Sunday, July 08, 2007

Killing In the Name Of

Mohsin Hamid's Moth Smoke is one of those books I've had sitting on a shelf for ages before I finally decided to delve into it. And it's excellent. Anyone who has little idea about what's going in modern-day Pakistan (i.e. most of us) should really pick it up to see just how dramatically life there differs from how you'd probably expect. For one thing pot and ecstasy use figures heavily in the plot. And the default position for feelings towards religious fundamentalism among the novel's inhabitants is disdain. From the reviews I'd read, I expected Moth Smoke to be an engaging read; I didn't expect it to be a cross between Rashomon and Chuck Palahniuk. I've already bought Hamid's latest, The Reluctant Fundamentalist.

Though it's only a single thread in this remarkable novel, I found the following passage about murder particularly provocative:
You can always justify killing animals on the grounds that you want to eat them, or wear them, or that they smell bad, look funny, bother you, threaten you, and have the bad luck of being in your way. What about killing humans? Well, aside from a few die-hard individualists on the fringe, the general consensus among people these days seems to be that eating and wearing other people is just not on. Wearing a suit which costs as much as a farmer will make in his lifetime is acceptable, but actually putting his eyeballs on a string a letting them dangle above tastefully exposed cleavage is bad form.

That said, killing someone because of the other reasons we mentioned above (smell, looks, bother, threat, or bad luck) is quite acceptable. You want deoderants, you know that one in 6.87 million will die from a violent allergic reaction, you shrug and churn the stuff out, and some poor fellow suffers a pain in the armpit beyond imagining and dies, and that's that: acceptable. You drive cars, knowing eventually you will probably kill someone or be killed, but "Hurry up, I don't want to be late for my threading," and you're off. No regrets. Or someone who has never been to your farm and seen the cute dimples your youngest daughter is already showing when she smiles decides a line on a piece of paper should be a little to the left, and in the name of God and all that is right, to war boys: kill, kill, kill! Yours not to reason why, but damn it hurts when a land mine blows off your leg.
What an excellent, angry passage.

The ideas of acceptable risk and "collateral damage" are nothing new, of course, but at what point do we become uncomfortable with the results? If a cell phone explodes and someone's burnt to death, you can bet that will make the news and that one person's death may actually result in changes to the product's construction. But how many dead bodies do we have to see (given the opportunity to actually be exposed to them, of course) before we accept significant increases in the price of, oh, petroleum, shall we say? I'd venture, it's far, far more than one.


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