One of the amenities of living in this high-tech world that our household most enjoys sampling is Netflix. We watch films ordered from this outfit that slipped past commercial theaters and that I didn’t get over to the Guild in time to see.
My wife arranges the ordering of our “queue,” with only an occasional suggestion on my part. So lately we've been wandering farther and farther afield (I occasionally feel we may be venturing close to the fence in “left field”), and thus it was that a couple of weeks ago I opened the little red envelope to find a movie called End of the Spear and popped it into the DVD player.
This was not a documentary but a retelling of an episode I remember reading about in the mid-'50s. Life magazine did a big photo spread on a tragedy that had occurred in a remote part of the Ecuadorian jungle on a tributary of the Amazon.
Five American Protestant missionaries, after repeated attempts at reaching a tiny band of a particularly warlike indigenous tribe, succeeded in landing their plane on a sandbar near a spot where they had seen a lookout. When a few of the natives came out to see the amazing giant bird that had landed, they edged closer to inspect the white men who had ridden that bird.
The missionaries were armed but were determined not to use their weapons against the tribe. The whole point of their work was to try to break a cycle of violence that had brought this band to the point of extinction. The ferocity of the tribe had led it to kill every “enemy” they encountered; in turn their “enemies” killed every member of the tribe they met (or kidnapped the women and very young children).
And within the tribe, offenses (betrayals, theft, lies) were all punished with the same verdict: death at the point of the spear … or many spears. There were no grandfathers in this tribe and very few children. The killing had become such a way of existence that they trusted no one and were down to a few dozen members who would soon vanish, done in by their inability to find any response to their fears and ambitions other than force.
When something a missionary did or said became interpreted as a threat, the warriors immediately attacked. In minutes all five missionaries were killed. One tried to fire warning shots into the air from his gun, hoping to get the attackers to back off, but it didn’t work. And even as he was being killed he didn’t shoot at them.
The film tells the story of what happened after that massacre. I won’t detail it for you but I found it to be a compelling metaphor for the condition into which we as a culture have slipped. The tribe survived when it put an end to its spear dependence.
We, just as much as any band of Amazon warriors, have created a mentality, an attitude, a worldview, that is our biggest enemy--an enemy far more dangerous and insidious than Osama, Putin, the Cali cartel or rogue nations anywhere on the globe.
We have determined that our protection from our enemies, foreign and domestic, will exclusively be the spear. We have no policy but war. War on Terror, War on Drugs, War on Gangs, Star Wars defense system, War on Poverty, the Cold War, the War on Islamic Fundamentalism, the War on Crime. And on and on and on, a dreary procession of wars without end. Our one-note anthem. Our one-tool answer for every problem. Wage war.
The New Mexico Legislature considered (very briefly) a proposal to create somewhere within state government an Office or Department of Peace. One of those who voted against it offered, helpfully, that perhaps it would be supported in the future if the name were changed. “Peace brings up too many bad images,” this person opined.
This is the incredible tipping point upon which we are tottering as a society. We no longer trust any solution that doesn’t involve annihilating the enemy. And we have an entire industry devoted to identifying, finding and annihilating our enemies. We are no longer content to wait to be attacked first; we now have to engage in “pre-emptive” defense.
This is why more minority young men in this country are in prison today than in college--yet our worry over gangs is producing more prisons than college classrooms. Our fear of attack is also why we futilely spin our wheels building walls (in Nogales, Baghdad and Palestine).
It's the reason we flush away hundreds of billions of dollars on nuclear armaments and missile systems intended to carry the war into space as a defense against “rogue states," those countries who, if they attack at all, will be more likely to strap explosives to suicide bombers driving rented cars stuffed with fertilizer than to invest in sophisticated rocketry and nuclear engineering.
The Amazon tribe is growing in numbers today. It has developed a third generation; grandparents surviving to tell the younger members of the tribe about the secret to survival: Put an end to the spear. Find another way to settle problems besides killing. Put your trust in something other than making more spears with sharper points.
Learn to speak the language of your “enemy” and discover what motivates him by listening to him.