Believe not on the faith of old manuscripts, your master’s teachings, or national belief. Believe not on the faith of traditions, popularity, or your own dreamings, persuaded that God inspires you.
No, reason truth yourself. Examine it, test it, and if you find it does good to one and all, live it, and believe.
– my paraphrase of the Buddha, responding to people asking him how to know which prophets were telling the truth
I was reading a chilling article in the NY Times Magazine recently, “How Baida Wanted to Die.” It was a series of interviews with Baida, a foiled Iraqi female suicide bomber. The Iraqi woman was in prison, and the American woman interviewer was told by a police director that she would like Baida. “She’s honest.”
Of course, this was a very odd thing to say, but the interviewer came to agree with him. I think they both missed the point. This woman freely and calmly admitted what she had tried to do and said she couldn’t wait to get out and get the explosive vest waiting for her. She said it was in revenge for a military raid (including Americans) killing her father and four brothers, all of whom she was helping make IEDs (bombs). She was making the bombs in revenge for seeing the Americans shoot a neighbor. She felt these IEDs were all being used against the military, and when the interviewer told her the vast majority killed ordinary Iraqis, she would only say that was forbidden.
This woman may have been honest with the police, and she may have been honest with the interviewer, but she was not honest with herself, and I did not like her. I feel compassion, yes, for her being immersed in a patriarchal and religious extremist culture of violence, where revenge seems like a reasonable use of one’s life.
But what I found most interesting was a fascinating part of the NY Times article where Baida begs the interviewer to come visit her in prison. The journalist is warned that Baida, who has a cell phone, may be setting her up for a kidnapping by relatives. The interviewer is careful and does not tell when she’s coming and does not stay long. She asks Baida if she wants to kill her, and the woman says, “Frankly, yes. Not specifically you, because I know you.” The interviewer pressed her, would she betray her to her family? “I won’t sacrifice my friendship. But if they insisted, yes, I would, yes. As a foreigner it is halal (good) to kill you. If they kill Americans, they will do a big huge banquet for dinner.” And she smiled. She went on to tell how her relatives had called to get information about the journalist, and promised to help Baida escape if she gave it to them. She seemed excited. “They do not want to kill you, but to torture you and make lunch of your flesh. I could not do anything to help you.” She described seeing an American tortured, his eyes gouged out, and added “God keep you safe.” She smiled again and continued pleasantly, “If I had not seen you before and talked to you, I would kill you with my own hands. Do not be deceived by my peaceful face. I have a heart of stone.” The journalist left hurriedly, knowing Baida had called her cousins when she arrived, and they were on their way for her.
Baida’s speech sounds psychotic, but it’s just torn. She has a wall up in her mind between two things that she believes: “All Americans are evil and I want them to die.” “Some Americans are friendly and helpful and I don’t want them to die.” This wall is crucial to her daily functioning because obviously these two things are mutually exclusive. In this fascinating speech, you can see her dancing back and forth from sentence to sentence, peeking first on one side and then the other side of this wall. Baida has three choices. Her first choice is to continue to wobble back and forth in this dissonant way, believing two incompatible things. The alternative is to knock down the wall. It will be painful to knock it down and see both sides at once, because she will see that her model doesn’t work, that she must give up one of these ideas. So her second choice is to believe all Americans really are evil and must die; she will then have to convince herself that each American that she meets is evil, from the soldiers handing out candy bars, to the aid workers, and even friendly interviewers. She will have to mock anyone who supports a more compassionate path. Her third choice is to knock the wall the other way, to see Americans as they really are, the good and the bad, and to decide what is the best way to respond.
Think Baida is unusually deluded? As a vegan, I see this dance all the time right here in America. I used to do it myself. On one side of the wall is loving animals, wishing them to be happy and free of suffering. On the other side is eating them. Those two things are incompatible. For a long time, I did something like what Baida was doing in the prison. I gave animals a hug, and then I sat down to eat them. Oh, little piggy, you’re so cute and so yummy. Ugh.
So if we recognize that this wall is keeping two incompatible beliefs in our mind, and we set out to be more consistent, what shall we do? First we knock down the wall, and confront the painful contradiction that we love animals but we eat them. It hurts too much to see this clearly, and something must change. Some people knock the rubble down on the compassionate side, burying it, hardening their hearts, at least to food animals. They are the ones who call pigs lazy and dirty and turkeys stupid. They mock animal-supporters as sentimental “Bambi lovers.” They may even work with animals, but they are blinded by the stereotype. Or they feel they have no choice; there’s a part in Gail Eisnitz’ Slaughterhouse where she quotes a slaughterhouse worker. I couldn’t find the text just now, but I think his job was to deal with the pigs who fall off the killing line, alive. He went down into the pit they fall into, and one of the pigs nuzzled his leg and looked up at him. He said he looked down and thought something like, “This was probably a really nice animal, but in another 30 seconds it would be my job to bash its head in with a pipe. So I did it.” Do you suppose that job takes a toll on a person?
The stories trump the obvious truth. People somehow convince themselves that cows are for eating but cats are not. People may even tell themselves that we need meat, even though they know lots of people are healthy without it. People picture animals having a good life on Old McDonald’s Farm, even though they suspect that their meat comes from factory farms. There is a fine line between ignorance and indifference, and sometimes we nail that line down so it doesn’t get away from us. We don’t want to know. The truth isn’t the only victim of this choice. When we bury our compassion or shackle it to certain species, a heavy price is paid – a part of us, I would say the best part, is dead.
There’s a third choice. When we confront this inconsistency – love animals or eat them, one or the other, can’t do both – and decide to love them, we can open our eyes to the truth. I think you will find that vegans and vegetarians can more easily discuss animal body parts and watch difficult movies about animal suffering. Everyone knows, deep in their hearts, that the “food” on the table is a bowl of arms and the animals in the videos are suffering, but the vegetarians have already faced this truth. We don’t have the pain of dissonance, of inconsistency, of complicity. For us it is just raw compassion, mixed with an affirmation of our decision.
Two years ago I knocked down the last of this particular wall, and I embraced love and compassion instead of cheese. As the Buddha suggested, I find that this truth does good to one and all. I will live it, and believe.