Taken from the Introduction of Unsuspecting Souls

Edgar Allan Poe and Arthur Conan Doyle created two of history’s most memorable detectives: C. Auguste Dupin and Sherlock Holmes. Detectives so captured the imagination in the nineteenth century that writers borrowed the word sleuth, which originally referred to the dog that did all the nose work, the bloodhound, for that new superhuman, the detective. Those two nineteenth-century sleuths, Dupin and Holmes, came up with solutions for the most intricately plotted crimes—mostly acts of grisly murder. But the greatest crime of the century took place, over a period of time, right under their highly calibrated noses: the slow and deliberate disappearance of the human being.

The clues were shockingly evident. At the very outset of the century, the scaffolding of religious belief that held human beings in their elevated position collapsed. People no longer knew who they were, or what they were. Over the course of the century, the idea of the human being changed radically, and took with it traditional human sensibilities. Science and philosophy tried to resuscitate the human being; but to no avail. And then, the rising corporations—oil and railroads—took charge of everyday life. Armies of professionals followed, defining our lives for us and telling us what would make us happy and healthy and handsome.

This book examines the radical transformation of the matrices of living. The resurrection of Christ redirected people’s attention in the most fundamental ways, collapsing the two extremes of birth and death through the power of theology and imagery—ashes to ashes, dust to dust. No longer could ordinary people imagine those two events in the same way. For eight hundred years, the Church continued to define the human experience. Then, just after the middle of the nineteenth century, with the publication of Darwin’s Origin, the Church lost its grip. And the human being underwent a new and radical redefinition, evident once again at the fundamental levels of birth and death. The coming of Christ gave way to the coming of science. We learned over the years to cower in fear, and come alive in anger.

In the end, the human being that history had known for so many centuries simply disappeared. Such a profound loss makes any horror, not just possible, but plausible. It alone does not produce Holocausts, but it makes thinkable and thereby doable wholesale human slaughter and extermination.

Niall Ferguson opens his new book, The War Of The World, by pointing out that the “hundred years after 1900 were without question the bloodiest century in modern history.” But the victims, starting with six million Jews and Gypsies in Germany and Eastern Europe, who the Nazis reduced to mere numbers in the wholesale and systematic operation of death called “The Final Solution,” died, for the most part, out of sight. What remains are various Holocaust museums, an assortment of documentary photographs, relics, and a raft of films. Periodically, the names and stories of actual victims or survivors will surface in the news. For a brief moment or two, the general public will applaud their fortitude and even their heroism. Elie Wiesel will periodically step forward to receive another award, while a few nuts hang in the back screaming that the Holocaust was a hoax. But what persists, above all else, is a number: six million. As a stand-in for monumental horror, the world focuses on that staggering number, six million. It has become a catchword—shorthand for the attempted extermination of an entire people.

In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, human beings do not die. The Nazis did not see humans when they looked at Jews, but rather vermin and cockroaches. They saw a multitude of pests in desperate need of wholesale extermination. Following that same tradition, in the more recent past, we read of entire villages of Vietnamese “pacified”; Tutsis and Serbs “ethnically cleansed”; men, women and the youngest of children in Darfur and Chad “lost to religious strife.” On September 11, 2001, Muslim extremists flew their airplanes into the Twin Towers and the Pentagon, their intense hatred of those symbols of American might forcing them to convert the human beings inside the buildings into mere incidental objects—into poor and benighted “capitalist dupes.” In Iraq, we read about entire neighborhoods of insurgents “eliminated with all deliberate speed,” and of suspected Al Qaeda members whisked off in the middle of the night in black helicopters to destinations unknown, in a program with a name intended to hide its brutality and terrifying finality, “extreme rendition.”

In that shadow world—and the word shadow runs through this entire book—death leaves its mark through body counts, body bags, collateral damage, friendly fire, fragging, benchmark numbers—and, most recently, through the rising scores on video games with names like Operation Desert Storm and Enduring Freedom. How did we arrive at a state of affairs so catastrophic that fathers, sons, husbands, wives, daughters, lovers and friends—the rag and bone of human existence—could have collapsed so conclusively into images, pixels, ciphers, ghosts, gross numbers, into the palatable euphemisms of death? Why does virtually every loss of human life now resemble that frightening model of anonymity from the inner city, the drive-by random assassination, where, once again, victims do not die but get “dusted,” or “wasted,” “popped” or “blown away,” and nobody is responsible? Under every hoodie, we have begun to believe, lurks a hoodlum: a case of our own fear turning us into racial profilers at the level of the street.

We walk our neighborhoods unarmed, most of us, but still feeling trigger-happy. We drive the streets feeling somewhat safe, most of us, but still shaking in our shoes. Ghosts haunt us in the airport and at the supermarket; they stalk us on the sidewalks and in the shadows. Just past the edge of our well-tended lawns, a clash of civilizations, a war of terror, rages endlessly. We live in fear, and come alive in anger. How did we lose our substance and our identities so immaculately? Where have all the human beings gone? In short, when did we stop caring?

A good many historians say that most of the world, and especially Americans, move through history suffering from a case of “historical amnesia.” People too easily forget the last disaster and lose track of the last atrocity. But we do not forget because of some bout of amnesia—because of some blow on the head, or because of too much alcohol. Something deeper and more radical eats away at us. In a sense, we have been programmed to experience “amnesia.” Despite the insistence from Freud, everything around us encourages a turning aside from tragedy to just having a good time.

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BARRY SANDERS has received two Pulitzer Prize nominations for his works A Is for Ox and Alienable Rights, which he coauthored with Francis Adams. Recipient of a Fulbright Senior Scholar Grant, Sanders retired in 2005 from his post as professor of History of Ideas and English at Pitzer College in Claremont, California.

One response to “Unsuspecting Souls: An Excerpt”

  1. Erika Rae says:

    Without having read all of your book yet, I may embarrass myself here – but I was wondering: do you think this “amnesia” society has developed correlates to awareness of the world around us through media?

    My logic goes something like this (Disjointed, rambling logic alert!):

    100 years ago, people knew less about the goings on in the world.
    Over the last 100 years, people’s knowledge of the world around them has increased, thanks to media.
    With this increase in knowledge, comes increase in the awareness of the other.

    People cling to their own culture.
    The purpose of culture is to provide a framework in which people can know that they are acceptable, or “OK”.
    Most (all?) known cultures have both creation stories and stories about what happens to a person after death.
    Culture gives a person comfort and tells them who they are by telling them where they came from and where they are going.

    Humankind is aware of its impending doom through death.
    It is impossible to know for certain what happens after death.
    Although each thinking person is aware that he or she must someday die, people still viscerally feel that death in unacceptable.

    Because people’s culture (more specifically, religion, in this case) explains what happens after death, people are made to feel more comfortable about their unavoidable death.
    People from another culture (or religion) have different stories about what happens after death.
    People from other cultures seem to be coping with life just fine.
    This knowledge that people with different stories about what happens after death are functioning just fine is a threat to the comfort levels one’s own culture brings.
    These “others” must be converted – or made to submit – in a way that reinforces the superiority of one’s own culture.
    This, ultimately, reinforces one’s belief that their after-death experience is secure.

    Going back to the amnesia…
    Knowledge of the “other” has increased over the last century.
    The “other” is a threat to one’s culture.
    The other is a threat to one’s comfort with one’s own impending demise.
    Knowledge of other cultures who are attacked sadden people, but they are part of the “other”. An attack on “them” does not directly threaten a person’s own belief system, as it is not on their own culture. The knowledge of such an attack may, in fact, reinforce belief and reliance on one’s own culture, and consequently, one’s own belief in what happens to them in death.

    Add to this expanding knowledge of expanding attacks through increase in world awareness.

    The mind looks inward for comfort.

    It overloads.

    It forgets.

    (And now is the part where I cringe as I hit SEND.)

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