On Mourning Violence
Originally written October 14th, 2007
I was speaking with my father tonight. My father is a very wise man, who I don’t get to speak to nearly as often as I could and who I haven’t listened to nearly as often as I should. I cannot remember how we got on the subject, but he was telling me about when he used to live in Boston. He was telling me about how, on one early morning, he went out for a jog. During his run, he encountered two men who attempted to mug him. One grabbed his arm, and my father shoved him to the ground while the other tried to sweep my father’s legs. My father dodged him and began to punch this man in the face as hard as he could, over and over. Through the blood and the broken teeth, this man started to scream “Stick it in him! Stick it in him!” Terrified, my father thrust his thumbs into this man’s eye sockets, causing him to collapse to the ground in agony. My father ran as fast as he could. Tonight, my father told me that he still remembers how his eyes felt, and that he still regrets feeling like he had to do that.
A couple of days ago, I was serving lunch at a homeless shelter. I don’t bring that up to offer proof of my goodness as a person – as I have also done some terrible things in my life (things which I will not share here, by the way). My task was not hard: place a piece of blueberry cornbread onto the tray and pass it down the line. Being that it was not hard, I got a chance to interact with some of the people coming through the line. Some were young, and some were old. Some had obviously served in wars, and some could not speak English. Some thanked me with a warm smile, and some never looked at me. But I saw something I had never seen before. I saw little pieces of me in them. Some people bore with them the scars of addition’s profanity, as do I. Reflecting on my checking account balance, I realized I had little more money than they. Some people sat down and laughed with others while they ate, whereas some others sought solitude. Some ate quickly, and some slowly. I too, have done all these things.
I am used to thinking in terms of us and they, as we all are. Us, on this side of the lunch-line, are volunteers and they, on that side of the line are the hungry homeless. We, on this side of the ocean, are Americans and they, on that side, are Iraqis. We, on this side of the wall are guards and they, on that side, are inmates. We, on this side of the law, are citizens and they, on that side, are muggers. Us and they. We and them.
I don’t think those distinctions are so clear cut, anymore. I think a better description is to say that we are them and they are us. The mugger that my father blinded and my father probably had a lot more that was similar about them than was different. The insurgent that is shooting at that American soldier could probably, in other circumstances, relate to him in many different ways. The fighter pilot dropping bombs on that terrorist training camp probably possesses many of the same traits of the people that he is killing.
Violence is a failure. On a large-scale level, it is a failure of civilizations, of diplomacy. On a miniature scale, where people are blinded, it is a failure of our basic humanity to recognize the similarities we all share. We fail to see that we are really blinding ourselves. We fail to see that we are destroying our own nations, our own cities, and our own homes.
I can understand why it is easier to emphasize our differences as opposed to our similarities. If they are inhuman, then it is easy to lose our humanity with them. Violence, then, becomes merely a means to an end. Another suicide bomber. Another nameless civilian killed. Another soldier laid to rest. Somehow, through some pathology, some defect in our wiring, they cease to be people. They cease to be us.
Violence may be necessary and a fact of life. Had my father not blinded that mugger, I might not be here. When the Japanese bombed us during World War II, they left us little option but to war with them. When we were attacked on September 11, we had attack who was responsible (ostensibly, that was Afghanistan). When a friend of mine was forced to defend his family, he had little choice but to kill his attacker.
But violence is still a failure. It should not be what leads the news: it should be our collective shame. That we could not muster the basic skill to negotiate, the basic humanity to not attack someone else, is to me a tragedy. Remember that it may be necessary, but I will never cheer for it and will never become it’s advocate. I mourn it.