Volume 0, Issue 0

The Art of Sacrifice

In Discussion on 2012/07/30 at 9:55 am

Suicide Bomber vest at ComicCon 2007, San Diego, CA, by Cory_DoctorowThe man who is prepared to die may accomplish anything.

I’ve been looking through sources to see who I might be quoting for the sentiment above and I still haven’t sorted it. The original could be in a language I don’t know, thousands of years old. Or maybe it’s a James Bond villain. But it’s not just a truth in narrative logic. It’s actually true. One who dies in the process or aftermath of achieving any goal, no matter how stupid or heinous or heroic or pointless that goal is, is freed from suffering any consequences except the one that he or she has chosen. Any punishment or shame or notoriety passes, usually harmlessly, to family or associates. Both heroes and villains, which are frequently interchangeable depending on individual sympathies, derive their status as such by not being particularly opposed to a fatal outcome.

On that topic, these creatures have something interesting in common: Camponotus saundersiGlobitermes sulphureusAcyrthosiphon pisumSerritermes serriferDentispicotermes genus, Genuotermes genus, Orthognathotermes genus, Grigiotermes genus, Ruptitermes genus, and Neocapritermes taracua. If you look for the termes in the genus names, you’ll see that ten of the list above are termites. One is an ant. One is an aphid. And the thing they all have in common is a capacity for autothysis. These society-insects produce among their membership suicide bombers, individuals that literally explode to trap invaders or predators in sticky goo, or cover them in toxins and/or pheromonal attractants to call soldiers, or to block passages in tunnels.

It’s attention-getting.

The tendency to suicide can be biologically driven and selected for — as long as the results of suicide improves the lot of whoever in the species is actually doing the breeding. Hive creatures are already stratified into a breeding caste and, well, the rest of them: workers and soldiers whose individual lives are meaningless unless too many are lost to get all the work done that needs doing defending the territory and maintaining the habitat and local ecology. And it is not lost on me that societies that revere and encourage such sacrifice — or the risk of it, in their soldiers and police — tend to govern breeding practices as strictly as possible and maneuver to exempt the ruling families/tribes/castes/parties from such duties. Heroes that survive are frequently promoted to the ruling/breeding caste in human cultures, and this serves to preserve whatever genetic or philosophic factors produced such heroism in the event that it is required again later. Once soldiers no longer breed, it will be their parents who are singled out for preferential treatment. (Do yourself a favor. When you see sacrificial heroism or villainy, look at the social structure and see who controls the breeding practices. In nearly every case you’ll find a strict “no sex outside of marriage, marriages/divorces to be approved/endorsed/performed by a rigid governmental/religious structure” situation.) But all of that is a boring sociogenetic view of the picture.

Even if we try hard not to, we romanticize the situation of sacrifice into one outside the normal bounds of transactional ethics or morality. People who take actions that are likely to get them killed, even recreationally, move into a new category of respect and privilege even if we feel that they’re foolhardy or stupid. We make allowances for them in social situations. Even in court, sometimes, we judge them by special rules.

Being prepared to die breaks all the rules. More specifically, someone else being prepared to die breaks all of our rules for coping with them.

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