Notebook — From the April 2008 issue
SIGN IN to access Harper’s Magazine
1. Sign in to Customer Care using your account number or postal address.
2. Select Email/Password Information.
3. Enter your new information and click on Save My Changes.
Subscribers can find additional help here. Not a subscriber? Subscribe today!
And when they were come to Capernaum, they that received tribute money came to Peter, and said, Doth not your master pay tribute?
He saith, Yes. And when he was come into the house, Jesus prevented him, saying, What thinkest thou, Simon? of whom do the kings of the earth take custom or tribute? of their own children, or of strangers?
Peter saith unto him, Of strangers. Jesus saith unto him, Then are the children free.
I hope and intend, by the placement of this note in what I understand to be a venerable publication of record, to distance myself from those millions of Americans who find their government incompetent and cruel, and so, as a matter of course and conscience, absolutely refuse to pay it any taxes. Just how many of these protestants exist out there I cannot say with any accuracy, as I have not bothered to check, but given the heartfelt expressions of anger from so many different quarters for so many difficult years, and given the American’s well-known reputation for courage in the face of tyranny, I assume the number to be of a size by now that it will very soon bring the world’s largest federal apparatus to its knees and bind it once again to the will of a proud and furious people.
Before that happens, and I am condemned as one of the few holdout collaborators with an unpopular and, yes, murderous system, I would like to explain why it was that I paid my taxes at the start of the twenty-first century, when so many of my peers risked both fortune and freedom to make their heroic stand. In truth I can find no fault with these revolutionaries, nor is that my purpose here. Our nation was birthed, after all, by a similar protest during the late eighteenth century, wherein the inhabitants of this land found themselves tithed but unlistened to, devoid of either say or advocacy in a governance they were required by law to fund. The people did more than simply withhold their monies then: they raised up and paid for an army to go against the red-coated tax collectors sure to come, and with God on their side (and the French) they prevailed. A second try at the money, in 1812, fared the English no better and saw them sunk in New Orleans (for lagniappe, I suppose) even after the debt had been canceled and the account in perpetuity closed.
No, I would not dare speak ill of any American who today dodges a bill he finds politically ruinous or morally obscene. Nor would I look to deny him his right to dispute that bill out of everyday penury or greed: our nation owes at least as much to its hopelessness as it does to its celebrated faith. I seek only to convey why I myself have continued to offer up indulgences to an institution my fellow citizens have so bravely contrived to destroy, as I would greatly prefer to be thought a pervert in this matter than I would an outright coward.
A forebear of mine, one Curtis Metcalf, who, if I have it right, was my great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather, served just prior to the Revolution as the king’s tax collector for a populous part of southern Pennsylvania. He was of the Quaker bent, as were many of the souls he extorted coins and granules from, and it is therefore unlikely that he thought much more of violent insurrection than he did of organized tax protest. Whether or what he thought of the bloody subjugation to which his take was regularly put I do not know. I can determine only that his guilt, if there was any, did not significantly impair his fornication, a product of which, one James Metcalf, my great-great-great-great-great-grandfather (again, if I have it right), may have joined up with an American militia (it is at least said that he did) in order to aid and prosecute a rebellion that would mean an end to his father’s livelihood and, of course, a fare thee well to the Quaker spirit in our line.
Neither of these traditions has much hold on me: I am no rebel, just as I am no Quaker taxman. The first option does offer certain romantic possibilities, I agree, and the second is not without its own odd sort of charm, but I assure you that I have, without once taking up arms against my government, nor by serving it more directly than the regular payment of my taxes, lived a life far larger than any ancestor of mine. I have, from the comfort of my couch, made the nations to cower before me. I have, during commercial-break trips to the bathroom, left whole continents behind me in ruin. I have watched through bored and sleepy eyes as the millions came begging for mercy, and I have, without ever lifting a finger, but only allowing one to descend upon a button of my remote, turned my plump and kingly thumb down.
Still, what taxpayer today, current or former, could not say the same? Who has not toppled republics and tyrannies alike so that a corporation he took no personal interest in might enhance by meaningless increment an already criminal profit? Who has not watched on his television set as a bomb or a tank he helped personally to pay for made a charred and limbless stump out of what previously was an innocent (if un-American) child? I might also ask, if only out of curiosity: just how many of these children needed to be chopped up and burnt before at last my fellow citizens thought to stop payment on the meat grinder and the furnace? One hundred? One thousand? Ten thousand? More?
Does not a single such death constitute a villainy no latter-day tax protest could hope to overcome? Was even that one small tragedy not predicted by our military accountants well in advance of any physical war, to be folded neatly into their projections of “collateral damage”? And have we not all of us long understood this phrase to be but a transparent attempt to log beforehand a formal regret over the slaughter to come while implying also that said slaughter will be accidental and therefore, magically, unforeseen?
I have no wish to judge my compatriots for the lateness of their stand against what they now perceive, suddenly, to be an astounding evil. How or why they spent years in denial of the obvious truth that their government’s military philosophy constituted an admission a priori of premeditated murder is for them and their God to decide. I must confine my efforts here to my own defense, for unlike all present-day withholders of their taxes I cannot demonstrate anything like a remorse for my crime. I can show only that I am innocent of what once was, and to the righteous eye will always remain, their rife and terrible hypocrisy.
I have killed. From the first day I paid taxes to the United States government (on April 15, 1985) my spree began, and it has expanded geometrically since. I do not remember a time when I mailed in a check or a money order without a clear understanding that some part of my donation would be put toward murder, and any guilt I may at first have felt over this (none, to be honest) was soon enough supplanted by a tickling desire to know not just that my money would be used to kill but when it would be used to kill, and where, and whom, and how.
The that is by now a foregone conclusion, and even the laziest observer might determine the when and the where with relative ease: a quick glance at the newspapers over the past quarter century will confirm my kills in Central and South America, in Northern and Central Africa, in the hills of lower Asia, and of course in the Middle East. The how is almost as readily arrived at, for it is a matter of public record how my tax dollars are apportioned, and so it is a simple thing, or should be, to determine what sum I have contributed each year to the ruin of my fellow human beings.
In 2007, to take but my most recent foray, I paid something on the order of $20,000 into the federal pail. Of this sum, I can be assured that 31 percent, or $6,200, was put toward current military expensesBecause federal numbers on the matter of murder by tax dollar tend to be humble, at times almost shy, the breakdowns I use here are not from the Office of Management and Budget but rather from the War Resisters League, a group with which the conscientious reader will no doubt already be familiar.(which would strike me as almost miserly if it did not far surpass what I have given at any one time to any other cause). Of this $6,200, I know that roughly 23 percent, or $1,400 (also more than I have given at any one time to any other cause), went immediately to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, both of which our current administration, the second Bush, claims already to have won.
Thank God for that lie. Without it I might be doomed to live out my days in peacetime’s frigid shadow, where the opportunities for legalized butchery ever shrink and fade. I might give money to the capital-punishment lobby, yes, and hope for a small satisfaction there; or I might cruise the city streets in search of slow-footed jaywalkers and sympathetic witnesses; or I might buy land in rural Texas and pray to take advantage of the laws there that still allow one to shoot a trespasser on sight; but for murder done properly, from a relaxed position on the couch or the bed, with one’s return safely filed and one’s withholdings well at work in the glow of the television set, war, true war, is required.
I am tempted to argue that most of my $20,000 has in one way or another been spent on death, but sloppy federal bookkeeping impedes me there. I might determine that w of my dollars went toward public health, and that x of my dollars went toward labor, and that y of my dollars went toward education, and that z of my dollars were given over illegally to evangelical concerns, but I will never be privy to the exquisite formula that explains in what measure, and in what manner, w and x and y and z combine to produce an American just frightened enough, and just undervalued enough, and just ignorant enough, and just romantic enough, to think a “job” as a “hero” in a faraway “conflict” somehow represents an “opportunity” for her child.
What I am in for each time one of these children is flown home to a graveyard, or to a hospital with which a graveyard might favorably compare, is therefore unknown to me, and I consider that a great pity. The military (eager to ape umbrage and thus deflect blame) and the media (afraid to lose clout via a show of objectivity) and the protesters (at pains to display a patriotism that will ever be questioned anyway) all seem agreed that an American carcass is worth far more than a foreign one, and I would like to be availed of the extra kill points.
Surely, though, I can say with some certainty that the $1,400 I sent last year to the wars abroad scored at least on occasion. That unassuming sum, after all, would have paid for 5,000 M16 machine-gun bullets at 28 cents per. Five thousand bullets! Is not one of these now lodged in a foreign corpse on my tab and my behalf? True, the price has gone up since then (by a whopping 2 cents), but that still promises a good 4,666-bullet year, and with luck I might get a cost-of-living raise to make up the difference.
Last year seems to have heard the swan song of the 5.56mm armor-piercing round, which is a shame. At most I could have paid for 1,207 of these lovelies, but for all I know they might have been able to penetrate two or three bodies apiece, especially of the younger, softer type. The 120mm Armor Piercing Fin Stabilized Discarding Sabot with Tracer we still have with us, but my $1,400 would have bought less than a quarter of one of these shells, and I find it difficult to praise an expenditure that would risk the whole of my contribution on a lone pull of the trigger.
Likewise, I am no fan of Boeing’s Joint Direct Attack Munition (or JDAM), which is dropped from both Navy and Air Force planes and has an inertial navigation system as well as a GPS to guide it home. Despite what awesome damage it might do, any bomb that requires two electronic surveys, in addition to God’s own gravity, to find its target strikes me as a pretty poor gamble: until I can know for certain that the single $24,294 JDAM I chipped in on will kill at least twenty people, I would prefer to take my chances with the bullets.
It vexes me, of course, that I cannot control in any specific sense what materiel my personal tax dollars go to buy, since this robs me not only of the thrill of knowing how, exactly, I have killed but also of the great and final goal of this adventure, which is a knowledge of whom. When we give money to a foreign-children’s charity, it is my understanding that we are at least provided with the name of the child we have blessed with food and clothing and medicine and schoolbooks, and are treated as well to a photograph of the child, and are sent a biographical note intended to make us throw even more money away on a cause we believe in so much less than our own. Why, then, would our government not favor us with the names and likenesses and stories of those we have not helped out with a few coins but rather paid thousands upon thousands of dollars to destroy?
Yet whereas this element of unknowability makes of my fellow citizen a pessimist, ever sure of the worst, and so prompts him to withhold his taxes lest by accident they betray the purity of his intentions, I find the opposite to be true in me. I see in that unknowability a cause and an opportunity for faith, and I see in that faith a great hope, and I see in that hope a great optimism. I believe (with a want, yes, but no actual need of worldly proof) that my dollars have indeed gone out and murdered, and that through continued support of my government, and a God-given patience, I will one day reap my just reward: I will one day open my mailbox to discover that my leaders have at last realized, in this age of computer tracking, the ease with which a taxpayer’s contribution might be tagged and assigned a dedicated purpose, so that he might unfold and read, through grateful tears, something akin to the following:
Your contribution this fiscal year was put toward the maintenance of an F-15 fighter jet, which on October 16 dropped a bomb on the town of Ramadi, in Iraq, killing, among others, Muhammed Salih Ali (age six) and Haifa Ahmed Fuad (age eight) and Saad Ahmed Fuad (age four). Little Haifa and Saad were sister and brother; you helped accomplish their deaths by a jet very similar to, if not exactly the same as, those that fly over the stadium just after the American Idol winner sings “and the home of the brave” at the Super Bowl.
Thank you and congratulations.
Before I am dismissed here as a mere nihilist or blasphemer, I would like to point out that it is not clear what either my tax-collecting Quaker ancestor or his violent rebel son would have done in my stead. Peacefulness and taxes mix uneasily, if ever. I can say for certain only what Jesus would have done: in Matthew 17:27 Our Lord instructs Peter to
go thou to the sea, and cast an hook, and take up the fish that first cometh up; and when thou hast opened his mouth, thou shalt find a piece of money: that take, and give unto them for me and thee.
That is to say, Jesus paid his taxes, and who knows but that this very coin was then passed up the line until it reached, by chance or by magic, the Roman hand from which it would eventually go forth to purchase the cross to which the original payer would in agony be nailed, in forgiveness of all our sins.
More from Ben Metcalf: