Violence is woven into the fabric of our being as Americans. In pre-Columbian times, ritual and tribal warfare were commonplace. And from the first waves of Europeans who stepped onto this continent, violence has been either a conscious method of establishing control, as with the genocidal slaughter of first nation peoples, or an inevitable externality, like the sale of contaminated goods that spread the smallpox epidemic, wiping out millions.
This violence is still happening, and if anything has changed, it’s that the violence has grown more heads.
Many years ago, peace activist and educator Colman McCarthy came to my college and to open his lecture, he put a hundred dollar bill on the table. He said whoever could answer all four of his questions could keep it. Who was Robert E. Lee, he asked. We got that one. Who was George Patton? We got that one too. Then he asked us, who was Dorothy Day? None of us knew. Who was Jane Addams? Silence. He put the Ben Franklin back in his wallet.
He went on to tell us the awe-inspiring stories of these courageous activists. There was a reason that we didn’t know these names, McCarthy explained, and it’s because we don’t teach peace in schools. Aside from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who is taught once a year around his birthday in a cursory way, our education system has a vested interest in lionizing the heroes of war. In the course of his talk, McCarthy made me understand how predisposed I was to accept war and prison as necessary facts of life. And I’ve been struggling with the questions he asked us ever since.
Over the last 30 years, and particularly after 911 and the passage of the Patriot Act, our law enforcement culture has shifted from one of community service and maintaining order, to military-style aggression, again, by design. Every time we invest in a foreign war, the gear and vehicles get redistributed among local police forces.
And as the old saying goes, when you have a hammer in your hand, everything looks like a nail.
It is not an accident that Occupy, a peaceful demonstration, was attacked by cops in riot gear, when the Tea Party, a grassroots movement funded by the Koch brothers and so outspoken in its pro-violent stance that its members often came to demonstrations armed, was allowed to congregate without interference. We can deduce from this stark contrast that the imminent threat to government wasn’t the citizens packing heat; it was the citizens peacefully expressing their outrage at Wall Street.
Today, we can identify instances of violence in virtually every aspect of American life. Guns have taken 1165 lives so far this year and death and destroyed families are so commonplace that we are no longer surprised. We shake our collective heads at the merciless detention policies at our southern border that have stripped parents of their children and handed immigrant babies over to private adoption agencies.
But some of the violence is even less visible, hiding in plain sight. It’s an act of violence, for example, to drive your car to work because oil extraction is a violent undertaking, uprooting flora, fauna, and communities, contaminating the water we drink and the air we breathe.
There is a passive sort of violence in cutting funding to vulnerable groups, a passive violence when mainstream media outlets chose for years not to cover the genocide in Yemen, a Saudi blitz for which the U.S. supplied the weaponry.
And there are even subtler forms of violence in our language, in the meanspiritedness of our humor that permeates pop culture and the entire spectrum of our political views. Just yesterday, I was on Twitter and a clearly conservative minister was denying the existence of trans people (another form of violence). The response, very obviously from the left, was hundreds of caustic memes, insults, and threats veiled as jokes. In other words, the solution to violence is more violence.
In my own daily life, I find myself going into ‘fight’ mode when the parents around me don’t seem to care that juice boxes are terrible for our kids and our planet. God forbid I see a Trump sticker on someone’s bumper. The current trajectory of our species requires increasing levels of denial in order for us to keep moving. Physical sensations of rage give way to intense feelings of sorrow and hopelessness that I have to actively “combat” through exercise, art, and meditation, with mixed results. Everyone I know experiences this in some form or another.
We are bonded to violence as a way of being because we have centuries of trauma embedded in us. When we are not the aggressors, we are the victims. As creatures, we are highly susceptible to danger and instinctively protect ourselves, and as emotional beings, we easily become wrapped up in our own ideas of right to the point where we don’t realize we are perpetuating the problem.
We can change policies. We can hold the wealthy accountable. But in order to save ourselves, we must experience a massive cultural shift, a much, much higher bar to reach. It requires a deep look inward to the scary vulnerabilities we are defending so fiercely. This fight must eventually end, and someone will end it, either by annihilation or by transcending all this rage.
It’s true, we don’t have many good models. But it can be done.
There was a piece on Vice not too long ago about the Tutsi people who were systematically slaughtered by the Huti in the Rwandan genocide. A woman had her whole family save one daughter decimated by her neighbor, and now she and that former soldier live side by side as friends. He said, “After getting released from jail, I would feel guilty that I committed crimes against Maria, and I would feel fearful and shameful of myself. I asked her to forgive me. She forgave me and I felt relief in my heart.”
I consider this to be an extraordinary feat of love, one I don’t feel capable of myself. But if that is the high water mark, surely we can forgive lesser trespasses?
We must understand that we are armed and scarred by virtue of our history and ideology. It is not our fault entirely, then, if we are born inside a subtle and endless war, that we are primed to inflict harm. And in seeing this, also seeing the extraordinary power we have to stop the siege.
This is the impulse that will foster sustainable systems. It will raise people out of poverty and restore the health of our ecosystem. It’s the highest impulse that Jesus and Buddha and Muhammad aspired to teach us. It’s the very thing that has helped us survive on this remarkable planet for as long as we have. Love is our birthright, and yet we have created so many obstacles to that simple truth. If we cannot overcome these obstacles, if we cannot lay down our weapons, then violence will consume us, and ironically, everything we love.