The Contagion of Hell

Tom Ellis
4 min readOct 16, 2023

“He who is the author of a war, lets loose the whole contagion of hell, and opens a vein that bleeds a nation to death.” –Thomas Paine (1778)

In dire times such as these, I often revisit the words of Thomas Paine, a man whose impeccable moral clarity has resonated, and will continue to resonate, for as long as humanity walks this Earth. The above words from his revolutionary tract “The Crisis,” which originally referred to King George III, could today be applied, with no less force, to Hitler, George W. Bush, Vladimir Putin, Hamas, Netanyahu, Slobodan Milosovich, and — potentially — to Xi JinPing and Kim Jong Un as well, for all seek to consolidate their power by threatening or attacking their neighbors.

And so here we are; the “contagion of hell” has yet again been unleashed — first in Ukraine, and now in Israel/Palestine, as well as smaller, but equally savage instances of civil conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh, South Sudan, Eritrea, Kashmir, and many others.

It is a contagion simply because war inexorably breeds hatred, which in turn breeds more war. Voices of moderation and negotiation — voices of opposition to the policies of the warlords — are silenced and demonized as traitors, while intellectual freedom is squelched, and in the worst cases, such dissenters are rounded up, imprisoned, detained, or shot. So war leads not only to hatred and demonization of the “enemy,” but also to tyranny and brutality within the warring nations as well. And the worst kind of war imaginable is “holy war,” where religious faith is drafted into the service of tribalism and hatred: our “enemy” by this logic, becomes the “enemy of God” (since “we,” after all, are the “people of God”) — with whom any form of compromise is condemned an offense against God himself…

Such is the situation in Israel/Palestine, two militantly monotheistic peoples, both of whom lay claim to the same real estate at the east end of the Mediterranean as their divinely sanctioned homeland, since both see THEIR god — Allah or Yahweh — as the one true god. And since one of these peoples — the refugees from the appalling Nazi holocaust — forcibly displaced the pre-existent Muslim population of those lands in order to establish their own nation on their ancestral (and sacred) homeland, there is little if any room for compromise. And so the cycle of brutality and revenge goes on and on, exploding (as we have recently seen) into acts of horrific brutality and mass murder, with both sides blaming the other for the bloodshed, while conducting their own violent reprisals. And so poisonous hatred, a natural response to horrific grief and suffering due to the other’s brutality, continues to spiral, seemingly without end.

All this raises the question: what, if anything, can be done about this “contagion of hell” once it breaks out? I wish I knew. As long as voices of moderation, negotiation, and compromise are demonized and silenced by the ruling powers on both sides, the horror continues and accelerates. Now that this Middle-Eastern powderkeg of mutual religious hatreds has ignited, it may lead to a nuclear conflagration, with Israel or Iran starting it, Russia and NATO jumping in on one side, India and Pakistan on another, North and South Korea, China and Taiwan as well…and we will all die — or live in Hell until we die shortly thereafter, whether from radiation sickness, starvation, or violence.

This raises a rather grim question: which do we prefer, a quick and horrid death by global nuclear holocaust, or a slow and painful death by rising global temperatures and the panoply of catastrophes worldwide (e.g. droughts, wildfires, storms, floods, heat waves, crop failures, sea level rise, melting ice, die-offs of whole ecosystems) that the accelerating climate disruption has already unleashed? We may not get the choice, of course.

All of this begs the existential question: why live?

Each person will have a different answer, of course. Some will say “for their spouses, children, and friends;” others “for the beauty of just being alive,” while others, more embittered, will say “for revenge.”

My own response, no better or worse than these, is this: I am an animal, and like all other animals — and plants, fungi, and microorganisms as well, I am driven by my genetic coding to act in my own behalf; to keep on keeping on, as long as I can, and then to let go peacefully, if possible, when I must. This is the foundation of my personal will to live — my Gaian kinship with all other living beings on the only life-sustaining planet we will ever know. Next, of course, come my personal relationships: my wife, my relations, my friends. (I am fortunate, I feel, to have no children of my own to worry about these days). And finally, my unfinished business — my aspirations to create local networks of garden guilds, where neighbors in close proximity get to know each other, and collaborate to grow gardens, grow community, and grow awareness — by learning, teaching, healing, and creating. Once the larger infrastructures we depend on collapse, such local networks of friends and neighbors who have gained some experience collaborating with one another on growing food will be all we have left as a hedge against chaos, tyranny, violence, and starvation…even if that garden-guild based safety net, like everything else, is impermanent. And with some luck (if we avoid a nuclear holocaust, and if the rising temperatures do not simply cook our biosphere and kill us all), such garden guilds may leave enough survivors, (socialized for kindness and care of others and of life) to start the long, multigenerational healing process for our ravaged, sacred planet. So be it.



Tom Ellis

I am a retired English professor now living in Oregon, and a life-long environmental activist, Buddhist, and holistic philosopher.