Scorched Earth


by John Tyler Connoley

August 25, 2004


I've been thinking lately about some of the similarities between our country and a certain biblical city-state that gave us the word sodomy. Obviously, I'm not like Jerry Falwell and James Dobson, imagining fire raining down on Massachusetts for legalizing same-sex marriage, but I do think we could learn from the story of Sodom.


According to the narrator of Genesis, Sodom was the capitol of a vast city-state that thrived in a fertile valley. With ample irrigation and a good trade route, the city had everything a healthy metropolis could want. Unfortunately, it was also under threat.


Nestled down in a valley, Sodom and it's sister cities were vulnerable to the attacks of neighboring mountain nations. Sodom's enemies would swoop down in surprise attacks and then escape back into the crevices and caves of their mountains. After years of this, the people of Sodom were understandably jumpy. They probably stood around the watering hole at work talking about how much the mountain people hated them for their freedom and prosperity. Living in a time of terror, the sodomites feared all strangers -- and weren't too happy about the resident aliens in their midst, either.


Then, one day, a couple of men strolled into town (the narrator says they were angels). They met a resident alien named Lot in the city square, and went to Lot's house for the night.


As you can imagine, the rumors began flying. "Did you see that? I think Lot's a spy." The people knew that any stranger had the potential to be an evildoer, and now they were sure they had a terror cell in the town.


The conventions of the day required hospitality to travelers. People walking cross-country in that desert climate relied on the kindness of strangers to keep them alive, and if someone wandered into your town it was customary to take care of him for the night. Lot was actually doing the expected thing by helping these two men, feeding them and giving them a place to sleep.


But, to hell with the conventions, these men were clearly evildoers and Lot was one of them!


The narrator says that late in the night all the men of the city crowded around Lot's door, ready to break it down. By now, their hysteria had carried them away. It was a lynch mob, intent on raping the "spies" and breaking their spirit. When Lot tried to calm them down, he just made things worse. He was an immigrant after all, why should they trust him? "We'll do you worse than we do them," they shouted. "Now stand back!"


The end of the biblical story is that the angels give God a bad report about Sodom, and God rains down fire and brimstone on the city. The narrator tells us the whole valley was scorched and blackened and no one ever lived there again. I'm always struck by how much that description sounds like a nuclear attack.


These days, we don't need God to turn our countries into parking lots, because we've become so good at it ourselves. However, it's still the same attitude that leads to the (now human-made) fire and brimstone. At one time it was fear of communists that drove our scientists to develop bombs that could scorch the earth for miles. Now, we're developing smaller nuclear "bunker busters" to help in the war against terror.


How many times, since 9/11, have you heard a commentator say we need to make a parking lot out of this place or that place? Or how often have you heard an aunt say she just doesn't trust Arabs on airplanes? Like the people of Sodom, we've become jumpy at the thought of immigrants congregating in their houses, or eating together in restaurants.


Also like Sodom, we've thrown out conventions in the name of protecting ourselves from evildoers; never mind Geneva, the men in Guatanamo Bay don't deserve mercy, because we know their intent was evil. They were living in Al Qaeda territory, after all.


With the current climate, is it any wonder the soldiers at Abu Ghraib  sexually abused their prisoners in the name of justice? They'd been listening to their civilian commanders who have the same attitude as the besieged people of Sodom, and they knew what needed to be done to break the spirit of the evildoers. What's amazing is that the prison abuse hasn't been more widespread.


Sometimes, I hear the news and think it's inevitable that our scorched-earth mentality will lead to another Sodom. Someday we'll be telling our children about the city in the Middle East (or perhaps the Midwest) where no one lives anymore, because all the suburbs were burned by fire from the sky.


It's been more than 3,000 years since people first started telling the story of a valley destroyed for mistreating strangers. In those days, no one imagined that an us-and-them mentality could one day lead to humans destroying whole valleys in the same way. But it has. In the 3,000 years we've been telling the story of Sodom, we've also been refining the mechanisms we use to repeat the same mistake.


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