Today is the 8th anniversary of the Columbine school killings, and a few days after the horrific massacre at Virginia Tech. The airwaves and print media and cyberspace are filled with discussions of could it have been prevented, what to do now, talk of mental health services at universities, gun control, campus security.
What is weighing on my mind and spirit, however, has more to do with the culture of violence with which we are surrounded in America, and in the world. In some ways, the horror in Blacksburg, Virginia, was an aberration and a “first.” In other ways it was simply one more eruption of the violence with which we are assaulted daily—from the streets of Boston to the marketplaces of Baghdad.
In the midst of such suffering, I was intrigued to read these moving words, spoken in response to the Virginia Tech killings:
It's impossible to make sense of such violence and suffering. Those whose lives were taken did nothing to deserve their fate. They were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. Now they're gone — and they leave behind grieving families, and grieving classmates, and a grieving nation….In times like this, we can find comfort in the grace and guidance of a loving God. As the Scriptures tell us, “Don't be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”
The irony is that those words were spoken by President Bush. How easy it would be to apply his message to the hundreds of thousands of dead and wounded Iraqis caught in the sectarian bloodshed unleashed by our country’s invasion of their nation—people who have done nothing to deserve their fate, who were “simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.” And how ironic that the impetus for that war was as a response to another act of violent evil, the attacks on September 11th. Where would our nation, indeed the world, be today if President Bush had heeded the Scriptural message he spoke this week, in his own response to the events of 9/11?
While I resonate deeply with the Scriptural message (a quote from the New Testament, the book of Romans, itself quoting the Jewish Bible, the book of Proverbs) from President Bush’s speech, I deeply disagree with his claim that this particular act of violence is “impossible to make sense of.” In fact, every day we are told that unspeakable violence makes all the sense in the world. When one is attacked, the rational response, is to retaliate with violence. If one needs to defend oneself, then violence is not only sensible, it is moral and appropriate. From movies to video games to White House pronouncements, we are told in various and multitudinous ways that violence is natural, thrilling, necessary, and right. Most importantly, it is often the only solution to complex, seemingly intractable problems.
So why, then, is it nonsensical for depressed and deeply disturbed individuals to imagine that causing great pain for others is fair retribution for their own suffering when it is considered not only rational—but patriotic, just, and necessary—to cause the death of thousands upon thousands of people in retribution for an act to which they had absolutely no connection?
Why is it amoral and abhorrent for young men who feel they have no future to find meaning and some sense of power in exacting retribution against their perceived enemies on the streets of Boston, yet manly and inspiring for young people to be drawn to the service of violence—and to make their own brief lives a sacrifice—in a war that makes no sense?
One does not need to be a full-blown pacifist to say: enough. Enough of the glorification of violence, the rationalization of violence, the exaltation of violence. Every community, every religion, every nation has its responsibility to speak out against the glorification of violence in its midst.
For us, as Americans, as Jews, our responsibility is to our own communities.
To those in the American Jewish community who imagine that only military
might-against Iran, against Palestinians, against Muslims in general-will
somehow make us safe, let us call for renewed commitment to dialogue,
engagement, and a politics of hope instead of fear.
To our government in its misconceived, unending embrace of military responses to complex political situations, let us say: enough. In my own individual life, when I experience the tendency to violence—whether it’s violence through words, or through actions, or emotions—may I have the wisdom and courage to confront that within myself.
May all of us, Americans of all religions and backgrounds, have the courage to work for that day when any act of violence will be impossible to make sense of, a day when indeed we can take seriously the call to overcome evil with good.