Sitting in Seattle



Sitting in Seattle. Watching horrific violence on TV with two grandsons. It’s a cartoon. Something about ninjas made from Lego. A commercial starring a cartoon gecko interrupts the drama to remind us, unintentionally, that cartoons have always been violent. The gecko is crossing a desert when the Road Runner beep-beeps past followed by the coyote. Stopping for a moment to contemplate roast gecko for dinner, the coyote is crushed by a massive object falling from the sky.

In the end, of course, the pure, innocent and victimised survive and succeed. Good is victorious. Just like in real life, right?

It’s an important idea to teach children, there is no denying. That, in a violent and imperfect world, right and justice should prevail. But of course, this kind of violence, despite our common beliefs, is not about right and justice. No matter how we dress it up with invented logic, sixteen tonnes falling from the sky is just another form of violence. A form of vengeance for some earlier violence (in the case of the coyote even an imagined violence against the gecko – didn’t someone once warn us against sins committed in the heart?).

I watch a second commercial and am more disturbed. The product, placed on a children’s channel, is a backpack that contains a handy attack alarm. “Dialling 911 takes time, but with the XXXX backpack you can summon help in a moment. Just pull the ripcord.” Take care kids. It’s a dangerous world out there.

And it is.

Two nights ago James Holmes strafed a movie crowd in Colorado, killing or wounding scores. Shocking. Terrifying. Bewildering. Scary. Best we equip the kids with these attack alarm backpacks quick. Or supplement their iPhones pre-programmed to dial 911, with derringers.

Where does this end?

Assuming that last question was not rhetorical, we can only say that it appears it will not end well.

Once upon a time, in primitive societies, violence was just as much a problem. But in a way it was easier to deal with because the rules were simple. An eye for an eye. An act of violence always generated a response. Vengeance. If someone killed my brother, I killed him. Or maybe his brother. Of course, this didn’t stop the violence. Most murders were the result of previous murders.

Over the aeons societies developed various ways of short-circuiting the eye-for-eye-for-eye-forever process. Class systems grew as ways of regulating relationships between people. If people followed the rules there was less chance of violence breaking out of defined social groups. Didn’t help the McDonalds of Glencoe of course.

Within social groups elaborate rituals for resolving violence evolved (if that’s the right word). Aristocrats offended towards violence could fight a duel which, it was anticipated, would be the end of someone, and the matter.

More effective were sacrificial systems that drained the violence onto a substitute victim. These depended on religious beliefs that implied a higher authority. God was co-opted in ways Jesus would not recognise and would later renounce through personal example.

Closer to our own time most societies developed some kind of judicial system that relied on a generally accepted authority delegated from the people to be the final resolver of violence. Although we may insist that such systems are about providing justice, and indeed they may, their practical use is to short-circuit violence by providing a sacrifice acceptable to the violated-against. The sacrifice may be a guilty person, but that does not make them less sacrificial.

But in many western societies today, a growing disenchantment with the institutions is undermining their authority. The judicial system is not immune. We simply no longer accept the authority of the State to resolve the problems of society, violence in particular. We are “taking the law into our own hands” which only means we are returning to a world of an eye for an eye.

The violence that is scared off by the violence of a screeching backpack is merely the start of a slippery and anarchic slope that leads to Colorado this week. Where next week?

NOTE: Followers of the work of René Girard may see that I am reading his Violence and the Sacred the last of his books for me to read. Wondering why it was not the first.

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