A recent shooting in Sparks, Nevada, has added another name to the lamentable list of teachers killed at Columbine, Virginia Tech and Sandy Hook, educators who died while instinctively shielding their students from apparently deranged gunmen armed with automatic weapons and the delusion that the murder of innocents would somehow quell the raging cacophony roaring through their heads.
Yet, as a society we still savor, sing of, lay wreaths at the feet of violence. Our reliance on violence to counter threats, to allay our fears, to serve as an immediate response to an attack, is most evident in the flag-waving and sword rattling that taints our annual memorial to those slaughtered in the 2001 toppling of the World Trade Center. On September 11th, 2001, there was shock swiftly followed by anger and then violent action.
And so we have had two wars with thousands dead and maimed, land laid waste, the lives of survivors damaged forever. Belief seemed to be that sufficient retaliation, more severe than the initial attack upon us, could erase that stark image of our neighbors burning alive or choosing to leap from windows to their deaths.
Such reasoning finds cultural life in our national pastime, football, which satisfies this seemingly insatiable thirst for retaliation. Brutal bodily contact, masses of men headed for collision with each other; football satisfies a universal itch. Recent medical research affirms what has previously been suspected: for those paid to do the colliding, to bear the brunt of these attacks, the constant battering is seriously destructive. A series of even mild concussions frequently leads to brain damage and dementia in later years. Violence will kill, although in some cases it may take decades to do it.
But there is a violence more subtle, though equally lethal. Constant anger and commitment to retaliation wears on the sensibility of a people, obliterating consideration of alternatives. In this frame of mind, constructive action through consideration, serious contemplation and honest acknowledgement of a justifiable root of the anger prompting the attack is labeled weakness. In the “Hit ‘em again, harder, harder,” frame of mind only violence will do, violence escalating with each counter-reaction until all perish. In righteous anger this seems to be a necessary action, but to temper this instinct we are also endowed with intelligence and consideration.
Just as a mob can be roused to commit swift justice by a lynching, a crime that an individual would hesitate to commit, our emphasis on anger, terror and pain — be it as a game or a political policy — without a constructive plan preempts our intelligence, our humanity and our imagination. To return evil for evil is not a solution; it is a reaction.
And war is not a game with defined limits. Once begun in righteous or unrighteous anger, it is so very difficult to end. Gandhi once said, “Violence will prevail over violence, only when someone can convince me that darkness can be dispelled by darkness.”
Too many troubled young men, too many automatic weapons and violent video games, too much cheering for those who can hit the hardest; this is our darkness of which we should be ashamed. Something must be done, and it must be done by those of us still sane enough to be horrified, still aghast, still outraged that gun money still controls our congress and ultimately our lives.
Barbara DeMille is a retired associate professor who taught English Literature at William & Mary College. She and her husband live in Rensselaerville, New York.