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What is a Monster

by Tim Hereid

WHAT IS A MONSTER? Is it the sociopath dusting the insides of shoes for sale at the mall with crushed glass? The minotaur lurking around the next corner of the maze? The death row inmate awaiting the needle? The parent who cannot bring themselves to love their child? The wendigo prowling under a black moon? The leader of a world-changing charity who (just once, a long time ago) embezzled a million dollars? 


THE KID AT THE SUPERMARKET spits in the bags of grapes. I’ve seen him do it. Sometimes when I’m shopping and he’s stocking shelves, he nods at me and cracks a smile. I wonder if that means he spit in the grapes I bought last time. He doesn’t seem a bad kid, except for the spitting, of course. I reported him to the girl with the pink hair at the customer service booth. He still works there. 

I think a teacher I know does cocaine at work. Not often. Once a month or so, just to get through the day. I definitely know of a world leader who kills people by melting their bodies in acid just because they disagree with him. I read it in the news. 

When I was ten years old I made fun of Jeb Gardner because of his patchy hair and weird mannerisms. You could see all the way to his scalp in places. When he began crying I was so surprised I just ran. He moved away sometime after that. I later learned he was in treatment for cancer. I think he survived, but I’ve never looked him up online to find out. 


IN THE “FAT MAN AND THE CAVE” moral dilemma you are part of a group of people trapped in a sea cave with tidal waters rising. Another member of the group, the eponymous fat man, becomes bodily stuck in the only exit out of the cave. In an unsurprising development, (if you know anything about moral dilemmas) one of the group brought a stick of dynamite. You and the group must choose between dying or murder, drowning or blowing up ol’ fats. (No, you can’t call for help on your cell phones because this isn’t actually Neptune’s Grotto or the Cuevas de Marmol. It’s a moral dilemma.) Most freshman philosophy students choose to blow the fat man to smithereens. 


A GOOD FRIEND ONCE saw a teenager getting beaten up by a mob of other teenagers. She did a screeching U-turn in heavy traffic, bounced up on the curb and nearly ran down the mob. The perpetrators high-tailed it. She called an ambulance, held the bleeding kid in her arms until it arrived. I would never do that. I would definitely call the police, though.

A woman I know founded an organization in Central America, rescuing hundreds of kids from living and working in a landfill, sifting garbage for metal and glass and plastic to sell to a recycling company for pennies. She funded their education, gave them meals everyday and even built them a school and community center. She called me “a great man” after I volunteered for her organization for two weeks. That was the last time I saw her.  Three years later, she died in a bus crash on a mountain road just a few miles from the school she built. 

On Saturday, I gave a dollar to a man brandishing a sign reading “I voted. Please help.” Then I gave him another dollar. He seemed like a responsible person to me. A week ago I spotted a lost dog. I tried to call to him, but he ran away around the corner. I didn’t try to follow because I wanted to get to work on time, and I didn’t think I could get the dog to come to me anyway. There’s an organization in town that sends care packages to overseas soldiers and one that packages food for hungry people worldwide. I’ve never given money or volunteered for either one of them. 


IN THE “TROLLEY PROBLEM” moral dilemma, a trolley barrels toward a group of five people tied to the trolley tracks. You are standing by a lever that can switch the trolley to another track, but, this being a moral dilemma, there is one person tied to this new track as well. Should you pull the lever, killing one person or do nothing and allow all five people to die? Is there a difference between killing and letting die? 

Self-driving cars will have to contend with exactly this problem. If given the choice between running into a group of people or instead swerving and hitting just one person, what should the self-driving software do? You can find a game online that gives you scenario after scenario. Your responses among thousands of others will help to guide the software engineers. It is a sort of crowd-sourcing of morality. Most people decide to kill the one person rather than let the five die. 


IN A TEXAS PRISON, one man killed another man on trial for the repeated sexual abuse of a child. The killer was sentenced to 75 years in prison. Years ago, two men travelled from Tennessee to Maine to a treatment center for sex offenders and shot to death one of the inmates. 

Outside of my local Walgreens, a man pistol-whipped a woman as she walked outside and stole her purse. Another man in a pickup truck pulled alongside and shot the man to death. The man in the pickup truck said he felt his life was in danger, but he chose to ride up on the scene in the first place. The police said the dead man had a rap sheet “a mile long”. 


WHAT IS A MONSTER? What if the same guy who initiated the green revolution also invented a new and devastating chemical weapon? What if the same guy who founded the world’s first modern democracy also raped his slaves? What if one of the world’s great painters was also a serial abuser of women?  What if a popular president gave weapons to a corrupt regime who used them to create a famine in another country? What if an unpopular president continued the same policy? What if a famous do-gooder ran hospitals where suffering people weren’t given medical treatment but instead were left to continue suffering while the do-gooder and her collaborators prayed over them? What if a saint was also a monster? What if a monster was also a saint? What is a monster? Is not being a monster the same thing as being good? 


Is it okay if I don’t have answers to these questions? Is it okay if they make me tired? Is it okay if we don’t talk about them for a while?

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