Thursday, June 2, 2016


So a scorpion is standing on the bank of a wide river wondering how he’s going to get across when he suddenly notices a frog dozing on a nearby lily pad. Seeing an easy solution to his dilemma, he approaches the frog and asks if the frog would agree to swim across the river with him, the scorpion, on his back. The frog thinks for a minute, then declines. “How do I know you won’t sting me?” he asks reasonably. The scorpion, having expected the question, has a good answer at the ready. “Obviously I won’t harm you. Why would I? If I were to sting you,” he notes entirely plausibly, “you would die and we’d both drown.” The frog considers the response, then helpfully agrees to take his fellow creature across to the other side. And so they set off for the other bank and are just about exactly halfway across when the scorpion suddenly does sting the frog. As the venom seeps into the frog’s bloodstream and the paralysis sets in that will now kill them both, the frog summons up whatever strength he has left to ask the scorpion why he could possibly have chosen to do such a thing…and particularly because the scorpion’s betrayal of his own promise will now inevitably lead not only to the frog’s death but to the scorpion’s own demise as well. “What can I do?” the scorpion replies just before they both slip beneath the water. “It’s my nature….”

It’s a famous story. I remember it being told to great effect in The Crying Game, Neil Jordan’s terrific 1992 movie starring Stephen Rea, Forest Whitaker, and Jaye Davidson. But it’s way older than that. In the Talmud, for example, we read that Samuel, one of the greatest talmudic sages, once took note of a frog swimming across a river with a scorpion on its back. When they reached the other side, the scorpion stung some unfortunate soul who just happened to be passing by. That’s how these things work, Samuel then commented: when your time is up, your time is up…and even the least likely partnership can be brought to bear by Providence to enforce God’s edict.  That’s not exactly the same story, of course, nor does it teach the same lesson, but the image of the frog with a scorpion on its back is exactly the same…and that specific image appears as well in Sanskrit and old Persian literature where it is featured in stories that use it to good effect to teach different lessons of various sorts. A full survey of such ancient stories would take us too far afield of the topic I want to write about this week, but the interesting detail is that the image itself of a frog ferrying a scorpion on its back across a river is a constant…and the lesson taught in the version cited above—that the difference between animals and people is precisely that animals are hard-wired to act in certain specific ways and have no control to behave otherwise— is certainly worth taking seriously. Nor should we pass blithely by the corollary of that thought: that people, in this wholly unlike animals, do have that kind of control…if they choose to exert it to overcome their natural inclination to behave in some specific way that their moral compass recognizes as wrong or perverse. In other words, all God’s creatures come predisposed to behave in certain ways. But only humans possess the ability to override those predispositions and thus to behave as they see fit, not as their natures demand.

That story and its moral popped into my mind the other day when I was reading about the death of poor Harambe, 17, the 450-pound silverback gorilla shot dead the other day by a zookeeper at the Cincinnati Zoo.

The story is essentially a simple one. A family of five—a mother and her four children—were enjoying a day at the zoo when suddenly one of those kids, a little boy of three, somehow climbed through the protective barrier intended to keep visitors from coming too close to the animals they’ve come to observe. He fell into a shallow moat intended to keep the gorillas from approaching the barrier and was plucked from the waters by Harambe, whose intentions were not at all clear. I’ve watched the video several times (click here to see it if you haven’t) and concur, without any specific zoological training to buttress my opinion, that the only thing that was clear was that nothing at all was clear. At moments, Harambe appears to be acting almost protectively towards the child, helping him to his feet and almost gently touching the boy’s hand. But then he begins to drag the child by his feet first through the water and then across the floor of his enclosure, the little boy’s head bouncing up and down on the concrete as he is dragged off. What would have happened next, no one will ever know, of course, because Harambe was almost immediately shot dead by zoo workers who then rescued the boy.  The boy, fortunately, was not terribly hurt physically. If he was traumatized by the incident, I don’t imagine we’ll ever find out. Nor do we need to know. Three-year-olds are resilient, though, and we can reasonably hope for the best in his regard.

The real question has to do with the gorilla. Harambe was a very strong animal. The point was made by the director of the Cincinnati Zoo that silverbacks can crush coconuts with their bare hands, an image no doubt put forward because of the similarly in size between a coconut and a three-year-old’s head. (I’m guessing it takes a lot more strength to crush a coconut.) Because they can take up to seven minutes to work, the use of tranquilizer-darts was not feasible in a situation like this one. Nor was there much time to consider how to respond, much less to debate the matter thoughtfully or to take counsel with experts: a child’s life was in danger and the zoo officials had to decide on the spot whether to save the child by the only effective means available to them or to tranquilize the animal and hope nothing too bad happened while the darts took their time to work. Nor was it at all helpful that there was a crowd of onlookers, including the child’s mother, screaming while this was all unfolding, thus potentially unnerving or upsetting the animal and prompting him to act more, not less, violently than he might otherwise have. So the situation was grave, the amount of time to weigh options was negligible, and the assumption that Harambe, a noble-looking beast whose pose and affect are both almost human in his official portrait (reproduced above), would somehow rise up over his animalness to behave gently and kindly towards the boy was zoologically absurd. It is true that gorillas are generally herbivores, so the chance that Harambe might have mistaken the boy for his lunch were almost nil. But that he could easily have inadvertently killed the boy is, as far as I can see, beyond question.

All that being the case, the hue and cry over the decision to save the boy by shooting the gorilla dead is all the more bizarre. What makes human beings human is precisely our ability—often ignored but always real—to direct our own behavior by engaging in a process of moral decision-making that we can then use to override the genetic predispositions with which we, as animals ourselves, come pre-equipped at birth. We do have the ability to behave gently and kindly when our genetic predisposition would be to act violently and without regard for the safety or well-being of others. But gorillas are, in the end, animals. They can be adorable and they are certainly more sophisticated beings than cockroaches or field mice. But they lack the ability to reason morally in the sense that human beings do…and we forget that at our own peril. The zoo staff in Cincinnati acted correctly, making the split-second decision to value human life over an animal’s even if that animal belongs to an endangered species. The bottom line: you’re only allowed to value the life of a gorilla over the life of a little boy if you would be prepared to stick to your guns if the boy in question was your own son or grandson. Otherwise, you’re just posturing to make a point over the potentially dead body of somebody else’s child.

What interests me about this whole story are its implications for the way we view the world in general. All living human beings belong to the species homo sapiens (“wise person”); the other species that once compromised the larger homo genus—homo erectus, for example, or homo neanderthalensis—are long gone. It’s just us now…and the specific name we have chosen to assign to ourselves declares that our distinctiveness from our forebears lies precisely in that we—as opposed to they and certainly to non-human fauna—are capable of bringing some combination of learning, understanding, and ethical insight to bear in the decision-making process that we ourselves celebrate as the very hallmark of being human.

And yet we continually decline to allow that specific dimension of humanness to serve as the foundation stone upon which we stand as we view the world. Stereotyping, imputing to others an animal-like inability to override genetic pre-sets when attempting to find a moral path forward, deriding fellow-humans as beasts who specifically cannot behave other than violently or harshly—all of these prejudicial approaches to the world merely excuse unethical behavior by making it somehow a consequence of the fault in someone else’s stars rather than the result of unprincipled decision-making.

When I hear people, for example, attempting to excoriate terrorists who murder innocents by saying things like “that’s just what those people are like,” or “they’re violence-prone reprobates, so what do you expect?” or comments of that sort, all they’re really doing is excusing their behavior with reference to the inability of the perpetrator to decide not to perpetrate his or her crime. In fact, to attempt to insult people with reference to their genetic make-up, their religion, or their nationality is actually to say the precisely opposite thing—that they are somehow not fully responsible for their actions. That’s the stance we have to combat, I believe.  Harambe would not have been responsible for his actions even if he had killed that child. But that’s precisely because he was an animal, not a human being.

I’ve occasionally noted from the bimah that every single guard at Treblinka or Majdanek was once an innocent babe nursing at its mother’s breast, that none of them—despite ending up among the most grotesquely depraved criminals ever to walk the earth—none can have his or her actions excused with reference to religion, nationality, or political affiliation. Each chose the path of utter depravity and indifference to human suffering. Each wholly and totally rejected the concept that life is a gift from God, that the life of every individual human being is of inestimable value. Each embraced criminality on a scale never before known to humankind. But none had to! Just as none of the 9/11 murderers had to choose a life of terror and violence. Perhaps in our day, that lesson is even more important to say out loud. Islam didn’t make them do it. Their Saudi (or Egyptian or whatever) citizenship didn’t make them do it. Their teachers or imams didn’t make them do it either. Each had the possibility of choosing to revere life and to behave decently towards others, yet each chose to behave otherwise. To deride their crime as a function of their faith and not as the decision made by those specific people to behave in that specific way—that is not to damn them but to excuse them. And the same is true of every other knife-wielder or suicide bomber.

Harambe’s death was a tragedy. A poor beast who did nothing wrong was obliged to pay with his life for behaving naturally and normally. If any good can come from this whole incident at all, however, it would come not from encouraging us to think ill of animals, but from reminding us all exactly how it is animals and human beings differ.

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