So a troubled young man walks onto the campus of his university and kills thirty-two people. And an American Peace Corps volunteer named Julia Campbell is found dead in Ifugao province in the Philippines, not far from where I am, actually, and she was most likely raped, and killed, and left in the wilderness to die alone. And so we look at these events and we suck in our breath and look up to the sky, blue as it is, and try to understand why the world is the way that it is: brutal, unforgiving, merciless. And as we look at that sky we see the clouds, white and full, and the sun, bright and strong, and somehow the pieces don't fit; the ideas don't mesh; the emotions don't level out into something palatable and clear. If we are religious we thank the Lord above for granting us the mercy of His compassion, and if we are not we wonder what the fuck is going on. I mean, seriously. What, is going, on? (Something that the hundred-plus people killed in Iraq yesterday due to sectarian violence wonder daily.)
It all comes down to violence, and the sickness of violence, and the way that blood and brains and bruises make us wince and gasp. Something that makes us wretch and gag is not something intended to endure, let alone to advocate. It is not a sight to see, this violence. It is not something you put on a postcard and drop in the box, or boot up online, complete with vivid reds and deepest blues. We don't have blackened faces and torn-apart limbs as Polaroid mementos. All because pain hurts, physically and mentally, and we do not like to remember the things that make us hurt, and so we push them away, shut the door, chuck the key, fire up Idol. We don't celebrate that which wounds. We like to think that the goodness inside of us overwhelms the badness that has been so obviously manifested in recent times.
And yet by denying the violence we reduce it to an aberration, an anomaly, and if there's anything that history has taught us it is that violence has been, is, and will always be leaking out from our mouths and our fists. Until somebody sees our point.
I saw a play in Japan years ago about a student who comes into class and wipes out his comrades, and the message of his violence was clear: "You're not listening to me." That is what all violence is saying: You're not listening to me. We swear and we fight and kill and we maim because somebody is not hearing what we want to say, what lurks within us but refuses to come out.
We maim to communicate. The same way that we love and we console and caress and we stroke. You can't have one without the other. They come from within us, these touches and punches. We relish the one and abhor the other. And yet each reminds us of what we are capable of, and what we want others to understand about us. The nicest people I have met in the world have been Japanese and Cambodians, and yet these very same people, in the not-so-distant past, have committed perhaps the worst atrocities of the twentieth-century, on themselves and each other.
How do we explain it?
Somebody tell me. God, Buddha, Mohammed, motherfucking Dr.Phil -- tell me, please, why?
That's what it boils down to.
When the madness descends, we ask 'why', but we never ask 'why' when we are good to each other, kind to each other, helpful and considerate to friends and strangers alike. We take the angels of our better natures for granted. We do countless, endless mundane polite gestures of goodwill on an hourly, daily basis, and we give them, and we accept them, with nary a second thought. And yet violence has us questioning who we are and what we should be doing.
Maybe that's a good thing.
Maybe when violence becomes commonplace, ordinary and, yes, boring, that means we've reached a kind of tipping point. If we were to step back, step out, imagine ourselves as alien speices viewing the whole of humanity as a school project assigned for some intergalactic sociology workshop, perhaps a clearer picture would come into focus, a more sharper portrait of what us as humans actually are.
"Humans on the planet earth have raped, pillaged and murdered each other for countless millenia," such an alien scholar might write, "and yet each time an act of violence occurs in their otherwise civilized societies, humanity, on mass, reacts as if something unusual has happened. Numerous countries throughout this planet face war on a daily basis -- Iraq and Sudan being the most famous contemporary examples, where thousands are slaughtered on a yearly basis -- and yet when a few dozen are killed in one particular place these humans tend to question the very nature of their essential beings. Humans thus tend to be eternal optimists. Despite the historical and modern actualizations of violence that dominate their societies, they still have the capacity for shock and outrage at the actions of their fellow man. They still want to believe that they are more than what they are. They have yet to accept the history of violence and the inevitability of violence. They expect something different, and are surprised, horrified and traumatized when they receive more of the same."
Growing up means we accept the world as it is. There are bills to pay, jobs to go to, assholes to endure. Nobody gets out alive. But a part of us, despite our maturity, despite our knowledge of the past, despite the reality of our present, refuses to accept violence. Emotionally, spiritually, intellectually: we don't want it. We hate it. It forces the puke up inside of our throats, and we have to swallow the bile and feel it slide back down our throats and wait until it arises again, a week or a month or a year from now. We don't want to grow up, in other words.
I hope we never do.