Human Sacrifice in Modern America
I was intrigued by a recent article by Sarah Kaplan in The Washington Post: “The ‘darker link’ between ancient human sacrifice and our modern world.” It concerns a new study in Nature on how ritual human sacrifice promoted and sustained stratified societies, making them less egalitarian. The study examined 93 different cultures. In ancient times these acts were deemed necessary for the good of the society. Human sacrifices were made to ensure rain or good crop yields. King Agamemnon sacrificed his own daughter for a favorable wind to sail to Troy. Egyptian pharaohs and kings of other cultures were often buried with a retinue of slaves to serve their needs in the afterlife.
The connection with religion was intentional and important, as Prof. Russell Gray, co-author of the study, said. “Human sacrifice provided a particularly effective means of social control because it provided a supernatural justification for punishment.” He adds that rulers such as kings or priests were believed to be descended from a god or gods. Lead researcher Joseph Watts mentions the often elaborate ceremonial aspects: “The tenor and spectacle was maximized. It shows how religion can be exploited by social elites to their own benefit.” The examples of the Aztecs or Romans come to mind. He wrote that the division of people into groups of unequal wealth and status was vital to the development of modern civilization. The more stratified the society, the more likely ritual killings are a part of its history. And here’s what I think is the kernel of the study (italics mine): “Victims to be sacrificed were always of low social status.” Kaplan adds that the study’s findings support the “social control hypothesis.” The study’s conclusion gave me a chill: “Human sacrifice co-evolved with social stratification and that it helped build and maintain the social structure. Also, once a society begins killing its own citizens, it rarely reverts to a more egalitarian one.”
I came away from the article, my mind reeling with questions. Does capital punishment qualify? Could we call the deaths of Oscar Grant, Sandra Bland, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray, Eric Garner, and so many other unarmed black people at the hands of racist police, a sacrifice to the white power structure? We built this nation with free labor by sacrificing a few million slaves, didn’t we? The word wouldn’t apply to the millions of the original indigenous population; that was genocide. But does apply to their survivors on the reservations, where the average life span is 47, about the same it is with the homeless.
The more I thought about it, the more it seemed to me that we still practice human sacrifice today in good ship Lollipop America. It’s just a slower death, invisible to the general public, and without the ceremony and spectacle. We get enough of spectacle with politics, the NFL, UFC, and reality shows. I’m not the first to come to this notion. In his book, Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt, Chris Hedges talks about “sacrifice zones,” whole areas sacrificed on the altar of predatory capitalism. Among his examples are Camden, NJ, Detroit, and the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota. I think we can safely add Flint, MI to the list, the population being mostly poor and black. You know, low social status.
Downwinders live in sacrifice zones. In Eastern Washington State, the Hanford Nuclear Reservation processed plutonium for the atomic bombs we dropped on Japan. One could say we sacrificed the inhabitants of Hiroshima and Nagasaki to shorten the war. People who live downwind from Hanford have for generations had higher leukemia and cancer rates than the general population. The same goes for the Navajos, due to uranium mining. That’s also true of “Cancer Alley” in Eastern Texas and Louisiana, that are downwind from the oil refineries in Southern Texas. Again, the inhabitants are mostly poor and black.
West Virginia and bordering states have been sacrificed to the coal industry, and its practice of mountaintop removal. Before they came up with this cost-effective means of extracting coal, generations of miners died of black lung disease. Being of low social status, they could be sacrificed without much outcry. Maybe give their families a little money.
How many thousands of our troops have been sacrificed to our illegal and illegitimate wars like Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq? I’m not talking only of the deaths, but the hundreds of thousands with PTSD and traumatic brain injury. Much of it is untreated, and so homelessness among veterans is at a much higher rate than in the general population.
The United States is about 5% of the world’s population, yet we have 25% of the world’s prison inmates. Mostly poor and minorities, they have been sacrificed to the prison industrial complex. Private prisons are one of the fastest growing businesses, and they have lobbyists constantly pushing for stricter and longer prison sentences. In fact, many of their contracts with individual states stipulate a guaranteed 80% occupancy rate over the duration of the contract.
The current opioid and heroin epidemics are the result of immoral behavior on behalf of the pharmaceutical industry and far too many physicians (“First, do no harm”). The legions of people addicted to these substances are being sacrificed to Big Pharma.
Before the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare, Harvard Medical School estimated that 45,000 people die every year due to lack of health care. That figure is still over 20,000, all sacrificed to the for profit, pay or die health care industry.
Do we see commonality here? It’s what happens with so-called free market (meaning unregulated) capitalism. It cares not for human life or any other, let alone the planet. The only things of importance are the balance sheet, the latest quarterly statement, and maximizing shareholders’ profits. We now know that Exxon-Mobil knew back in the 1970s that their practices were causing the planet to warm up. How did they know? Because their own scientists told them, and their climate predictions were eerily close to those of today. What did they and the other fossil fuel companies, do? They began a campaign of climate denial, hiring “scientists” (I like Mike Papantonio’s word, biostitutes) to lie for them. And by the way, many of these same biostitutes once testified for the tobacco companies that there wasn’t enough evidence that smoking was harmful.
Recalling the study at the beginning of this piece, human sacrifice was used as a tool of social control, having religious aspects, and involving ritual, ceremony, and spectacle. That’s unacceptable in a supposedly evolved society. So the sacrificial victims are invisible, and the death a more gradual one. Nothing personal, it’s just business. And the religious aspect isn’t entirely absent, if you think of religion as a belief system, buttressed by faith rather than verifiable truth. So is unfettered, top down authoritarian capitalism. The practitioners are in many cases true believers, despite any evidence that this type of economic system (called neoliberalism in Europe) has ever benefitted any but the very elite. Until we have what Pope Francis calls a moral economy, I’d say about 99% of us are potential sacrifice victims, especially those of us who are of low social status. Fortunately, these systems always collapse from the weight of their own corruption and greed. Did I say fortunately? Because when the system collapses, we all go over the cliff together.