‘There's four kinds of folks in the world. There's the ordinary kind like us and the neighbors, there's the kind like the Cunninghams out in the woods, the kind like the Ewells down at the dump, and the Negroes.’
- Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird
Welcome to a place we will call Maycomb County. We live here, they live there. Who they are, and what that means, we do not know for certain. Not that it really matters; we know they are not us.
If we are white, they are black; if we are black, they are white. If we are rich, they are the envious poor, and if we are poor, they are the exploiting rich. Catholic, Protestant. Muslim, Jew. Capitalist, Communist. Liberal, Conservative. Hutu, Tutsi. Tom, Jerry.
Only the birds of Maycomb County fly on both sides of the tracks. They rule the sky overhead, and we all hear their song.
A crime takes place in Maycomb County. One of us is raped, robbed, beaten, pinched, shot, stabbed, blown up. You pick. How did this happen? Who is to blame? We do not know, we are afraid.
Ignorance breeds fear, fear breeds chaos. We cannot have chaos. Truth and accountability, that is what we need. Fumbling in the dark in our search for those, we stumble upon … them.
There are plenty of them to choose from, they go by different names. We call them Cunninghams, Ewells, and Negroes, here in Maycomb County. In World War I, they were called Germans. World War II, Japanese-Americans. When the Iron Wall went up, they were Communists. When the twin towers went down, Muslims. Immigrants, refugees, stateless, homeless, atheists, theists. Them is an all-encompassing word.
Before the crime, that was all it was: a word. But ‘words offer the means to meaning, and for those who will listen, the enunciation of truth.’ Our world is different now; we listen, carefully, for truth. And where we once heard ‘not us,’ we now hear ‘against us.’
So we pinpoint them with stereotypes. Mock them in comic strips. Separate them in public spaces. Keep them out with walls. Vilify them in headlines. Stop them at checkpoints. Ship them off to camps. Chase them with machetes. Lock them in gas chambers.
They become the enemy in a zero-sum game that started, funnily, by calling them them.
The expression ‘canary in a coal mine’ originates from the practice miners had of taking caged birds down coal tunnels with them. Canaries are singing birds, their song is a cautionary one. A silent bird is a dead one; it means carbon monoxide has collected in the mine.
‘Strength through unity, unity through faith;’ ignorance and fear are a powerful, lethal pair. Their first victim is reason, conscience goes next. We sacrifice freedom for security, democracy for unity. Lives, so many lives, for…
Victory? Victory. Over an enemy, in a game, both of which we invented.
Welcome back to Maycomb County. Crime has been eradicated, order restored. It is quiet; they are gone. But so are the birds. I wonder if one day, we will miss them.
‘… the high, fine, beautiful sound of an earth-bound creature who grew wings and flew up high and looked straight into the face of the future. And caught, just for an instant, the unbelievable vision of a free man in a free world.’
- Dalton Trumbo