promotion of, and in accordance with our personal, social, political, religious or economic interests. Yet, both acts result in the deliberate taking and loss of life.

Perhaps this is why the Biblical commandment reads simply, “Thou shalt not kill” – making no distinctions as to when, why, how, where, and for whom the directive applies. The commandment does not say, “Thou shalt not kill – unless the victim’s skin color, religion, politics, or number of legs are different from our own!”

Our spiritual bankruptcy and lust for power continues to fuel the perpetual and senseless taking of life, and because of our mindless conformity to the precedence of prejudice, hatred and entitlement of those seeking to gain and maintain power, lives destroyed in the wake of our madness remain dishonored and disgraced. We must raise our consciousness to the realization of the “oneness” of life – as a divine and fragile thread, connecting us all to the source of existence.

“When the power of love overcomes the love of power – the world will know peace.” ~ Jimi Hendrix