Thursday, January 31, 2008

Violence by Any Other Name is Still Violence

Last week Arun Gandhi, the grandson of Mahatma Gandhi, resigned from the board of the M.K. Gandhi Institute for Non Violence after writing a column in which he called Israel and the Jews the biggest players in creating a culture of violence that will eventually destroy humanity. Too bad he blamed it all on one group, because he is otherwise correct. This world does live under a culture of violence, a culture that does indeed destroy humanity. Israel and the Jews are certainly in for their share. So are Arabs and Islam. In other parts of the world, tribalism, capitalism, Christianity and even atheism have their own cultures of violence. Mankind has a long history of violence. Israel, the Jews, Arabs and Muslims are only the latest victims; they are only the latest perpetrators.

Violence begets violence. A violent act, sometimes even violent, insulting words, creates a wound, a violation that calls for revenge, atonement and retribution. The circle goes round and round, destroying what fragments of civility and community we humans manage to create. So long has this been our history, so many are the lessons and examples of sheer waste and folly, that our unwillingness to renounce violence belies our scientific, technological and intellectual achievements.

The culture of violence is not something apart from ourselves. We are each responsible for the violence that we bring into the world, for the violence we allow in our own lives and for the violence we ignore it when it doesn’t affect us. Americans have been “fortunate” to have been removed from much of the world’s violence (Native Americans and Black Americans excepted); all we’ve really had to worry about are the occasional wackos like Charles Whitman, Timothy McVeigh and Seung Hui Cho. We’ve mostly dismissed violence from our lives; unless it directly affects us, it’s merely Something That Happens to Others . We live in security where the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are usually respected and protected. No matter how dire an American’s life may be, the American is still among the world’s richest people. To the rest of the world, we are rich and secure. Most of us sleep in beds each night and are well fed.

Not so for others in many places. We want to dismiss those places as failed states, where it’s not our fault that they can’t all just get along, that they can’t control their population, that they are illiterate and ill prepared for much beyond subsistence living. Their plight is terrible but we can’t do much about it so why try? We can’t build their society for them. That’s why we have television, so we don’t have to think about this all too much. Instead we can watch something else. But our inattention does not solve the problem, it only separates us from our fellow humans even as our comfortable, secure life depends on the economic dominance and control that contribute immensely to the world’s poverty, strife and violence. Local culture, tradition and history also contribute to this insecurity but a world economy driven to always seek and exploit every advantage puts weaker, fractionalized nations and regions at risk. Local foibles only make matters worse but are by no means the problem.

The problem arises when one person, tribe, ethnic group, nation or alliance determines that it must have what another possess and cannot be induced to share through negotiation, barter or normal commerce. I or my group, simply declare myself more worthy, therefore, I can simply have what others possess on my terms regardless of others’ interest or objection. Whatever is necessary to effect that transfer, including the sacrifice of another’s life, family and property ultimately becomes justified. That is violence.

Cartels, dictators, oligarchs, monarchs, corporations and religions all exist in order to seek some desired result, preferably by persuasion and logic but all have used and many still use violence and intimidation in their pursuit of those results. All have justified taking from others what they do not willingly surrender, justifying the taking only in terms of one-sided self-interest. Any place in the world where people attack and kill each other, someone has decided that another is less worthy of life.

Mr. Gandhi is correct about the culture of violence in the Middle East. He is incorrect that the culture is unique to Israel and the Jews. Rather, the culture seems endemic to human intercourse. Violence is our species’ greatest failure.



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