I’ve been thinking a lot lately about crimes for which there is no parallel, and thereby no adequate punishment. How do you punish someone for genocide? What is the punishment to fit the crime of the Holocaust?
But in truth, the punishment was really only an afterthought. What I’m stewing over is the cosmic nature of our current crimes themselves. I’ll address only three: the crime of governments that refuse to properly address global warming; the crime of George W. Bush in invading a country, Iraq, which had done nothing to the U.S.; and the crime of U.S. agribusiness in not just poisoning the soil, but also in imposing its several other practices which assault the very basis of life.
Let’s look at agribusiness first. Since roughly the end of World War II, chemical companies have promoted industrial-scale farming with horrific consequences for the food supply, and for the topsoil upon which all life depends. Huge machinery that requires special breeds of vegetables (like tomatoes with hard skins and delayed ripening schedules) that can survive the assault of automatic picking machines is only the beginning. Allied with these monsters are the pesticides that have been piled in increasing tonnages onto crops to combat the ever-evolving bugs and molds and fungi that feed upon them (about 400 gallons of gasoline per year per citizen--17% of our national energy use—goes to agriculture, with more than 1/4 of all farming energy going into synthetic fertilizers [see Barbara Kingsolver, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, p. 5]) The problem is that these poisons are lethal not just to the bugs, but to us as well. And though the chemical companies and our FDA have assured us that these poisons are benign, the truth is that our rivers, our groundwater, our oceans, and our soil are all becoming more and more lethal to life. The worst part may be the latest chapter in this war. Now, seed companies like Monsanto and DuPont have produced genetically modified varieties of crops whose chief advantage inheres in a gene that makes them "Roundup-ready." Corn, soybeans and canola with the new gene implanted can withstand what would otherwise be lethal doses of the pesticide Roundup. Mostly hybrids, these plants do not reproduce from their own seed. And so dependent upon pesticides have farmers become that most cannot survive without buying new GM seed each year from Monsanto (those who try to use seed from Monsanto crops are sued).
Manipulating life in this way, making seed a patented commodity rather than the basic mechanism of life itself (six companies now control 98% of all seeds), is a cosmic crime. Alarmingly, it is matched in the farm-animal world as well. Farm animals no longer reproduce on their own. Artificial insemination does the job. As Barbara Kingsolver points out in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, the ability to reproduce has been bred out of most farm animals, particularly fowl. So, when she tried to get even her heritage-breed turkey hens to lay eggs, and then sit on them to incubate them, the hens were mystified and had no idea what to do. "Normal" turkeys, of course, never even get the chance to breed; for one thing, they’re so top-heavy from big-breast genes that they can hardly stand up. Kingsolver sums it up this way:
The longer I think about a food industry organized around an animal that cannot reproduce itself without technical assistance, the more I mistrust it. (p. 322)
To my mind, this is putting it mildly. The corporate way of breeding farm animals—the cruelty involved in raising chickens, cattle, and other animals, the arrogance involved in seizing animal reproduction and molding it to the lust for profit—amounts to a cosmic crime. In a real way, this arrogance regarding the most fundamental acts of any form of life, eating and reproducing, leads inevitably to all other cosmic crimes.
The next crime is easily stated. The nation of Iraq had nothing whatever to do with the assault on the Twin Towers on 9/11. No Iraqis were among the hijackers. No link between the hijackers and Iraq has ever been found. And yet, the Bush administration consistently tries to link Iraq with this event in order to justify its war of aggression. Attacking a defenseless nation is an international crime, but it’s not quite cosmic. What makes the fiasco in Iraq cosmic in its criminality are the catastrophic impacts upon the Iraqi people. Even before the U.S. invasion in March 2003, Iraq was a nation reeling from a dozen years of brutal sanctions that even Madelyn Albright, the U.S. Secretary of State under Clinton, admitted had resulted in the deaths of upwards of 500,000 Iraqi children. These child deaths directly followed the embargo on hospital equipment and all other materials that would allow Iraq to repair its infrastructure devastated by American bombing in 1992. Water treatment plants could not be repaired. The result, in a country that prior to 1992 had boasted of the highest standard of living and education levels in all the Middle East, was a reversion to Stone-Age conditions. Then in 2003 the U.S. invaded again. The death toll since then has been estimated at upwards of 600,000 Iraqis, with over 2 million Iraqis fleeing their country and another 2 to 3 million displaced within the country. This in a population of only 26 million. To call this anything but a war crime is pure propaganda. Add to it the devastation that will follow forever from the uranium-tipped munitions our forces have spread throughout that sorry country, not to mention the destruction of a wealth of art and artifacts testifying to the very birth of civilization, and you have a cosmic crime. It should be borne in mind, incidentally, that the United States is the only nation ever to drop a nuclear weapon on civilians, its sanctimonious hectoring of nations like Iran and Iraq for even considering the development of such weapons notwithstanding. U.S. hypocrisy is itself cosmic.
Cosmic crime number three: global warming. It has taken me a long time to view Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth. Even after all that has been written and said about it, however, its effect is still shattering. While the whole world and each one of us shares responsibility for the carbon released into the atmosphere, the criminality enters only when a nation not only refuses to do anything about it, but works night and day to confuse the public by ridiculing and undermining the scientific evidence. What more needs to be said? The Bush Administration chiefly, but every single member of the U.S. Congress which collectively colluded in refusing to sign the Kyoto Treaty as well, is guilty of a cosmic crime. This is not simply a crime against an individual committed by a criminal looking to feed a drug habit. This is not "mere" murder, or even the murder of 3,000 innocent civilians in the 9/11 attack. This is the murder of an entire planet, of that planet’s life-support system. The data visually attested to by Gore’s film was shocking, infuriating, conclusive. The planet’s ice is melting. The water upon which billions depend is in jeopardy. The climate upon which life itself depends is changing, has changed in clearly measurable ways. To fiddle while the planet burns is a crime. It is the ultimate cosmic crime.
And yet. We tolerate an administration which concerns itself more with the sex habits of teenagers than with the melting of the planet. We tolerate an administration which the record shows has consistently lied about this issue, has consistenly suppressed and distorted the information upon which the public depends to make a decision. We tolerate world leaders who refuse to address the greatest challenge to life humans have ever faced. The cosmic crime is theirs. But, in the end, it is also ours. For we sit in our comfortable living rooms allowing ourselves to be "entertained" by cosmic crap on our flat-screen TVs, our ever more powerful music-and-video-downloading computers, our Ipod-delivered "personal" music, rather than attend to the crisis threatening our very existence as a species.
How else to describe such crimes other than to say they are cosmic, they are terminal, and as such may be the last ones we will ever be allowed to commit.