Can They Kill Us All?

Can they kill us all?


The title of a recent book by Wesley Lowery caught my attention (as was probably his intention in choosing such a title: They Can’t Kill Us All) and set me thinking about the ways in which cliché expressions develop their meanings and how those meanings change over time.


They can’t kill us all!


The phrase is now understood to convey that whether or not they (the enemy) kill one or many of us it doesn’t matter because in the end we (those on the side of the speaker) will triumph anyway. Interesting, and as applied to the topic of Mr. Lowery’s book on racial injustice in America the fact is historical verifiable just in our short lifetimes. However, when examined in broader historical context (or by using a bit of imagination) it is quite plain the sentiment “They can’t kill us all!” is factually incorrect. 


Anytime a vastly technologically superior culture encounters one of its less industrialized counterparts (whether it be the Inca or Mayans of South America, or the Zulu of southern Africa, or the Apache of the American southwest) one is not surprised by the outcome: the more technologically advanced society, even when grossly outnumbered, are still successful in all but exterminating their less industrialized counterparts.


(On the imaginative end of the spectrum, consider an advanced alien race descending on earth with weapons so creative and powerfully advanced (I’m not going to take the time to make them up for the purpose of the example) our most powerful nuclear weapons are like Nerf guns by comparison. These invading aliens could certainly kill us all if it was their desire to do so regardless of our plucky insistence to the otherwise.)


That being the factual, historically verifiable case, the destructive evidence of which runs through the 20th, 19th, 18th, 17th, and 16th centuries, over the course of which the whole of the Western hemisphere, Asia, and Africa were brought under the control of Europe and the late-arriving United States, we are lead to the origin of the expression.


“They can’t kill us all!”


The multitudinous peasant uprisings of the 15th, 14th, 13th, and 12th centuries gave rise to the logically defensible sentiment, for feudal lords, in suppressing a revolt, couldn’t kill all the peasants because there would then be insufficient hands to work the land that fed their noble selves and their households.