Woodcut of a cat by Penn Provenance Project
The cat then hugged the mouse and purred, "I love you to death."
Old Turkish saying
1. The Deadly Gaze in the U.S.
Several years ago in one of my OEN articles I wrote that the U.S. behaved toward Iraq like a rapist who, after raping a woman, tells her to clean herself because of her disgusting appearance.
I was expecting a barrage of comments, but, instead, I got silence. In the U.S., however, silence doesn't mean assent; it means a deliberate ignoring. The same happened, and still happens, when I state that Dick Cheney should be put into an asylum for killing 400 birds in one day. People don't like Cheney very much, but somehow they are okay with an act of killing performed by a man with a gun.
In my research to understand that pattern of brain passivity, I several times stated my perceptions directly into the faces of my fellow Americans. Whenever I did that, the reaction was the same. The person would look sideways and say nothing. I tried to catch that frozen gaze on the person's face, and, when I managed to do that, I recognized it as a gaze I hadn't seen for a very long time. It was the gaze of a bully from my childhood. You can sometimes notice such a gaze in dogs. It is the deadly gaze.
2. The Boy With the Deadly Gaze
He was transferred to our school when we were in the 5 th grade, so most of us were about twelve at the time. That was the age when a teenager "grows out of his uniform," as one teacher said. Of course, in Russia at the time, we didn't have cell phones or the Internet; we didn't even have good clothes. Most of us wore uniforms: greenish-gray pants and jackets for boys, white blouses and brown skirts for girls. We were the "young pioneers," and each of us had a triangular red tie, symbolizing equality, fraternity and liberty, as well as the sacrificial blood of the martyrs of the Revolution. The strict collective code of honor included studying hard, helping other people to learn, helping the weak, and respecting society by behaving properly. At the same time, every teenager of our time lived most of his or her life on the beat, and we learned the unwritten "street rules' by experience. As an overweight kid, I had a tough time. No matter what happened between us kids, the worst possible thing you could do was to rat on your peers to adults. We had our rules, though: It was a shame for a boy to hit a girl and for a girl to instigate a fight. It was a shame to hurt someone weaker than yourself, unless that someone had asked for it. And it was a shame to tease old people and to torture animals. Not that we were perfect: We smoked, drank (sometimes with tough health consequences), stole things, fought ferociously and cruelly, cheated on homework and exams, lied repeatedly, and disturbed the peace. But I could say we were honorable. The bully wasn't, however. We saw this from the start.
He was a tall, lanky, blondish boy with a strange, sticky voice. When he talked, it seemed the words came out of him in slow-motion. We noticed his voice first, because it was full of sh*t. He used profanity as a primary way of communication. It was kind of like the way movie characters talk these days. We all used bad words, but coming from him they sounded exceptionally dirty. He had two followers who looked very much like him, though not as repulsive, and this unholy triad roamed the school hallways and nearby streets night and day. Nobody knew where he lived; it seemed as if he could appear and disappear at will. You could go out for groceries and bump into him. He would then perform his ritual of pretending to be your friend, pawing you, especially if you were a girl, then complaining that you didn't appreciate him, so he had to hurt you for your own good. All that would usually end with some really dirty thing, like throwing your groceries on the pavement and stomping on them, throwing stones at your pet, or lighting a match near a girl's skirt so that it created a huge hole in the only uniform she had--etc, etc. While his goons laughed their ears off, he never laughed. Instead, his frozen smirk seemed to become more like a mask and his expressionless gaze would get uglier than ever. Sometimes he would force a kid to do something dirty to others; he called it a coalition. That wouldn't last for long, however, because you could never satisfy his perverse appetites. Eventually, he would discard his temporary allies and hurt them even more. At that time, I didn't know about moronic evil, or such terms as "sadism." If had known about them, I would have recognized the pattern in the bully. But I was a bookish boy, and I recognized him instead in references I encountered to the Hitlerjugend and the SS. The bully was like them. In books about the Nazi culture, the training of young children that deprived them of a social conscience was described in gory detail. One of the main goals was to develop in them a sense of total indifference to, and contempt for, "others"--the inferior beings, whether animals or humans. The children were also pushed to have fun hurting people. In that context, our own bully was a "natural.
People noticed his behavior and tried to change it. Teachers warned him repeatedly, and the pioneer organization threatened to take away his tie (a very tough public punishment). One day, when he had been caught in some bad action, he put on quite a spectacle, promising to change and become a better person. To the kids who were his victims, though, this was a disgusting sight. We all knew he didn't mean it. The smirk was there all the time.
That's when those of us who had been hurt by him decided to take the matter into our own hands. On that rainy evening, we took off our red ties after school as usual, but we didn't go home. Instead, I went to intercept the bully, leaving the others ready to back me up. He was at his usual place and called me to approach, but I told him to f&ck himself, and when he started toward me in his deliberately menacing posture, I ran. Then the bully, accompanied by his two allies, followed me down the street and into the dark stone passage, through the cast-iron gates. Those gates were usually closed, but this time they were open. Right after they passed the gates, I reached the end of the passage, where the exit gates were closed. And at that moment a screeching sound told us that the entry gates were also closed. I stopped and looked at them. Then the shadows along the passage walls came alive and the enemy triad found itself surrounded, with nowhere to run.
As we presumed, the two butt kissers betrayed the bully in a second. We pushed them away, threw a blanket over him and started hitting. At that moment, we forgot that he was always bragging about carrying a knife. But, in this circumstance, he was lucky not to have one; if he had been carrying a knife, the enraged kids would likely have killed him with bricks. We knew this was our day. The deal between us was that we would stop punishing the bully when he began to cry. But he didn't cry. For some time we could only hear ourselves, our own animalistic rage. Suddenly, however, we heard a howl. He howled like a wounded beast in a paroxysm of helplessness and desperation. Then we stopped. We opened the gates on both sides and left in silence. None of us felt any satisfaction. We were just tired and empty. The one girl among us saved our souls that evening. When we all stopped to go our separate ways, she took out our red ties, which we had given her for safekeeping, and neatly put a tie on each of us. Then she smiled at us all and vanished into the darkness. The burden was lifted. We knew we had done the right thing.
The bully didn't come to school in the morning. The two others came, but they knew nothing of him. Eventually, we heard that his parents had transferred him to a special school for kids with psychological problems. We never saw him again and, for some reason, the bullying among ourselves also stopped entirely. None of us wanted to be like him, ever. We had all grown up.
When as a parent you introduce shame to your child, you do that by appealing to the child's sense of empathy and of self-preservation. Those are connected in a thoughtful human. Empathy tells you that you inflicted something on another person that you would not like to be subjected to yourself. And the sense of self-preservation tells you that the same kind of hurtful action could be directed toward you. Those realizations make you feel ashamed of your actions: you see them as not only mean, but also stupid. A person with no concept of shame, who sees the world only as an object for self-indulgence, is the bad seed. Such a person belongs in an asylum. From Reagan to Cheney and Obama, we have such people at the highest levels of power in the U.S. It is bad enough if one person is shameless. But what if this disease were to spread through the entire nation?
3. Our Gaze at the World