Originally published at Notes from the bunker…. You can comment here or there.
Cannibalism is a strange business. It crops up in ‘survivalist fiction’ more often than not. Almost every post-apocalyptic movie or book makes reference to it at some point. Almost always the context is a bad one..the bad guys eat people, the good guys don’t. Historically, its been almost the opposite….survival cannibalism seldom has any nefarious or evil undertones. This is probably because, with very few exceptions, most cases of survival cannibalism involve consuming those who have already died rather than choosing someone and killing them. (However, there are at least one or two tales of sailors stranded at sea who drew straws to see who would be killed and consumed for the benefit of the others. Even in those situations it was consensual – everyone agreed to the draw and the consequences.)
In most fiction, cannibalism is a devilish, evil business of hunting down people and either killing them straight away for consumption or torturing and abusing them and eating them later. In one or two books Ive read theres an even more sinister but quite practical practice – partial cannibalism. Removing a limb from the victim and keeping the victim alive (and the ‘meat’ unspoiled) until more is needed. I find this last practice especially horrific and, unfortunately, it may not be solely fiction. Supposedly there were isolated Japanese troops in the islands during World War Two who may have eaten prisoners (or parts of prisoners) and kept them alive, taking parts of them as needed, to keep their food source from spoiling in the tropic heat. Stories like these are almost never proven but stranger things have happened during wars. I’ve been rereading a book about the battle at Stalingrad and theres mention of cannibalism and the military response to it – execution squads that would kill anyone who had a rosy color to their cheeks amongst the grey, starving troops.
Why do I mention this macabre subject? I was reading ‘The Road’ and one of the characters asked if they would ever resort to eating people if they couldn’t find any food. The response was that they would never resort to that, better to starve.
So, what we have here are ethical or moral questions. Is it wrong to eat someone in a starvation situation? I think it depends on a few more variables. In the famous case of the soccer team stranded in the Andes, the snow was littered with bodies, preserved by the cold. Faced with starvation, they chose to consume the already-dead. I see no moral or ethical issue there. In fact, the survivors were very concerned about how the public would receive their actions and they were almost universally accepted and supported for what they had done. Even in the straitlaced age the Donner Party episode occurred in there was little reproachment for what had been done in the name of survival. People just accepted that it was a horrible situation and that people ‘did what they had to do’. (However, British sentiment was far less sympathetic when accusations of cannibalism arose in the adventures of some of their doomed arctic explorers. A proper Englishman would rather die than lower himself to such savagery, they claimed. Discovery of the bodies of ill-fated adventurers with knife marks on the bones, dismemberment at the joints and bones with the marrow removed proved otherwise.)
In the case (literally a ‘case’ since it eventually wound up in court) of the sailors drawing straws on the ocean I think that there was no moral or ethical issue there if it really went down as described with everyone agreeing to draw lots. Note that there was some issue about whether the poor soul consumed was conscious when the lots were drawn…a factor which clouds the issue. But, if all were consenting to the lottery then I suppose theres no ethical or moral issue.
The notion of hunting down a person solely to kill them for food? I want to say that’s pretty much a guaranteed ticket out of the human race but then it occurs to me that people hunt down other people and kill them for their iPods, rather than as a matter of survival, and we often imprison them and let them out after twenty or so years. Would we be more or less forgiving of someone who kills a person, literally for their own survival? That’s the question I’m more interested in regarding this grisly subject. If someone shoots a shopkeeper for $200 cash are they more or less evil than someone who kills a person to eat them? You might argue that the cannibal killer’s motivation is more ‘reasonable’ – if he doesn’t do it he’ll starve to death – whereas the robber’s motivation may be something far, far less urgent. We can grasp, and maybe even understand, that people in a dire survival situation may do extreme things to survive. History is replete with cases of people marching across trackless deserts, living on rats and rainwater, cutting off their own limbs to save their lives, etc, etc. Under incredible and unimaginable circumstances I suppose its possible to at least rationalize the actions of murdering a human being for the sake of consuming them to prevent one’s own death by starvation. (And make no mistake, starvation, as Ive read about it, is a process that takes over a person and makes them pretty single-minded. It really is true – hungry people are dangerous people.) As distasteful and horrific as it is, I’d guess that the person who would kill you for your sneakers is a worse person than the person who would kill you to keep themselves alive.
Don’t get confused here…Im not condoning, forgiving, excusing or legitimizing something as abhorrent as killing another person for the sake of eating them. I think it’s the stuff nightmares are made of and I’d probably quite remorselessly shoot the first pro-active cannibal I come across. What Im saying is that, to me, its more understandable than the notion of killing someone over a stereo.
Do I think I could ever participate in such things? I think in the case of the stranded airplane passengers, absolutely. I’d detest it for reasons Im not entirely clear on (societal, Id imagine) but these people were already dead and I see no moral or ethical problem with consuming them to prevent my own death by starvation.
The lifeboat survivors? Im not sure. I’ve read accounts of people cast adrift and they seem to be able to subsist on seagulls and small fish. Of course maybe they conveniently overlooked mentioning they ate the cabin boy. I can’t really say what Id do in that situation … the notion of drawing lots and then killing the loser, even with his permission and approval, just seems wrong but I don’t think I could judge those who did partake in it.
The idea of starving, being desperately hungry to the point of eating the bark off trees, and then seeing someone walking down the path and deciding to kill them and dress them like a deer? I don’t think so. While I can understand the desperation and hopelessness of watching your body waste away and become so weak that getting up is a tremendous effort I cannot relate to the notion of arbitrarily killing an innocent bystander. Maybe its just me but I can’t see myself going along with it.
Non-survival cannibals (Jeffrey Dahmer, Albert Fish, Ed Gein, etc, etc.) are a completely different story altogether, obviously. They should be taken out right after their conviction and hung from the nearest tall object, their bodies utterly cremated and their ashes dumped far at sea to remove any trace of their poisoned existence.