Friday, December 16, 2011

Free Will

‎"For small creatures such as we the vastness is bearable only through love."--Carl Sagan

I've been stuck in this cell for a few days. I've had a lot of time to catch up with people from around the country and especially back home. A great many events have transpired that are of interest to me, though not necessarily to you. One thing that I damn well should have talked about but lost track of was the amnesty for the marauders. The quote above, my favorite quote of all time, seems especially apt considering the events the amnesty brought about.

I'm going off the rails here in just a minute onto a philosophical bender. Fair warning. Before I do that, I'll just give you the dirt: during the amnesty week, more than a thousand prisoners were released alive to various communities around the country, even a few in southern Canada. During that week, more than twice that number of marauders willingly chose to give up their ways and join communities of survivors. Most of them are living under strict guidelines, which they accept. Maybe being guarded and made to do the hardest work seems a fitting penance for the things they've done. This experiment is young, and only time will tell if it's a success.

My two pennies is that a thousand released captives is a success any way you slice it.

The almost insane amount of correspondence I've had over the last few days has given me a huge data set to work with. I'm sort of a polymath, not in the whole "being a genius at everything" sense, but more that I enjoy learning about virtually everything and looking at large problems or situations and trying to work out every side of them.

The central question I asked myself when I learned that so many people had chosen to give up being marauders and to face the possible consequences of their crimes was a simple one: Why?

That's a vague question, I know, but it spawns all kinds of reactions in my brain just as it must in yours. You know the facts well enough in a general sense to ask the same follow-up questions. Why would men and women so hell bent on surviving that they'd kill others to steal from them choose to face possible death from the very people they'd been preying on?

A thousand other questions rise up as well. The amnesty was never meant to be a blanket pardon for all the things those people have done. Instead it was intended to serve as a cessation of hostilities (many communities have "kill on sight" orders when it comes to marauders) for a long enough time to establish a dialog. To move past the black and white stereotypes of Good guys and Bad guys. To make some headway into dealing with the violence between those who make a life for themselves and others and those who only take, take, take.

I don't have a clue how many marauders there are (or were) in the US, so I can't hazard a guess on how effective the amnesty was in the sense of reducing their numbers through conversion. I don't believe we can think about the situation with the remaining marauders still wandering the highways as some kind of war we can win. It's a situation that exists, and one that has a huge range of possible and probable outcomes.

I'm not focused on that right now. No, I'm still thinking over the deceptively simple question, "Why?". I've put a ton of time and thought into it, having nothing else to do, and I've come up with one simple answer and one very complex one. The complex first.

Choice, free will, is a very human concept. The Fall took many options from us, the zombie plague destroying vast swaths of humanity and bringing our technological capability to a level about a century back for the most part. The Fall wiped clean most of the spectrum of choice, limiting our free will for surviving. I think that many of the people who became marauders probably did so incrementally, taking easy supplies at first, maybe not even from others. Maybe they just wandered and found caches much as we have. As those finds grew more sparse, self-preservation took over, and justifying taking from others wasn't so hard.

A downward spiral. As resources grew thinner and thinner, it's easy to see how quickly these people were drawn into one terrible act after another. I'm not forgetting that there were and are some people who simply tore away the veneer of civilization from the beginning, killing and raping from day one. Humankind has always had its barbarous elements. The Fall only reminded us that small groups of them can do damage far larger than their numbers would imply. Group hysteria is a powerful thing.

But those others, the ones who may have started out innocently enough, made choices perhaps based on what they thought was for the best at first. That's what our lives are--a series of choices. We decide what kind of people we will be, and no matter how far down we fall there is always a chance that a right choice can begin to correct us. I think that's the case with the marauders who've turned themselves over to survivor communities. I think that many of those people spent a long time believing they had no path to redemption, no way to make themselves into something better.

Until we gave them an option. Have they done awful things? Yes. Maybe unforgivable acts. But who among any of the survivors of The Fall hasn't? Can we who chose to make stands in our groups, doing terrible things in the name of the community really judge those who made the same choices for selfish reasons? Can we condemn all marauders for doing what we have done, just for different reasons?

I don't speak for anyone but myself, but I can't.

The clear fact is that when presented with this choice, those two thousand marauders exercised their free will to do something better, to be something better, than what they were. I think that merits a lot of thought and consideration.

The second and very simple reason I think they did it? Love. Maybe not love for others, at least not yet. But the amnesty gave them a chance to atone, and to eventually find a way to love themselves again. That sounds very preachy and pop-psychology and sappy, but it's true and powerful. With very few exceptions, people can't accomplish great things living in a pit of self-hatred.

Sagan's quote was referencing the great expanse of the universe. The cold, empty deeps of space and the pale blue dot of Earth floating in it, insignificant to the larger cosmos. Love, even just loving oneself, is what Sagan suggested makes our tiny sphere matter. Love is what gives our lives meaning and context. Love is what keeps us from riding over the brink of destruction as a species.

The Fall, the zombie plague, is our vastness. The empty places where mankind once lived are the equivalent of the huge distances between stars. In the face of the bleak world before us, surrounded by a universe unconcerned with our struggle, love makes we small creatures fight on.

I believe that now more than ever.

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