Thursday, May 19, 2005

Paper Wasps and Hornets, a Little Dose of Reality (Please click here to read linked article)

Before reading today's post - please click on this link or the title above to read an article from today's New York Times. The rest of what I have to say will make more sense if you read the article first. Thanks, and please forgive me for bringing this into your day if you haven't already seen this bit of news.

As I sit here watching these wasps after reading the linked article, I remember that they are only here because, in the first hour after their discovery, my girlfriend and I felt something tapping timidly on the shoulder of our combined consciousness asking us to show them mercy. The initial decision to allow the wasps to live was not the most obvious choice, but it has proved to be a rewarding one. Right now I'm very glad that we both listened to the little voice whispering in each of our minds... but if we had chosen to ignore it, I might not even remember today that it ever spoke to me about a group of wasps on the balcony.

The National Audubon Society Field Guide to Insects and Spiders has this to say about paper wasps: "Paper Wasps are much more tolerant of people and minor disturbances than are hornets and yellow jackets." This is a good thing. With this knowledge, a healthy bit of curiosity, and a lifelong fascination with insects whirling around in my head... the decision was made to let one group of the colonizing wasps continue building. The others would be sprayed with a water spray bottle, (for days!) until they decided to pick up camp and go off in search of a more hospitable location - (one in which a precisely aimed barrage of "Smart Squirts" wasn't constantly bombarding their construction projects).

My girlfriend and I made the decision to let those wasps live on the balcony. Strange as it may seem to some of you, I feel responsible now for their fate. That nest is what it is today because of a decision that we made together. Would anyone else care if I killed those wasps tomorrow with a brick? Some of you who have read this blog might... if I told you about it; but my neighbors probably wouldn't mind at all - in fact some of them might be wishing that they could do that right now. I think that the argument can be made that I would have been justified had I chosen to have these wasps exterminated the moment that they were discovered; but I think that there can also be an equally compelling argument made that it would be unethical for me to kill them now.

These wasps are not a true threat to me. I have stood on a chair less than a foot and a half away from their nest, and while they have taken a defensive alert stance looking me right in the eye, letting me know that they'll defend their nest if necessary, they have never attacked me. They look very much like hornets, they sound very much like hornets, they even have the ability to sting just like hornets if provoked - but the very important difference is that they are not hornets; and what may be more important to the moral issue here is... whatever they become, they become because of a choice that I made which allowed the vast majority of them to come into existence in the first place.

I am responsible for the conditions in which they now find themselves. I am responsible then, to some degree, for my treatment of them... no more and no less so than I was on the very first day that the first few wasp royals arrived. If I choose to kill 25 wasps today, I will have allowed 21 lives to come into existence, in order to satisfy my curiosity and to relieve my boredom, only to destroy it when it no longer suits my fancy. That option is simply unacceptable in my view. It may have been morally acceptable for me to exterminate the wasps when they first arrived, when they may have truly been perceived as an unavoidable hostile threat to be dealt with - but now I've made the decision to let this group live and thrive. They exist in their current location because I wanted to watch them and learn from them. I am responsible for allowing this society of wasps to form in this fashion under my supervision. Would it be right for me to destroy them when they're no longer of any use to me? Would it be any less unethical for me to allow this particular colony of wasps to die if I discovered that an exterminator would be spraying the entire apartment complex tomorrow, and did nothing to protect them?

If they become hazardous to me, I will put their nest in a gallon jar in the middle of some dark, cool night when they are docile and less likely to become agitated. I will transport them and their home to the swamp and try to set it carefully in some nook of a tree, where the wasps can decide what to do with their traumatically altered, but sustainable lives. I can say all of this with confidence because I know a lot about wasps; I guess you could say that I have an in-depth understanding of my potential adversary, with whom, for the moment, I happen to share a very unique, albeit tenuous, relationship. Because of this I am able to deal with them ethically and without fear, from a place of compassion and humanity, without endangering myself.

Could I go up to their nest and "shake it up a bit" just to see what they'll do? Of course I could! Would people laugh at me and shake their heads when the wasps go into a mad frenzy and swarm around me to defend their nest and their way of life, stinging this once tolerated, supposedly "superior" and more powerful observer into submission? Of course they would! These same people would also most likely eventually come to my aid and help to bandage me up, repeating over and over with a pitying look that I should have known better. They probably would say something like: "Didn't you know that you were playing with fire?"

Humans can do something that paper wasps can't: they can change their programmed response to a particular stimulus. If I were to decide to smash that wasp nest, and those wasps had the ability to transform themselves instantly into hornets, I believe that they would transform before my eyes into the most formidable horde of hornets ever seen. If you saw someone torturing someone you love, and you had the ability to become some sort of super hero with super-human abilities capable of bending steel and moving mountains... wouldn't you do it to protect that special person? I bet that most of us would; and I doubt that many of us would take time out to show the torturer any mercy. Even these paper wasps, who can only ever be the more docile, less aggressive members of their order, could teach me a lesson that I'd never forget if handled carelessly.

Our country has made a multitude of choices in the past that has helped create and mold the world in which we live today. We have created situations and tensions globally that are not completely unlike this relatively harmless wasp nest, with individuals alerted to our presence and watching our movements closely for signs of hostile activity. There are innocent people being tortured and killed in many different locations worldwide. There are unknown, and unidentified, "suspected terrorists" being held against their will and without charges in prisons around the globe. People suffer and die without much explanation and without enough publicity. Their families are force-fed questionable justifications and terse statements which resemble too closely the blanket clause of "collateral damage" that has been used to decree the end of life, posthumously, for countless fathers, mothers, sons, and daughters over the last 4 years.

The enemies of freedom and democracy are not the only ones committing moral and ethical crimes. The more we stir up the nests of those who, for the moment, mean us no harm... the more sworn enemies we are sure to find, transformed versions of the relatively peaceful, rightfully suspicious, co-inhabitants of this planet, (our communal "sacred space"), that we see today. Who will be at fault if they choose to fight back against what they see as an unjust attack on their basic human rights? Is it any use to ask these kinds of questions when you're being chased by a massive coalition of enraged enemies that you've brought to life? I think that it "wouldn't be prudent at this juncture" for us to wait to find out. I think that we would be well served to ask these questions now, while some of our potential enemies in this world are still merely adversaries poised in a defensive posture, watching to see what will happen next.

If the man described as the victim in this article was, in fact, innocent of any crime - I sincerely hope that whoever is responsible for his treatment is punished to the full extent allowed by law. I doubt that the maximum allowable punishment will be sufficient to suit the crimes allegedly committed here, but I do hope that whatever that penalty is, it will be imposed. Even if the man described in this article as the victim was a terrorist of some sort, I still think that it is unjust for us to be treating prisoners of war, (and that is what they should be considered), in this manner. I fear that it is entirely too possible that nothing in the way of justice will prevail in this case.

If it is now acceptable for us to do this kind of thing to other civilians who we suspect "might"

I wonder how many of us truly understand the facts of this "War on Terror" that we are fighting. How well do we really understand our enemy? Do we, as a society, truly know who are enemies are? Do we know well enough how to deal with those who may not want to share our way of life in every detail, but who nonetheless do have a desire to live peaceably, (or at least non-aggressively), with us on the same planet? We are playing with fire all over the world today. If there are other worlds out there, with inhabitants observing our actions from afar, they may be getting ready to enjoy a hearty laugh at our expense. Unfortunately I don't think they'll be running to our rescue when we feel the stinging begin, and there is nowhere for us to hide.