Nature’s Gift of Violence

It was a typical conversion in a 21st-century newsroom. The morning news meeting was taking place and a person brought up the subject of sexual assault among members of the military, of which there had been some stories lately. The person said, in disapproving tones, the military brass aren’t even trying to stop it. There were sounds of agreement, then a sarcastic comment. “Yea. Next thing you know they’ll be killing people.”

It was cheap shot but it wasn’t wrong. How do you tell people whose job it is to kill people that they shouldn’t commit rape?

Let’s change the subject a littleĀ  bit. What about players in the National Football League? The three televisions I see in my newsroom all day at work are tuned to CNN, MSNBC and Fox News. I saw virtually non-stop coverage of the Baltimore Ravens’ Ray Rice incident in which he punched his wife, seen in a grainy security video, and then she lay unconscious on the floor of an elevator.

We saw the video over and over. And I saw endless commentary from talking heads on the subject. We always keep the sound turned down so we can continue to work so I didn’t know exactly what they were saying. But I’m sure my guess was good enough.

The NFL is irresponsible for letting a man like this play! He should be kicked out of the league! Hey… he’s already been sanctioned so why should he be punished again just because the video went viral?!!

They go on and on saying the same stuff.

The problem with the NFL is the same as in the military. Here’s a game that celebrates violence and the strength to withstand it. A sportswriter put it well when he said, “The problem with football is football.”

Historically, there have been customs meant to keep the violence of war to a minimum and channel it toward soldiers, not civilians… at armed men, not women and children. Those customs have been imperfect at best as the violence of war has always spilled over.

A book about the American-English war, the War of 1812, shows a fascinating contrast between the old customs and the new kind of war that was on it’s way. Called “Through the Perilous Fight,” the book describes the siege and destruction of Washington D.C. and the unsuccessful attack by the British on Baltimore, all of which happen precisely 200 years ago.

The officers with the British Army considered themselves gentlemen. They treated POW’s kindly, especially the ones they also considered to be gentlemen. And, according to this account, the mistreatment of women and children was uncommon. But the assault on Chesapeake Bay by Admiral George Cockburn showed glimpses of total war. Villages were burned and sacked in order to terrorize the local population and show them any resistance or aid to the enemy would lead to pain and punishment.

Not long after that, Civil War Union General Sherman would destroy everything in his path in his march to the sea and, not long after that, World War II would bring us the brutality of death camps, enslavement and murder of civilians and bombing campaigns that killed tens of thousands of men, women and children.

Now we know that war is no gentleman’s affair. Yet we want modern soldiers and marines to behave like gentlemen to the women who are now part of the military. Yet we want linemen and running backs in the NFL to be gentlemen in the way they treat their wives and girlfriends.

No, that’s not too much to ask. But I wonder if there is anything we can do about the violent urges that are part of our DNA. Can we create a life that’s so safe, fair and prosperous that violence becomes irrelevant and we can uproot it from our very souls?

I keep chickens on my property in San Diego, and a couple of weeks ago I bought a couple of 3-month-old pullets to add to my flock of hens. One day I came home and saw that the backside of one of the pullets was covered in blood. The grown hens had cornered her in the run and attacked her. Even the other white pullet, which had been her partner and likely her sibling, was pecking her bloody ass.

I don’t know why the chickens attacked her. Maybe she seemed different in some way. Maybe she seemed weak. Maybe they saw blood and piled on like sharks. Do six stupid birds even need a reason? Then it occurred to me the only reason they needed was the fact that violence is part of their nature. It was handed down to them over the ages by evolution. I don’t know if we humans are much different.


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