Conversations With God - About Being A "Trained Killer"


Conversations With God—About Being A “Trained Killer”

October 13  Ground Zero Plus 32
Cliff McKenzie--New York City Combat Correspondent

“Care for a pretzel, Cliff?”

“No, Sir.  I’m fine.”

“Pretzels are good for you, I hear.”  God crunched down and ground the pretzel loudly.  “I just came across them.  One of the Angels brought them up.  Never had one before.  Makes you thirsty, don’t they?”

“Yes, Sir.  It’s the salt. They’re good with beer.”

“Never touch the stuff.  I like my Diet Pepsi.”

God popped a can and offered it to me.   I took it this time, rather than wait.  I figured before we were finished I would need it.  He opened one for himself and swirled the liquid around his mouth, washing the pretzel down in a big gulp.

“Ahh, that’s so much better.   The carbonation cuts the salt, I think.”

“Yes, it’s hard to eat pretzels and not drink something.”   God was studying me, his eyes  scrunched as though he could see how much blood my heart was pumping.  With each visit I was getting slightly more comfortable.  Still, the idea of sitting in a wooden chair across from God with his Angels watching like crows  on the lookout for predators, made me a little uncomfortable.

“Something on your mind, Cliff?”

“Yes.  I guess you might call it an issue.  It’s about violence.  I sometimes find myself writing and talking as though I were a peace monger—promoting flowers not bullets--love not war.   I keep reminding my readers I’m not anti-war or ant-violence.  And, I keep attacking government, or feel I am.  And my words seem to suggest I’m against the military and what it stands for.   And, that I’m anti-government.  Neither of which I am.  But my writing keeps screaming up at me that I feel that way.  I guess I need a God Check.”

“Big issues,  Cliff, violence and government.  I’ll need a couple more pretzels to answer them.”

God dug his thick, strong fingers into the plastic bag and fished out a couple more twisted pretzels.   “So good,” he smacked, licking the tips of his fingers and wiped them on his white robe.   He brushed his hands over his  long white beard as though it were a towel.

“Yeah, I’ve been watching you, Cliff.   You get a little defensive about it.”

“About what, Sir?”

“You get going about why violence won’t work...then you stop and tell everyone you’re a trained killer and could whack off bin Laden’s head without a blink and eat his heart out   You sound like someone trying  to defend his or her sexual preference with such force the listener wonders if  you really believe what you’re saying...or...maybe you’re just trying to convince yourself what you are.   Like Shakespeare thinks thou doth protest too much.”

“Sounds that bad, huh?”

“No, it’s not bad or good, Cliff.  It just is what it is right now.  But everything can change.  I programmed that in.  Change.  Constant is boring.  Change is exciting, interesting...sometimes it involves tragic dealing with terrorism...but overall...change is what it's all about...grow or they say.”

“But I really do mean what I say.  I know I could be very violent if the situation arouse.”  I wasn't really listening to what God was saying, I was tripping over his previous comment, wondering if I wasn't sure who I was--pro- or anti-violence, pro- or pro-government, anti- or pro-military.

“So what, Cliff?  Anyone can be violent!  You don't have the market on violence--you never did, and never will.  Your lovely peace-loving daughter who goes to New York Theological Union Seminary, who cries when an ant is killed, who carries the suffering of the world on her shoulders most of the time--she could kill  without blinking an eye if someone threatened the lives of her children.   I built that instinct into every human being--the right to survive at another’s expense.   All creatures have it.  Some humans, however, take it to extremes.  They become murders, serial killers, rapists, molesters.  Some humans deny the instinct. I've seen them just stand there and let the lions eat them.  But most--the majority of human beings, Cliff--all have the capacity and drive to kill, or fight to the death,  when they or their loved ones are threatened with deadly force.”

“You really built that into people--the ability to kill?”

“Well, I didn’t call it the ‘right-to-kill-gene.’  I figured if you were out hunting for food, and some bear came by to try and eat you, and you couldn’t run away fast enough, you’d have to kill it before it killed you.   Or, if you were with your child and trying to protect it, I wouldn't let you stand by and watch it get eaten or abused or maimed.  The instinct to kill wasn’t designed for man to kill man, unless it was in self defense.  It was only to protect from imminent harm, from impending danger.   That’s why you don’t kill everyone you don’t like.  If you did, there wouldn’t be many people left on this earth, right Cliff?”

God laughed hard.   “You don’t like many people, do you?”  He laughed again.

I had to smile.  He was right.  I wasn’t long on liking many people and I disliked a whole lot of them.  I thought about what he said for a minute, and figured with all my past prejudices and bigotries and sense of righteous indignations, and resentments, that if I were to start killing everyone I didn’t like, I wouldn’t have enough bullets to get the job done.  No one would be on the subways when I rode them, or standing in long lines at the grocery store--and, God forbid--ahead of me at the Post Office.  I got the point.

“Your problem, Cliff, just like to brag.”

God’s words slammed into my gut.  I took a big breath as I felt the blood settling around my ankles.


“When you tell the world you were a combat Marine, and you could slice bin Laden’s head off and carve out his heart out and eat it in front of’re just bragging, boasting.  That’s all.  Hell, Cliff, everybody could do that--if they were mad enough--if they hated enough--if they let the Beast of Terror and Revenge take over.  Even your daughter.  So, you're just a braggart,  Cliff. ”

God waved the half-full bag of pretzels around as He power-punched my ego with the brass knuckles He wore on the end of His tongue.  My face was getting whiter as the blood dropped down to my feet, huddling there as God's wrath struck its mark.   Inside, my ego was shriveled up like a prune.  But God wasn't through with me.  He had me on the ropes, and seemed to be enjoying it as he continued.

“Let me share a piece of history with you, Cliff.  Back when America was waging war with the Indians...if you were a Calvary soldier...and killed a bunch of Indians...or tried to...and you were captured...the Indians took you to their village...stripped you naked and staked you out on the ground.  I think they call it spread-eagled.”

I squirmed a little, not sure where he was going with the story.  “Yes, God. Spread eagled is right.”  I had to say something.  I looked up.  One of the Angels was looking at me with a motherly smile.   I nodded in recognition and returned my eyes to God, wondering what he had in store for me next.

“Good.  I have so many things to remember, thanks for confirming that.  Well, the braves who captured you, staked you out in a place where the sun beat on you most of the day. At night, you froze.”

God paused and leaned forward.  “Are you Okay if I use the word ‘you,’ in the story, Cliff?  It makes it a lot more personal that way.”

“Sure,” I answered, not inclined to argue with the man who created Heaven and Earth and the date of my death.

“Let’s see...where was I...yes...”  He smiled at Himself...pleased he could remember his page in the mental storybook... "yes...the braves turned you over to the women and children of the village. The women and children were in charge of your death.   Your slow--very very slow---death. "  God leaned forward slightly, punctuating his words with his eyes, drilling them into me.  "Each day the women and children  put clumps of tinder on various parts of your body and lit them.  They all gathered around and watched them burn holes in your arms and legs and stomach.   It was a horrible way to die.  Sometimes it took weeks because they would give you just enough water and food to keep you alive.  Hmmm...better have another pretzel on that note.”

I gripped the arms of the wooden chair, feeling those indentions where others before me had done the same.  I wondered how many times God told this story, and why he was drawing it out.  But I didn’t ask.  I just watched him pop a couple more pretzels in his mouth and chomp them down.   He tilted the Pepsi can back and drained it.

“Yes...they kept you alive as long as you could stand it.  Then, just before you died of pain and exposure, they gathered around--all the women and children of the village--and heaped a big pile of tinder on your chest where your heart is.  Then they lit it, watching it burn until you were dead."  God paused dramatically.  " Whaddya think about that, Cliff?”

The Almighty sat back in his chair and folded his arms, a slight smile ticking the corners of his mouth, or was it a smirk? I couldn’t tell for sure.   I wriggled on the hard wooden seat, trying to restrain my jaw from dropping, or let my eyes roll in confusion.

"Well, Cliff?  Whaddya think?"

“That was terrible, Sir.  Why did you tell me that?”

“To make a point, Cliff.  That’s what you do when you boast about being a trained killer.  Or about cutting off bin Laden’s head.  Or eating his heart. You brag about something that you should keep very private so that a child doesn’t hear you say it, or read about it and think-- ‘Oh, if he can kill, so can I!  As long as they’re bad people, killing is Okay.  So I’ll become a trained killer too.’  Get the point, Cliff?  Get it?  Got it?  I'll hold the Good until you get it and got it.”  God chuckled as He watched me squirming in my seat, trapped before his eyes, before his All Knowing wisdoms.

I felt my stomach knot and the blood rush from my face. My lips seemed glued shut.  God spoke to save me the embarrassment of stumbling and stuttering out a response.

“Killing is as natural as breathing, Cliff.  We don’t need to turn it into a glittering trophy display.  And you don’t need to advertise it.  You kill only because you have to, never because you want to.  In Vietnam, you only pulled the trigger when you had to, right, Cliff?  You didn’t shoot people because you wanted to--because there was some Voice inside you saying, ‘kill this person just for fun!’”

I felt my hands sweating.  My mouth was dry.  I was afraid to lift the Pepsi can for fear it might slip from my grasp.   “You’re right, God.  I don’t remember ever killing just to kill.  Except in a wild just shoot at anything.”

“So you really weren’t a trained killer. Not under it's true definition.  You see, Cliff, a trained killer is someone who does it for free and for fun.   Like the Terrorists, Cliff.  They were trained killers.  They killed because they wanted to kill, not because they had to.   Do you want to be put in that category—equal to the Terrorists?”

“Absolutely not.”

“Then you need to get off this jag you’re on about being like a terrorist because of Vietnam.  It cheapens you, Cliff.  It cheapens America.  It cheapens all those who died fighting like you did--who killed because they had to--not because they wanted to.”

God’s Voice was stern.  I felt the rush of his breath hurling through the air, pushing me back against the chair.  I was being reprimanded by the Almighty.  I felt like a little child who had wronged his parent.  Then, God’s Voice softened.  The Angel who had smiled down at me fluttered near my shoulder, smiling again like a mother easing her child's pain, cooling the heat that flushed over my face as I thought about all the times I’d bragged about “being a trained killer.”

“Don't beat yourself up, Cliff.  You didn’t know any better.  The Marine Corps doesn't give 'The Ethics Of Killing Classes.'  You just didn't know better then.   I think some people call it a sin of omission--not knowing any better.  But you should feel proud, Cliff.  Lots of people don’t have the guts to come up here and ask me, God, The Creator, The Almighty, to lay them out as I just laid you out on that issue.   But I figured you could handle it.  You’re a big boy with a big job.   Running around presenting yourself as an anti-terrorist and using the children as your umbrella, doesn’t fit with bragging about lopping off someone’s head or being a trained killer.  Now, does it?”

My sense of shame ebbed.  I could see the point.

“No, Sir, it doesn’t.”

“Call me, Buddy, for now, Cliff.  Let’s keep this personal.  We’re just two friends, talking.  Okay?”

“Sure...Buddy.”  It felt good saying the word “Buddy” for the first time since he’d asked me to call Him that..  At the moment, I needed that filial relationship.

"But I have a question, God...I mean, Buddy."

"Shoot.  We're friends, remember that always."

"In your Ten Commandments, what about Thou Shalt Not Kill.  Did you write those words or did someone else make them up?"

"Cliff!  Cliff!  Oh, I wish you knew how sorry I am so many people take MY words and and make them their gospel.   It's sad to see so many interpret what I say so many different ways.  Yes.  I wrote those.  They are MY words.  But they were only the short form of the Commandments...Moses talked me into compressing them to get them on those tablets.   He said he couldn't carry the long form.  I made another mistake, like I did with avocado seeds, making them way too large.  The long form of that Commandement says, Thou Shalt Not Kill Unless Threatened With The Death Of A Loved One By A Deadly Force, And, That Thou Hast The Right To Self Preservation Through Self Defense. I've always regretted that short form, Cliff.  Way too much wiggle room in there for everyone to twist the words around like a pretzel."  He held a pretzel up in demonstration.

God ate the pretzel.  "I should have said, Thou Shall Not Kill Because Thou Wants To, But Only If Thou Has To!   Maybe that would have made it clearer.   But then we get into the definition of "Has To" and another can of worms is opened.   By the way, is there such a thing as canned worms?"

I shook my head.  Sometimes God's humor seemed ill-timed, especially when the conversation was all about me.   "So, what's the bottom line, God?   Where do I go from here?"

“You have a big task on your hands, Cliff.  To promote Semper Vigilantes means you need to not advertise Violence in the same breath you promote Vigilance.  Vigilance isn’t Violence.   It’s readiness, preparedness.  It’s like the martial arts.   The martial arts have a creed—it’s to teach you how to fight and kill so you don’t have to fight and kill.   It’s an Offensive Paradox, but it works.  It’s like Semper Vigilantes—the more prepared you are to battle Terrorism from within and without, the less terrorism you have to fight. Remember, Cliff, you don’t want to confuse your readers or drive some of them off by bragging about violence.   You don’t need to brag.   You went on a hundred combat operations.   You did and saw the things warriors do and see.  You don’t have to say any more than that.”

“Why did I make such a big point of it, then?”

“You didn’t want to offend the military, or the right wingers who might think you were some kind of converted commie pinko liberal running around tossing flowers at the barrels of rifles.  Hell, Cliff, you have an ego.  It’s okay to have one.  And, you were a Marine.  You were trained to think a certain way.  You just keep that thinking in check. Don’t worry about what the guys with jock itch think--worry about the parents, the children.  Let me ask you something very personal, Okay?”

“Of course.”  I took a big gulp of the Pepsi and waited for the unexpected.

“You have two grandchildren--Adam who is five, Sophia who is three, correct?”


“Do you brag about killing people to them?  Do you thump your chest in front of them and tell them you could cut off bin Laden’s head and eat his heart out?”

“No, of course not.”

“Why not?”

“That would encourage them to think killing was a good thing--even if it was to a bad person.”

God smiled as the teacher does when he hears the frozen tundra of a student’s brain cells thawing and breaking up old beliefs, old ways of thinking.   “That’s right.   They are innocent, aren’t they?   They will learn fast enough about life and death.  They don’t need to be encouraged.  They don’t need to see their grandfather in their dreams walking around with a guy’s bloody head dangling in his hand, and his mouth all covered with blood like some animal after eating bin Laden’s heart just to show how tough he is.“

I felt my face flush again.  The Angel swooped over and fanned me with her wings.  A feather brushed against my cheek.  The embarrassed feeling disappeared.

“You will learn many things about your innermost self on this journey toward Semper Vigilantes, Cliff.   So will all those who join you on the journey.  You’ll know when the headlines scream about how many terrorists America has killed with its planes and bombs and bullets, it’s hurting not helping the children.   It’s teaching them revenge through death.   And, if the children’s parents don’t balance the media's constant promotion of violence with something like Semper Vigilantes...if parents don't teach their children the difference between killing others because 'you want to' versus when you 'have to,' their children will endorse the killing just as the news broadcaster is endorsing it--without question.   The reason for all killing should be questioned--always--but it's not.  We accept it as though we had our fingers on the trigger.  All who endorse killing without question are essentially 'trained killers by default.'  I think you call them, 'accessories before the fact.'  Parents need to always ask themselves:  Are we killing because we 'have to' or because we 'want to?'  It takes some thinking to justify the 'have-to-kill' and very little to justify the 'want-to-kill.'   You can help supply parents with ways to help them answer the question, Cliff. .  Oh, and by the way, that George C. Scott was great in Patton.  That scene about making the chaplain write a prayer for the weather--that was so great.   Patton prayed for guidance a lot.   He knew the line between wanting to and having to.  And he never stopped asking for help in defining it.   He sought the answer too.  Great warriors always do."

“What is the answer?”

God fished into the pretzel bag and chomped another mouthful.

“Each parent has his or her own answer to the"wanting to kill" and "having to kill"question, Cliff.  I built the ability to kill to protect one’s self from being killed.   I also built in the ability of each parent to explain the reason for killing to their children.  Let them answer that.  Trust them.”  He wiped his mouth with the back of his arm.  "Some teach children to never kill, even when threatened.  I personally don't agree, but I can't change anyone's belief.  If I could, there would one point of view--MINE--and everyone would do what I wanted which is live in peace and harmony.  And the world would be a virtual Paradise.  And, a human being would become like an ant or a frog or a tree--and have no reason to believe in God because there would be option to not believe.  The answer, Cliff?   That makes humans human.   The ability to question things, to find answers.   Trust me, frogs don't run around asking the ethics of eating bugs.   Only humans ask those kinds of questions.  And each one has his or her own answer.  Free Will, remember?"

"So what's my job, Buddy?  What do I do now?"

“Your job is to stimulate the Parents of Vigilance.  Make them know they must have a good, just answer to the question of “why are we killing the terrorists?”  And, if the answer is “because they killed us,” that’s not acceptable.  That’s teaching revenge—that's just killing because you want to, not because you have to.  The basic answer that a child should hear is ‘we are protecting children from mean people who are planning to hurt them.’  That answer is totally different.  It tells the child that killing is acceptable only in self-defense—only when another life is being threatened—especially a child’s.   Killing under those conditions is not revenge—it is protection.  And it’s done only because it has to be done, not because the people killing want to kill.  Revenge is a want, not a need, Cliff.”

“So you didn’t come up with the eye-for-an-eye, a tooth-for-a tooth?”  I had to ask.   I had to know.

“Absolutely not.  That was attributed to me by some idiot who wanted to justify murder.  If someone seeks revenge, it’s murder.  It has evil intent.  It is done with pure malice.   But, if there is absolute proof that person is planning and acting to kill again, then it is just to protect.   But just killing for quid pro quo’s sake, nope.  Not me.  Not your Creator.”

God shifted his weight and grimaced as he reached behind His back and rubbed.  “Arthritis, Cliff.   Got a touch of it from sitting here for so many eons.”  He regained his composure.

“Now, back to Cliff.   Let me tell you what I’m sure of, Cliff.  I’m sure that someone who promotes Vigilance cannot trumpet Violence in the same breath.  I’m absolutely sure of that.  Now, for the sixty-four-thousand pretzel question:  Are YOU sure of it?”

I didn’t hesitate.  “Yes, Sir.  I’m sure.  I’m absolutely sure I never have to bring that subject up again.”

“Get it--Got it--Good!”  God laughed and reached out and placed his comforting hand on my shoulder.  “Keep coming back, Cliff.  I enjoy talking to you.”

“I will, Sir.  I will.  But, I had two questions.  The other was about feeling I was anti-government.”

“We’ll talk about that some other time, Cliff.   I need to go for a walk and stretch.  Maybe someday I’ll take you on tour of the facilities here…I don’t often do that…it’s not good to enter the Pearly Gates, as you call them, before your time.”

I had an urge to ask God when my time was, but I figured he had something planned for me on Earth or he wouldn’t be bending my ear and teaching me the way He was.  

“I’ll look forward to that, Buddy…God…Sir…Almighty…Creator…Big Dude In The Sky!”

God slapped his knee and roared.  “Cliff, you’ve got balls…talking to your Heavenly Father that way.  But I love it.  It makes me relax.   It makes me feel--well, almost human.   And I like that.”

“Don’t eat too many pretzels, you’ll get heart burn.”

“I have it all the time—but not from pretzels, from the pain of watching people suffer.   Come back soon, Cliff.   Semper Vigilantes!”

“Yes,” I said, feeling very proud he had used those words.  “Yes, Semper Vigilantes to you too.”

“I always am,” God said matter-of-factly, rising from the chair and strolling slowly over the clouds, past the roost of Angels until he became the cloud he passed through.

As I started to leave the Angel who had been fanning me swooped down and lifted me off the cloud and carried me toward earth.  I felt like a child in her arms, soothed and safe and unburdened.  I had gone to see God with a heavy weight around my neck--but now I was lighter, perhaps a little wiser.

“Smile, Cliff,” the Angel said setting me down softly on Astor Place near Starbucks.  “God loves you or he wouldn’t tell you the truth.”   Then the Angel danced for a moment in the wind and disappeared, leaving behind one feather that zig zagged downtown, moving like a tiny sailboat in the sky, in the direction of the World Trade Center rubble where I knew Sentinels of Vigilance stood watching, protecting, reminding us to never forget who they were, or why they were..


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