A Meditation on Violence

“The most intrepid valor may be employed in the cause of the greatest injustice.” — Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments.


The horrific shooting in Aurora, Colorado at the Batman premiere, exposes afresh the great divide in this country over the “right” to bear arms. I put quotes around the word to suggest that the matter is not settled.

The gunman entered through the exit down by the front of the theatre near the screen, apparently wearing a flak jacket and holding a weapon. It is a measure of the surreal nature of our current forms of entertainment that some in the audience actually thought he had been hired by the theatre for the premiere. Eyewitness accounts say he fired into the air and then began methodically shooting people, shell casings raining down on the head of one young woman who had flung herself to the floor almost at his feet. 

We can imagine how the slight distraction of the late arriver quickly gave way to panic as bodies fell and people screamed. It is worth meditating on this scene in our imagination because this is the result of choices we have made. 

This event, like other massacres in recent memory, was not a crime of passion. It was deliberate, planned for, premeditated, thus it could not be predicted nor could it easily be stopped. The shooter used a weapon that is designed to exert maximum force in the shortest possible time for the greatest possible damage to living creatures. It is painfully obvious, yet bears repeating, that this is what guns are for. 

Colorado, like other states, allows its citizens to carry concealed weapons, so that the law-abiding can protect themselves and their loved ones from the predations of people like this shooter. And judging by many comments on news stories about the shooting, a lot of people go to the movies packing weapons. In the interest of always being prepared for the wildest of contingencies the pre-movie conversation might go like this: “Okay, let’s see. . . . we’ve got the popcorn, the giant size Butterfingers, the gallon of soda and. . . honey, your Glock or mine?”

Thus, while one man plans to kill at the movies, others prepare to kill there too. One is a psychopath, the others are normal people simply exercising their Constitutional right to bear arms—to kill if they deem it necessary. While the consequences may be the same—people shot dead—we make a distinction between the intentions: in one case malevolent, in the other case heroic. Or so we tell ourselves. 

The issue of gun control is a litmus test that many politicians face at one point or another. Most of them pass it with flying colors because they won’t  go up against the NRA and its millions. And in the meantime assault rifles are available and handguns are cheap. Common sense would suggest that most people are concerned with their families, paying their bills, maybe having a nice afternoon with the kids at the movies. They don’t think about packing weaponry because for most people in this country life goes on fairly uneventfully. Episodes like this one are extremely rare, although news coverage burns them into our reptilian brains to the extent that we may come to believe we are under siege.

I am not belittling the horror of this event nor am I suggesting that people have no cause to be wary. But events like this reveal the disconnect between our ideals and our prejudices. Democracies like ours have at their bedrock the twin values of personal autonomy and toleration. The first creates the need for the second; the second is frequently strained by the stridency with which the first is asserted. When autonomy outguns empathy everybody loses. We feel threatened by the very freedom we demand when others exercise their freedom. So it stands to reason that if we live in fear despite our many freedoms, then something is seriously  wrong. 

Violence begets violence says the Buddha, Jesus, Moses, Confucius, Ghandi, Martin Luther King, and others, many of whom died because they did not take up arms against their brothers. Was it worth it? Yes, because the very fact that we can view non-violence as an option means that their witness had an effect through time. 

The strongest protection against shooting each other is to regard the other’s life as our sacred trust. Such a viewpoint demands courage and determination, virtues that must be believed to be seen. That’s the best solution, but it remains a matter of personal conviction. Yet, we have every reason to teach and persuade to that end, to create a society where this becomes the norm.

Since we humans don’t have a great record at doing the right thing for its own sake, the next best approach is to punish those who do wrong and reward those who do right. Oh. . . yes . . . we’re trying that right now.

In the grand scheme of things we’re undergoing some kind of moral evolution over the centuries. But it’s one step forward, two steps back, none of it guaranteed, and our last century stands as the bloodiest in human history. Given that, you’d think we would try to give ourselves a timeout, maybe hide some of the sharper objects while we learn some basic moral lessons. At the very least you could expect that we’d rise up in revulsion and ban assault weapons. How is that an infringement on someone’s rights?

We’re addicted to violence and we need an intervention. We don’t seem to have the will or the desire, as a nation, to pull together. It takes a manufactured war and a constant campaign of fear to get us in line, but even that hasn’t worked. What does work, apparently, is our insatiable desire for vicarious violence. For the few among us who cannot distinguish reality from fantasy, the sharp jolt of our mediated mayhem can create for them visions of invincibility. Perhaps they see themselves as avengers of wrongs or heroes of a twisted justice. 

For the rest of us, the steady accumulation of images of violence, like an IV drip, has entered our bloodstream. It renders us passive, uncritical, unwilling to stand apart and critique our own behavior. Violence understood is not violence condoned but neither is it taken for granted or passed over lightly. 

The underlying irony to this whole tragic episode is that Batman fights without guns. He relies on his wits, his strength, and a limitless supply of technological marvels. He knows the lure of power and the lust for blood, and he fights the inclination to justify evil in the name of good. As Adam Smith notes in his Theory of Moral Sentiments, “Amidst great provocations, apparent tranquillity and good-humor may sometimes conceal the most determined and cruel resolution to revenge.” 

We are no more doomed to a constant cycle of violence than we are promised a sunlit paradise without any shadows. But we can make some choices that can change our lives. That much we can do.

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