The Counterintuitive Truth About Violence: The Day After Dallas

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.

TBT: So . . . Was I Right about Iraq?

I’m often slow on the uptake. Facebook friends keep posting photographs with the comment “TBT.” What the hey? Since my policy is not to put much thought into cryptic messages, ignorance has enjoyed its long day. I finally broke the code, but can’t remember how. If ever a brain needed a laxative, it’s mine. A cheap Cabernet may have cleared enough obstructions for the obvious to snap into focus, the way the Eiffel Tower or Sebastian Cabot appear in 3D glory after you zone out looking at one of those dizzying posters that used to populate restaurant waiting areas. (Mr. French may be available only through special order.)

Throwback Thursday! Of course. UrbanDictionary.com updates my revelation by noting that TBT may also indicate Throwback To . . . . So every day of the week we can gorge ourselves with impunity on grainy images of our unfortunate 1980s hairstyles. I love it.

Since I got my hair cut roughly the same way today as I did thirty years ago, I don’t have much to add to TBT in the way of embarrassing photographs. In the process of junk sorting, however, I found an opinion piece I wrote for the Erie Times-News between 9/11/2001 and the U.S. attack on Iraq on 3/19/2003.

This particular TBT is short on humor, but it is interesting to revisit old convictions.

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Sad when your throwback photograph from a dozen years ago makes people say, “Geez, he’s let himself go.”

What would Jesus say about Iraq? (This title and the paragraphing are not mine.)

For the United States, September 11, 2001, was a series of unimaginable sucker punches. In a few hours, terrorists placed on our country’s hearthrug a new reality: the “gentleman’s agreement” as to the rules of war had been altered.

The “enemy” isn’t necessarily a specific country anymore, and rather than sticking their chins out for a retaliatory punch, attackers blow themselves up.

The question is, how should we respond to this new set of rules—or lack thereof? Or more to the point for me, what is a faithful way of responding to terrorism within our borders?

President Bush isn’t hiding his take on the matter. He thinks that the United States, either alone or in cooperation with other nations, should bomb Iraq with the goal of eliminating Saddam Hussein.

I haven’t heard any of television’s talking heads dispute the Bush administration’s claims that Iraq supports terrorism, so I guess if we’re going to wage war on terrorism, Iraq is as good a place to start as any.

My concern isn’t where the bombing should begin, but when it will (or won’t) end.

I don’t pretend to know what course of action will best protect our national interests or rid the world of the fanatical inclination to fly jets into skyscrapers.

Even as a pastor, I don’t know that I could win a theological argument for peace. Many intelligent, scripturally literate people believe that the time for seeking peace with terrorists has passed.

But I do feel increasingly sure about the voice of my own conscience, and the word I’ve been hearing lately is enough.

As I write this, my kids are close by. One is tying up the phone lines by gabbing on AOL, and the other is wearing a pair of goggles and pretending to swim across my study floor. My wife is at a class on home repair. I love these three.

Here’s the deal. If we start down the wrenching, potentially endless path of incinerating the world’s sucker punchers, people every bit as dear as my beloved three would also burn because they happen to be in the way.

Enough! Enough lives lost. Enough grieving. Enough violence.

Like I said, these are only the words of my own conscience. I’m probably wrong and simplistic, but I try to imagine Jesus standing beside me. What would he say? I can’t hear “bomb ‘em” or “acceptable collateral damage” coming from his lips.

What I hear is more like “figure out something else.”

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Grizzled and pudgy, I imagine my beloved grandson under the bomb. I guess I’m parked in the same spot I was years ago.

Dear America: A Response to Our Mass Violence Du Jour

Dear America:

Jeff Weise. Nidal Malik Hasan. Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold. Aaron Alexis. Ivan Lopez. Adam Lanza. Seung-Hui Cho. Mark Robert James Essex. James Holmes. Jiverly Wong. Michael McClendon. Scott Evans Dekraai. Omar Thornton. Robert Hawkins.

Could you pass a test matching these guys with the places and dates of their shooting sprees? Me neither. I’ve limited the list to cases after 2000 in the United States, and even at that I’ve missed some massacres. (For answers, check here.)

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Fresh-faced high schoolers, minding their own business. (Credit: Odilon Dimier / PhotoAlto / Corbis)

On Wednesday, April 9th, sixteen-year-old Alex Hribal took a more primal approach to mass wagon-fixing by “stabbing wildly with two kitchen knives” at twenty-one teens and one security guard (cnn.com). The location was Franklin Regional Senior High School in Murrysville, Pennsylvania—just in case you want to make a flash card to study for any exams on violence in the future.

Don’t mistake my irreverence for a flippant attitude toward tragedy; I’m not dismissing the agony of the fallen, their loved ones, or the murderers and their families. My fellow Americans, I’ve had about enough of us! Good sense at its most basic level has left the national building, and our willingness to compromise for the sake of public safety has taken a nap from which it refuses to awaken.

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“And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” White House portrait of John F. Kennedy by Aaron Shikler. (Credit: Wikipedia)

I voiced my frustration with US in a lengthy post last year after the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre—first graders and adults riddled with a Bushmaster semi-automatic rifle, if you’ll recall. A few days ago it was a lone kid slicing away. The Associated Press reports that Hribal “doesn’t appear to have a history of misbehavior or any known mental problems.” My frustration this time isn’t with the Murrysville “enigma,” who will be prosecuted as an adult. In the weeks ahead the media will accompany shrinks into the young man’s psyche until the guessing game grows tiresome. Then, we’ll all move on to Justin Bieber’s next tantrum or Miley Cyrus’ next twerk. In a month or two, someone will lash out, killing or injuring another dozen or two, and we’ll do what we always do: scratch our heads, look for behaviors foretelling violence, and ask what can be done to prevent such a horror from happening again.

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All right, no running on school property, and nobody gets hurt! (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

I can’t take it anymore! We—you and me—are insufferably, embarrassingly full of crap. We mean well. Our hearts are in the right place. The trouble is, our brains have slumped into a stupor of denial. Example: WSEE television news (CBS) in Erie, Pennsylvania, hit me with the following viewers’ poll the evening after the Murrysville stabbings: “Which of these is the best approach for keeping kids safe in our schools?

  • metal detectors at entrances
  • cops in the hallways
  • training to identify problem kids
  • homeschooling”

Homeschooling? Really? If this isn’t waving the white flag, I don’t know what is. Sure, the poll here is sincere, but come on. Every time a bunch of innocents bleed, we engage in flaccid Monday-morning quarterbacking and half-assed introspection. We wring our hands, look at the ground, sigh, and worry the change in our pockets. Why are we at such a loss? Because serious, effective steps to reduce explosive, indiscriminate violence require more heroic honesty and moxie than we Americans possess. The truth is, we’ve surrendered to the worst angels of our nature and followed them down dark, destructive paths so far that we’ve forgotten what the gentle light of sanity looks like. Consider:

  • Video game sales in the United States for 2013 totaled $15.39 billion (joystiq.com). In the top ten of sales are Grand Theft Auto V; Call of Duty: Ghosts; Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag; and The Last of Us (thefiscaltimes.com). We’re talking about killions of games being played by teenagers, with the activity being essentially this: sneak around and blow people (or zombies) away. So, let’s review: countless young people spend relaxing evenings rehearsing mass murder via convincing media—from a first-person point of view.
  • When those little ones and brave adults got cut down at Sandy Hook Elementary in Advent of 2012, Americans of good sense figured that at long, sad last, something definitive would be done about crazy weapons falling into the hands of troubled souls. Sure, ramping up gun control measures after weapons already populated millions of homes would have amounted to closing the barn door after the horses had galloped off, but at least we could have tried to limit the scourge. Even then we Americans, at least as represented by our elected officials, lacked resolve and stamina. Twenty of our children were taken away in minutes, along with six adults trying to protect them, and still our collective will was trodden under foot by thuggish lobbying and political cowardice. God forbid a congressman or senator should piss off Wayne LaPierre.
  • As if real and mimicked slaughter aren’t terrible enough, two films in recent years raise the bar on gore. James Wan’s 2004 film Saw includes a delicious scene in which a young guy has sixty seconds to dig a key out from behind his eyeball or a mask of nails called a Venus Fly Trap will snap shut on his face. I won’t ruin it for you. Meanwhile, Tom Six’s 2009 tour de force, The Human Centipede, has three young adults sewn together, arse-hole to pie-hole. What message can be found in such leisurely matinees? Rob Zombie, who remade Halloween in 2007, was candid when he said in a vanityfair.com interview, “I don’t think my movies have a lesson. Or if they do, I guess it’s that it’s a f—ed up world and you’re probably f—ed too.” Edifying, huh?
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Theatrical release poster. I suppose Zombie has a point. (Credit: Wikipedia)

Can there be any doubt that the Constitution has become a document to exploit rather than a treasure entrusted to us for the sake of freedom-loving people everywhere? Sadly, our stewardship of the Founding Fathers’ labor and risk often deteriorates into spats over freedom of speech and the right to bear arms.

Let’s be clear—and brief: Roadstar Games wasn’t motivated by free speech in 2011 when its Modern Warfare 3 grossed $775,000,000 in its first five days on the market. Rob Zombie admits that the First Amendment isn’t on his mind. And anybody who argues that Benjamin Franklin or Thomas Jefferson would condone the ownership and abuse of the weapons on steroids available today is engaged in somnambulistic thinking. There’s a difference between words and actions protected by the Constitution and words and actions hiding behind the Constitution.

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A document that brings us together or divides us? (Credit: Wikipedia)

Those who use the Constitution as a cover for extravagant profit have played a part in creating a world where massacres are commonplace. I can hear the objection already: Okay, Coleman, prove it. It’s clear at this point that no evidence I could present would satisfy the Entertainment Software Association, for example, which offers this assurance: “The truth is, there is no scientific research that validates a link between computer and video games and violence. Instead, a host of respected researchers has concluded that there is no link between media violence and violent crime.” No link? None?

Today, filmmakers, video game manufacturers, gun zealots, and Washington suits are either unwittingly caught in the gravitational pull of personal rights over collective responsibilities or gleefully scamming a Constitution that depends on the best intentions of the people. In any case, the situation is a wretched shame. A controller and screen invite us to simulate savagery, and we’re all one DVD away from witnessing the most perverted tortures imaginable. One result among many: the killing or maiming of innocent folks in public places is officially on the menu of possible, though extreme, responses to private despair and rage. The world is now thus.

But enough of this line of complaint. My letter to America is directed to those of us who aren’t consumed by the daily cluster of governance or who produce mad visions of media violence. Let’s wake up from our collective nap of denial and feigned shock. Are any of us actually surprised at the mass killing du jour? And do we as individual citizens think long and hard about how we can keep kids safe in school? Be honest, now.

© Copyright 2013 CorbisCorporation

Not all napping is cute. Come on, let’s wake up. (Credit: Hal Beral / Corbis)

Shooting imaginary people (or enemies or zombies or whatever) until they’re a scattering of juicy, red mush is not a benign pastime. Automatic weapons with well-endowed magazines are readily available to those lost souls who decide to live out the marksmanship they’ve practiced over and over. Films that display nothing but sadistic cruelty plant toxic seeds. Add these realities up, and we have a distressing American truth: our commitment to individual rights is massacring our sense of responsibility to each other.

And this truth is costly. Remember December 14, 2012, when Adam Lanza cut loose in Newtown, Connecticut? Between that date and December 31, 2013, Slate.com estimates that 12,042 or more people have died at the wrong end of a gun. Slate has now stopped counting, but you can bet folks minding their own business will keep getting shot or stabbed, alone or in klatches.

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White House meetings are great, like this one after Sandy Hook, but no number of politicians can make us change our hearts. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Like you, I’m grieved and angry. But surprised? Please. Enough already! Armed guards, metal detectors, and psychologist can’t save us from ourselves. (Neither can legislation: point taken.) I pray that we can change, stop strangling the Constitution, and love our country and neighbor as much as we love our freedom.

Love,

John Coleman