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I'm having trouble with the terms "raman and varelse", I really enjoy your books and want to have a better understanding of them. The term "raman" was used in the Philmont Grace at boy scout camp. Please help and keep writing.

-- Submitted Anonymously

OSC REPLIES: - September 20, 2000

I'm not sure how to explain raman vs. varelse any better than I do in my books. The overall concept was explained as clearly as I know how in Speaker for the Dead ... and then I devoted almost the entirety of Children of the Mind to exploring the issue in detail!

But I guess what makes it so confusing is that it is a distinction that is ultimately unknowable ... that is, by definition a varelse is someone so alien and dangerous that you can't know them and can't reach an understanding with them; but that inability to know them makes it quite possible that they are potentially raman after all, but you have no way of discovering it. Thus the tragic misunderstandings of the "Bugger Wars" in Ender's Game and between other aliens and humans in the later books in the series. Yet for the survival of your own people, you can't just assume that currently unknowable aliens mean well after all. What if those aliens are led by a Hitler and they simple will not express their "better nature" until it's too late for you? Thus the right of communities to defend themselves against those who appear to have both the capability and the desire to exterminate them must remain -- the right, in short, to decide that, as best you can determine, another community is varelse.

The real moral issue is how quickly, and on how much evidence, and under what threat, and with what consequence you decide that another community is varelse. Once having admitted the possibility that, to defend your own community, you might have to obliterate another, do you then find yourself leaping to the conclusion that any degree of strangeness is enough to make aliens worthy of treatment as varelse? I submit that there is a point where your own community becomes varelse -- that is, an indiscriminately murderous and dangerous community that needs to be destroyed by others in order to protect themselves.

For instance: Germans were mostly decent people prior to WWII. But ... behavior of their community (that is, the acts of those empowered to speak for and wield the power of Germany) demonstrated clearly that they were, in fact, dangerous to the survival of some peoples in their entirety and of some core values of other societies. In the process of making war, many nice Germans were accidentally killed -- as if they were varelse.

Wars don't always come about because of misunderstandings, or not in the way we might think. WWII had to be fought, not because we didn't understand the Germans, but because we most assuredly did understand them, at least well enough to know the danger they posed.

The only reason the allies did not exterminate the Germans -- or the Japanese -- was because it proved not to be necessary in order to eliminate the threat they posed. But the situation I artificially set up in Children of the Mind was twofold: Lusitania was being treated as varelse by the rest of the human worlds, because they could not trust the Lusitanians not to be a danger ... even though we (the readers) know that the Lusitanians are doing their best not to be a danger. And, in the meantime, the Descoladores were a demonstrated danger, having indiscriminately sent out world-transforming viruses that could destroy humanity if they got loose in the general population. On the one hand, we root for the Lusitanians to succeed in evading the extermination plans of the Congress fleet; on the other hand, we fear what will happen if the Lusitanians fail to stop the Descoladores.

Sometimes you have to act without knowing; but you never have to act without at least trying to know, and remaining open to new information at every step of the way.

(The practical immediate application of this moral dilemma is, for me, especially piquant right now, as the cowardly, illegal, careless, and selfish use of America's military force by Bill Clinton makes it not at all surprising that more and more people outside the U.S. will feel utterly justified in regarding America as "varelse" -- a community that is so dangerous to others that they must protect themselves in whatever ways they can. I am utterly unable to find a moral distinction between Clinton's bombing of Khartoum and Afghanistan, actions that, in detail, make it clear that these bombings were based on no credible evidence and achieved no national purpose, and the bombing of the World Trade Center, which was no less cowardly and misguided in its selection of a target but considerably nobler in the motives of the perpetrators. By our own standards - indiscriminate bombings of civilian targets in a country with which the bombers are not at war -- Clinton himself should be undergoing exactly the same level of trial and punishment that the World Trade Center bombers go through. But -- and this is what makes us, as a nation, arguably "varelse" by some points of view -- we refused to remove this man from office and, in fact, act as if his use of our military force is perfectly OK with us -- because all we care about is that no Americans got killed. Ditto with the bombing of Serbia. We could have prevented most of the killing of Kosovar civilians, if we had put troops on the ground -- but some Americans would have died. To avoid that, we instead bombed Serbia from high altitude, losing no Americans but allowing tens of thousands of Kosovars to be murdered, and ourselves killing many noncombatants unnecessarily in Serbia. It is hard for me to find a moral distinction between Milosevic and Clinton -- and I say that after careful consideration. Both are obviously war criminals, heedlessly causing many deaths for the sake of their own political ambitions. The difference is that the Serbian people have paid a price for the crimes their military and government have committed in their name -- while we have yet to pay for what we have permitted our government to do in our name. If we find ourselves regarded -- and treated -- as varelse, we should not be surprised; and it is pathetic to think of how many Americans who consented to leave Clinton in office will then deny that they "deserve" to bear any of the consequences of his actions when the chickens at last come home to roost.)

Clarification: Since this letter was posted, it has been pointed out that the reference in the prayer at Philmont is to "raiment," not "raman." An easy misunderstanding, depending on how one pronounces the words.

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