The January 6 attack on the US Capitol gives us a lesson in the futility of violence.
Human beings have a terrifying tendency to kill each other over horseshit (to use a technical term). Violence typically rests upon a delusion. The bigger the lie, the worse the violence.
Religious and ideological warfare are extreme cases. Terrorism and cult violence routinely occur: with Jonestown, Heaven’s Gate, Aum Shinrikyo, the Manson Family, in Waco with David Koresh, and so on. There is an analogy linking QAnon to al Qaeda.
Some of the Trump insurrectionists believed outrageous falsehoods: that Biden and Pelosi were communists; that Covid-19 was a sinister plot; that pedophiles, Satanists, and lizard people had infiltrated the government. This horseshit was accompanied by other more insidious lies: that the election had been stolen; and that the Congress and Vice-President could overturn the Electoral College.
A broth of bullshit was brewing when the President said, “Our country has been under siege for a long time.” He said, “If you don’t fight like Hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore.” This rhetoric is eschatological and existential. It is not surprising that the pot boiled.
The rioters believed they were patriots leading a noble revolution. But they did not seem to think beyond the immediate outburst of violence. What was supposed to happen next? And why did they think they could get away with it?
Some have blamed the rioters’ obliviousness on the sense of impunity that comes from white supremacy. But at bottom this was a product of the delusion of violence.
Violence is mired in immediacy. It is reactive and episodic. Violence focuses the mind on the present moment. Violence promises simplicity, clarity, and consummation.
This promise is false, of course. But violence is not about truth. It is about power in the moment. It is an expression of anger and contempt. It is not strategic. It is emotional, exciting, and erotic.
Tangled webs of braggadocio and bullshit typically lead to violence. Closed networks reinforce delusion and breed a sense of superiority and impunity. Critical thought is destroyed by anger, fear, and the love of brothers-in-arms. When the delusions are eschatological, common sense is trampled underfoot.
We have known that violence is rooted in psycho-social dynamics since Cain killed Abel and Achilles sailed off to Troy. Freud described how hate and violence are perversely linked to love. Aggression against “the other” binds us together and gives us meaning.
It does not matter that our ideology is a lie. In fact, falsehood binds us tighter together in an erotic dance. When some “other” challenges our delusions, we strike out. When those delusions involve love and identity, the other becomes a menace who must be destroyed.
Religious violence has often worked this way. Sometimes religious violence involves tangible conflicts about land or resources. The Crusades had political and economic causes. But the faithful frequently fight in the name of the fabulous. The warriors themselves want glory, as well as penance and atonement. They want to be purged and healed, uplifted and inspired.
And so human beings continue to kill and die in defense of unprovable myths. The most dangerous myth of all is the myth that links violence to righteousness and redemption. Prior to Trump’s speech on January 6, Rudy Giuliani proposed “trial by combat.” This medieval nonsense holds that somehow the gods ensure that the righteous defeat the unholy.
But violence has nothing to do with morality. Good guys get killed as easily as bad. Violence occurs at the level of physical power. It decides nothing about truth, holiness, or moral worth.
The myth of violence is essentially pagan. It reflects a primitive theology. To view the world as a battlefield supervised by the gods is to ignore a more elevated notion of the divinity. If there is a God, wouldn’t He want us to reason together rather than to kill each other?
The solution to the problem of violence is as old as Jesus and Socrates. Jesus said the peacemakers were blessed. And Socrates encouraged us to ask critical questions about the horseshit that encourages violence. The truth is that violence is not reasonable. Nor is it loved by the gods.