Measuring the Commodity of Human Breathing

In our discussion yesterday concerning waterboarding, I began to reflect upon the greater — and immeasurable — value of human breathing and its punishments both invoked and self-sustained.

Is it possible to measure the value of human breathing? If so, what commodity of value do we place on its importance? Our breath — more than any other internal inertia of us — is shared with those around us through noses and mouths. The depths of us find purchase in light and air and inside each other. Our breathing, more than our bodies, identifies us to others and defines us with specific intent.

We use our breath to pant, whistle, speak, cough, holler and whisper — and before we can expel any of those guttural responses we must first inhale in order to exhale. Mouth-to-mouth resuscitation was never a truer life-giver. Which is more important? The breath in or the breathing out? The intention of invoked waterboarding appears to be the denial of a fresh breath of air by simulating drowning.

The body goes into panic mode as gasps for air are replaced by inhaling water. The key to defeating an enemy seems to be to take their breath away. Burn them. Smoke them. Atomize them. Spray them. Choke them. I recently watched a telling military self-defense course where teams of five professional soldiers would fight hand-to-hand against each other to get opposing teams to tap out and submit. It was fascinating to watch one of the most effective teams gang-tackle an opposing player.

Four soldiers each held down a limb while striking blows on the connected arteries while the attacked soldier struggled to free himself. Then, the fifth team member would descend — like Zeus from the mountaintop — and gently place a hand over the attacked soldier’s mouth with one hand while pinching his nose with the other. The attacked soldier, who had fought off four attacks to his limbs for over a minute, would give up within five seconds of having his breathing covered and pinched.

There are many stories from families and nurses who witness the moment a suffering person dies and one last, heaving, breath, is taken before the body expires. That final breath, some believe, is the spirit or the life or the soul leaving the body and lifting to the heavens. If breath is the sign of life, then not breathing is the first indicator of death.

If breathing is one of the most precious — and most easy to compromise
— commodities we have, it is now our duty to wonder together about those who purposely self-impose restrictions on that breath of life. Swimmers must be especially daring. One wrong move and you’re not only breathless and choking on water, but you risk further peril in drowning. What do we make of those who choose to smoke?

Are they tempting the wiles of Zeus? Or are they merely self-hating and prefer to perpetuate their suffering on earth by choking their breath and the others surrounding them? How do we deal with air pollution that is suffocating large cities?

Are urban citizens unwilling victims to wanton sadists that poison the air with chemicals and other unseemly substances? Or are they just fools for choosing to live in constant danger? Do we all still have access to “a breath of fresh air” somewhere — or is that divine opportunity smothering in our last dying breath?