Bringing the violence home

Naivasha was somewhere I went a long time ago and looked on the dreamy sight of a lake alive with pink flamingos. Now people there are killing each other, wielding machetes and burning houses. Of course it isn’t more tragic if it’s somewhere you’ve been, or if it’s happening somewhere beautiful. But it certainly brings the shock and tragedy of violence home to you.
tasting rhubarb

What if that 4:00 a.m. knock on your door doesn’t come from some plainclothes agent of a sinister government, as we’ve always been told to expect, but from the folks down the street, whose kids are in the scout troop with your kids? And what if there isn’t even a knock? They burst into your bedroom and stand wavering, as if trying to decide whether the sight of you naked and violated is worth all the mess and bother. They’ve armed themselves with simple but effective weapons that might have been disguised, up until now, as spading forks, or hedge clippers, or aluminum bats for a pick-up game of softball down at the park. Oh, and their leader cradles a 12-gauge shotgun, or some other efficient guarantor of a polite society. You must leave — now, he announces with a melodramatic solemnity which in other circumstances you might find laughable. The Martinezes started an argument about it, and they’re dead. That would account for the blood and the heavy breathing, the flushed excitement on their faces. Honey, get the kids in the minivan. Tell them we’re going to see Abuela. And for once, the kids listen. At daybreak, creeping through the subdivision with your headlights off so as not to attract attention from the roving bands of local teenagers, you catch an odd movement from behind a backyard grill: sudden wings, a flash of pink. Then another, and another: one by one, the flamingos are abandoning their calm green lake. A silent V slices through the dawn sky.

18 Replies to “Bringing the violence home”

  1. Yeah, that’s massively vivid. Especially these days, with the surge of the right-wing “anti-immigrant” (read: anti-Hispanic) movements…. For that matter, “sunset towns” weren’t that long ago.

  2. A statistic from the radio the other day, “The defense budget of the United States is more than the combined defense departments from the rest of the world”

    Even as I write this I’m questioning, “Can it be true? Did I hear wrong? That’s not possible.

    But it’s okay, right. Because we are on the side of good, right? If you keep questioning whether it is “right” — then it probably isn’t.

    Thanks for a wonderful telling that brings home what we try to convince ourselves is far away.

  3. I’m glad you wrote about this, Dave.

    Violence here is different from a tribal war, but it is NOT far away. Every day in the US there is a story about a supposedly random killing of five people, six people, accompanied by stories of denial and incredulity – that can’t happen here, he was such a good person, a pillar of his church, a good son…the stories of battered women and children don’t even make the papers, unless there’s a death, which far too often is the case. When are we going to wake up to the sickness in our own society, flamed by frustration, hopelessness, the glorification of violence as an answer to problems, and the perversion of asking ordinary people to go and kill? The flamingos are lucky. They’ve got wings.

  4. David – I guess you mean sundown towns — yes, indeed. From the Paxton Boys to Sand Creek to East St. Louis, ethnic cleansing is an American tradition. Anyone who reacts to this post by saying “it can’t happen here” needs to remember that it has happened here, many times.

    Shai – Yeah, that does kind of boggle the mind, doesn’t it? And there’s no such thing as a benign empire, though I think it’s fair to say that we’re not as vicious as some of the empires of the past, yet. (And though the prospect of a President Obama is undeniably attractive, it’s extremely unlikely that any one president, however well-intentioned, could do much to dismantle the military-industrial complex without the active support of Congress, which isn’t going to happen because almost every congressional district in the country is host to some small cog of the war machine.)

    beth – I agree. We’re at least as violent as the Yanomamo — and let’s face it, Chagnon’s monograph The Fierce People became such a big hit in the first place because it appeared to bolster the argument that humans are somehow innately warlike, thus letting us off the hook. And forgive me for pointing this out, but a religion that revolves around blood sacrifice and a cosmic narrative of good warring with evil may not be helping, unless and until the Mennonites and Quakers start making mass conversions. It’s very difficult for most Americans to accept that violence never solves anything.

  5. But Dave, what do you do with the second law of thermodynamics? Aren’t we shot through with the truth that we live by undoing the lives of those around us? :(

  6. Beth says this about the ‘it can’t happen here’ syndrome “….supposedly random killing of five people, six people, accompanied by stories of denial and incredulity – that can’t happen here, he was such a good person, a pillar of his church, a good son…”

    It just did happen here. About 15 minutes from where we live, and about one block from my husband’s boyhood home in Kirkwood Missouri, a man described as easy going and well liked etc. who’d been exhibiting more and more out of character anger symptoms and weird behavior , finally totally snapped at what he felt (and may well have been) harassment by public officials, and killed 5 people at a city council meeting. Two were policemen. The mayor is critical with a head wound. Now the Monday morning quarterbacking will begin. What’s the answer? Better mental health? There’s a free mental health clinic in the community. Metal detectors at City Hall? A little too late. Sadly, it has the means of turning into another fiasco tinged with racial undertones. You see this man was African American, and our county court system has just marked for execution a young man from this community who snapped and brutally killed a Kirkwood policeman because he thought the police were responsible for the death of his younger brother 30 minutes before . The charge? “pre-meditated” murder. God help us all.

  7. Bill, I’m not sure how that relates. I’m not a utopian. But we certainly don’t need to be violent exploiters. Our original ecological niche was that of a scavenger, I think — not a predator. Doing violence to others is profoundly damaging to the human psyche, as the high rates of PTSD among soldiers suggest, and 99% of our lives is spent being essentially peaceful — cooperating with others, the various things we brainy apes do in lieu of literal grooming.

    Joan – I just saw the news, but didn’t realize the guy was African-American. Really sad. Yeah, I think ethnic profiling by the so-called criminal justice system is pervasive, and becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy in many cases. Studies show that judges are far less lenient to African Americans than to whites charged with the same crimes. And of course the decision by the cops on the beat to cite someone in the first place is often based on esssentially arbitrary and subjective criteria, so bigotry undoubtedly plays a large role there, too – even with black cops eager to prove to their white colleagues that they’re tough on criminals.

    The whole punishment culture is deeply wrong. Again, I think our Christian heritage is to blame for fostering the bizarre notion that punishment and retribution amount to justice. I personally favor a return to the Anglo-Saxon weregild system — or restorative justice, as it’s called these days. The emphasis should be on making amends to victims and their familes, healing society, and giving perpetrators opportunities to redeem themselves. Restorative justice is actually tougher on crime than retributive justice; the latter is merely tough on criminals, and doesn’t address the crime itself.

    Sorry. End of rant.

  8. I’m interested in this weregild. Where can I find that info? I look at my garbled post it might appear that the two incidents were one, and they are not. The latest 5 people masacre ended with Cookie’s death by the police. I sometimes wonder if the young man who shot the officer a couple of years now facing the chair had not meant this to be a murder but a murder suicide. One would hardly pre-meditate a murder in front of the entire neighborhood and cops.

    This current thing all started quite awhile back with Cookie’s going on a 3 day vacation and parking his ‘work’ trucks around his house. He came back to not 7 tickets but 21 tickets.. one for each day. All who think they’d have gotten by with that with a white man stand up and holler.

  9. Joan – Goggling “restorative justice” turns up a lot of good stuff, such as

    Thanks for the additional background on Cookie’s death.

    Bill – Arguments about semantics, such as what does or doesn’t constitute “violence,” bore me. Are you trying to argue that ethnic cleansing is natural? If not, what is your point?

  10. Shit Dave, this sucks. I’m sorry. I just don’t see how to hold ethnic cleansing as separate from my own intimation that I myself, am violence barely contained, as are all things living and inanimate; that violence and life are pretty much the same.

  11. We were talking over this kind of thing this morning, how some people seem to be simmering with a need to hate, even in well-regulated society. My sister lived in a ‘nice’ Devon village, but when times for her personally got tough, she said she could see another side to some people ( others came very good). She said she was glad she didn’t live in times of civil war or occupation, because there were some people whose resentment and bitternenss were such she wouldn’t have trusted them not to turn to betrayal or violence if the opportunity presented.

    I like what you did with Jean’s post.

  12. Dave, I agree with you about the good vs. evil side of Christianity, as interpreted by Bush et al., but that criticism could also be leveled at a number of religions, as we see played out all over the world. As for blood sacrifice, it certainly didn’t originate with Christianity, and the early Christians abolished it as a practice. Many contemporary Christians don’t buy the doctrine of atonement (Christ as the lamb sacrificed for our sins), and Jesus’s teachings are anything but violent. But you are quite right that these interpretations (which I would call misguided, but no one is listening to me) underlie much of our political history, to tragic effect. I’m certainly not going to be an apologist for Christianity, either way.

  13. These subjects of morality, religion, seem very bounded by decency. I appalled at the way my comments here have evidenced my ability to view horror with detachment. I woke me last night with the feeling that I had stated my complicity with horror. But still I wish to say more, but my honest simple responses would be transgressive, as were, quite knowingly on my part, my earlier comments. My imagination is like a fire. Dave, your statement that violence solves nothing was incendiary to me, so ready to be oxidized, so ready to metabolize to the easy nourishment and ashes of “violence solves everything”.

    Your topic in this post, in a way is indecency, indecent behavior. I am fascinated that in inspecting it, discussing it, I am once again by decency and turned back. It seems as if to discuss is to assimilate. The unavoidable impulse to gain perspective, to compare, to find context is immoral.

  14. there were some people whose resentment and bitternenss were such she wouldn’t have trusted them not to turn to betrayal or violence if the opportunity presented

    Yeah. I think about that sort of thing a lot, how people I know would behave under conditions of social breakdown and economic collapse. That’s what I like about Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple character: her view that her village was a microcosm, and that every kind of human failing and depravity could be observed there.

    to discuss is to assimilate. The unavoidable impulse to gain perspective, to compare, to find context is immoral.

    I think there’s a certain amount of truth in that. The myth of the dispassionate observer has so often been used to cover crimes against nature and other human beings.

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