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Violence in Your Hometown

I am writing this on a day when the front page of the newspaper is full of headlines about the killing of four students and a teacher in Jonesboro, Arkansas. A short article buried inside the local section recounts that a few miles from my home a Mr. Moore shot and killed his neighbor Mr. Caldwell. This killing occurred during the middle of yesterday’s sunny afternoon while neighbor Caldwell mowed grass on what neighbor Moore believed to be his side of their mutual property line.

A speaker I heard recently described what she felt were escalating levels of violence in our lives. She gave impressive statistics that included:

  • AMA estimates that 2 million cases of physical abuse and neglect of children occur each year
  • 1,300 abused children died last year
  • 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 7 boys will be sexually victimized by age 18
  • 23% of high school students in Chicago have witnessed a murder
  • in the past ten years the incidence of rape has risen four times faster than the total crime rate
  • American women have a better than 12% chance of being raped during their lifetime
  • death by homicide is now a greater risk in the workplace than by accident in certain areas of the country
  • by age 18 the average adolescent has seen over 26,000 murders on television
  • acid rain has destroyed over a million acres of forest in eastern Europe
  • the rain forests, which are seen by many as essential to a healthy world, are being destroyed at the rate of 50 acres per minute

The speaker’s argument that violence against persons, property and the environment is escalating at an astonishing pace, and that we as a culture are addicted to violence. I don’t know whether or not she is right. Her point that there is a lot of violence in our culture and world is well taken. We seek understanding when something as shocking as the Jonesboro killing occurs, or for that matter as shocking as the neighbor murder down the road. An incident that is doubly shocking because it was not shocking enough to even be deemed newsworthy. I do not believe you deal with a literal problem on the metaphysical level. You deal with it on the literal level. You incarcerate those who commit violence against another. We make a mistake any time we try to understand a problem’s deeper meaning as a way to excuse the literal events such problems produce. We have a need to understand the complexity of human experience, and to realize what is happening on a more abstract level, whenever we hear calls for help in the shouts of violence in our world. If addiction to violence is present, it is helpful to try to understand what underlies the compulsion.

Ponder a few of the less statistical examples. Episodes recently published of fraternity initiations where the object is for students to down a certain amount of alcohol in a short period of time. The results were death from alcohol poisoning.

There has been a recent rash of killings of teachers and other students killed by children, or at most young teenagers, as exemplified by the killings at Westside Middle school in Jonesboro, Arkansas. These have occurred at the same time there has been a resurgence of drug use among school children.

Not only has teen drug use been on a sharp increase, there has also been an abrupt rise in illegal drug manufacturing especially in rural community home labs. These labs make methamphetamines. Amphetamines are making a comeback on the drug scene. Remember the slogan from twenty years ago: “Speed Kills.” This slogan was part of a very effective campaign to stem the rising use of amphetamines, when the flower-child generation moved from drugs like marijuana and LSD to speed. With that change the bloom was off the flower. Violence emerged within the flower-child peace movement and its self-destruction began. Speed does kill. While most drugs are taken because they have relaxing or euphoric affects, the pharmacological properties of amphetamines tend to cause violent behavior.

Dr. David Smith,a leading addictionologist recently spoke about the Oklahoma City bombing case. He pointed out that McVeigh and Nichols were both involved with amphetamines. This did not get a lot of attention. Both the defense and the prosecution had tactical reasons for not wanting to present evidence on the issue. The prosecution wanted to present an argument in mitigation. The defense wanted a not guilty verdict. According to Dr. Smith, the manufacture and use of amphetamines is a growing part of right-wing militia culture.

The Stockholm syndrome is a term used to describe the situation when someone, put in the violent situation of being a hostage, actually begins to bond with the perpetrator. In the Swedish hostage situation where the label originated, two of the women held hostage actually married two of their hostage takers when they emerged from prison years after the initial violent event.

We as a nation put a major portion of our resources into participating in and watching sporting events that are often described as simply organized violence.

Soldiers who have been through horribly violent experiences in war, may on the one hand, suffer severely from post traumatic stress syndrome and spend the remainder of their lives trying to forget these experiences. On the other hand, veterans can also feel that their experiences in wartime and their friendships during those times were the most real experiences of their lives. So the remainder of their lives may revolve around remembering those experiences.

I do not condone violence or in any way suggest we should tolerate the level of violence in which we live. But it seems to me that honesty requires recognition that violence is a part of life. Violence can bring life into bolder colors and give life an intensity that often seems missing.

Remember Hugo. Nature can be very violent; yet at the same time the storm brought people together to a depth that often seems missing in everyday routines. Religion has always had an aspect of violence to it. A primary focus of Christianity is on an act of ritual torture and killing by crucifixion. Metaphorically (or in reality depending on your religious views) the result of this act of violence is repeated over and over again in the ritual of the Eucharist. In the origins of baptism, the idea was for a person to physically experience the sensation of drowning and then come back to life born anew. The scarring rituals of indigenous tribes recognize while growing up that the cutting of the bonds of childhood, like a chick breaking from the egg, is in part a violent act. Modern day versions of this are body piercing by young people and the stripes on a sergeant’s sleeve.

Violence is a part of life and people are attracted to violence. Too great an attraction is similar to addicted people’s attraction to drugs. As pointed out in Carl Jung’s famous letter to Bill Wilson, often what is underlying physical obsession is a spiritual longing to cut through to a deeper more meaningful life. Teenage violence may be an attempt to vivify life that seems self-defeating. Any efficacious manner of violence must be contained both by laws and by rituals that redeem and strengthen the preciousness of life. Increases in the level of non-efficacious violence appear to go hand-in-hand with increases in levels of addiction. Medicine has for centuries used small amounts of toxic chemicals to cure. Taking significant amounts of alcohol or other destructive chemicals into the body is a violent act. Much of the drug-taking activity such as sticking needles in the body is violent. One of the common characteristics of advanced alcoholism is a desire to take one’s life. Both the perpetrator of violence and the drug addict may be seeking a deeper level to rip the veil that separates their dull, meaningless nihilistic life from a rich, full human experience. Those caught in the violence of alcohol and other drug addictions and found recovery, have learned a daily reprieve from a chronic, progressive, fatal and violent illness when they seek each day to maintain their spiritual condition. Each day that they do seek reprieve is what a Christian would call the Kingdom of God within, or a Buddhist would describe as mindfulness, or a Navajo would describe as staying in “hozro” or harmony.

There is much to do on the literal level in dealing with problems of violence. On the deepest level, violence may be a symptom of spiritual emptiness, of striking out to try an make the experience of one’s life more real. There are many traditions that have found answers to the underlying human urge to live most fully, and they all share common aspects. In their teachings the experience of one’s life is made richer not by speeding it up, not by using drugs, sex, work or you-name-it as a way to enliven experience. No, these traditions teach that such impulses end up with one losing whatever liveliness one has. Life is made richer by becoming quieter, less hurried, taking the time to go within, to pray, to meditate, to find a spiritual connection with life greater than one’s self.

– by Don Carroll

From, The North Carolina State Bar Journal, Vol. 3, No. 2, Summer 1998

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