The Counterintuitive Truth About Violence: The Day After Dallas
Begin with speculation: Why do mass murderers often finish their missions by committing suicide, either by cop or their own hand? Various sources suggest self-loathing, hopelessness, a weird attempt at revenge, and a refusal to endure the consequences of their actions.
All of those reasons make sense, more or less, but this morning, riding out the dismay of yet another mass shooting, another explanation occurred to me.
After you kill people, you are in great measure dead already. Suicide is the end punctuation of the truth.
This basic idea—the violence you do to others returns home to you—is hardly new, but it is so unpalatable, abstract, and counterintuitive that we reject it, if we acknowledge it at all.
The Psalmist writes of his enemy, but speaks a universal reality: “He made a pit, and digged it, and is fallen into the ditch which he made. His mischief shall return upon his own head, and his violent dealing shall come down upon his own pate”(Psalm 7:15-16).
Arthur Conan Doyle certainly borrows from Psalm 7 when his Sherlock Holmes observes, “Violence does, in truth, recoil upon the violent, and the schemer falls into the pit which he digs for another” (“The Adventure of the Speckled Band”).
Buddhist teachings also acknowledge the result of letting yourself be consumed by anger and violence: “By doing [violence] you are like a man who wants to hit another and picks up a burning ember or excrement in his hand and so first burns himself or makes himself stink” (Visuddhimagga IX, 23).
The temptation is to domesticate such wisdom by restricting it only to terrorists and crazies. But anger is wild, violence a delinquent student. And, no revelation here, we human beings can all get pissed and throw haymakers. Who among us doesn’t take life from others, blood cell by blood cell, hour by hour? The unkind word recoils upon the speaker as surely as the shooter is wounded in his own crossfire.
Of course, not all violence is driven by anger. A soldier, for example, might wish to do anything rather than kill. Unfortunately, taking another person’s life, even for a just cause, can still be lethal for the most stable of soldiers. Some in military service die in battle, obviously. Others return home with beating hearts and tortured spirits. From 1999 to 2010, one veteran committed suicide every 65 minutes, 22 of them each day. In 2012, active-duty suicides ever-so-slightly outpaced deaths in engagement (177 to 176).
I regard members of the United States armed forces as heroes. They risk life and limb out of a deep, difficult calling. They carry out orders they may not like in conflicts perhaps troubling to them in hopes of defending their country.
It’s unfair that a noble person can survive a battle only to discover in the aftermath invisible, self-inflicted wounds. A glowing coal doesn’t care whether the hand about to throw it is right or wrong, good or evil. It burns whatever it touches.
I’m prepared to be corrected in my speculations. I’ve never taken a human life. But why did many veterans of my father’s generation remain silent about what they saw and did in World War II? Why was the scorn Vietnam vets endured so personally and spiritually devastating? Why are those serving in today’s military taking their own lives in record numbers?
Because killing kills. Failing that, it maims. The recoil of violence is so strong that even those of us who lash out only in insults and dirty looks bruise ourselves.
The sniper who murdered five police officers in Dallas was killed by a robot reaching toward him with an explosive—the fruit of his evening’s labors. But he was dead already.
And what about the rest of us? Is there any hope of stopping what has become our planetary routine of violence?
My kingdom for selfless love pandemic! But that wish amounts to whistling into the wind. What we have right now is rage, which, though understandable, is not inclined toward the Golden Rule.
Any suggestion these days ends up sounding impotent, but I’ll offer mine just the same: We ought to teach our children right from the start that any blood they shed in this life will generally include an equal share of their own.