How much carnage is enough?

Fresno Bee, June 5, 2022

Social policy involves managing risks. But we, the people, are not good at this. We fear some things that are unlikely, while ignoring other very real dangers. In some cases, our fears are irrational. In other cases, our fearlessness is rash and uninformed.

Our track record is not reassuring. Over 1 million people in the U.S. have now died of COVID-19. The Kaiser Family Foundation estimates that 234,000 of the deaths that occurred since vaccines became available could have been prevented by vaccination. But some people are more afraid of the vaccine than the disease.

This makes you wonder whether we will make wise choices with regard to gun violence. The schoolroom massacre in Uvalde, Texas was horrifying. One event like this seems to be too many. The good news is that most schools remain safe. Mass school shootings remain rare. An analysis published in Scientific American reports that since 1966, there have been 13 mass school shootings (with four or more victims). But the carnage is horrific, with 146 people killed.

And many more people die in “ordinary” gun violence and from firearm suicide. The Pew Center reports that in 2020 — the most recent year of complete data — more than 45,000 people were killed by guns. More than half of those deaths (about 24,000) were from suicide.

These numbers are appalling. But how do they compare with other risks? One point of comparison is drug overdose deaths. The National Institutes of Health reports that in 2020, nearly 92,000 people died from drug overdoses. This is another appalling number.

We might also consider traffic fatalities. The California Department of Transportation reports that in 2020, nearly 39,000 people died in car crashes. This means that in 2020, more people died from guns than from car crashes. But more people died from drug overdoses than from car crashes and gun violence combined.

So how do we compare these depressing apples and oranges? Well, the benefits of cars are obvious. We need them to get to work. But are guns such an obvious necessity? Some view them as necessary for self-defense. Others enjoy shooting as a fun hobby. And a few believe that an armed populace prevents the slippery slope toward authoritarianism. Are those supposed benefits worth the annual bloodbath? What level of carnage is acceptable?

Some ask whether any of this is acceptable. Earlier this year, U.S. Secretary of Transportation, Pete Buttigieg, announced the ambitious goal of reducing traffic fatalities to zero. Buttigieg said, “We cannot and must not accept that these fatalities are somehow an inevitable part of life in America.” What if we had a similar goal of zero deaths with regard to COVID-19, drug overdoses, or gun deaths? This seems impossible. But that all depends on what we are willing to trade off and what we accept as inevitable.

Imagine what we’d need to do to eliminate automotive fatalities. We’d need safer cars, better roads, and more enforcement. Drivers would need better training. We’d need to eliminate drinking and driving, as well as cell phone distraction. And we might have to change the speed and size of our vehicles.

A similar comprehensive agenda would be needed to reduce gun violence and drug overdose death. Are we willing to make those kinds of changes? Or are we willing to tolerate all of this misery and death?

Some gun control measures seem blatantly obvious. One step would be to coordinate gun ownership with the legal drinking age, as it is in California. The Scientific American analysis indicates that the average age of mass school shooters is 18. The Uvalde murderer bought his weapon legally after he turned 18. It makes little sense for 18-year-olds to be able to purchase assault weapons, as they can in Texas, when they are not old enough to buy beer or cigarettes.

But even that modest proposal is controversial in a world out of whack. I am frankly not very hopeful that we’ll do much to reduce any of this American carnage. Our nation is too polarized. And we are not good at managing risk. But if we are going to move in the right direction, we’ll need to keep asking how much blood and how many tears we are willing to accept.

Read more at: https://www.fresnobee.com/opinion/readers-opinion/article262100462.html#storylink=cpy

The Wisdom of Nonviolence

Fresno Bee, October 3, 2021

Violence is increasing. Domestic terrorism is rising, including threats against members of Congress. The FBI just published its annual report on crime. The bad news is that violent crime is on the rise.

So let’s reflect on the dumbness of violence. Violence produces bad outcomes. It is also dumb in a metaphorical sense. Violence does not speak, it growls. Like a roaring lion, it does not argue. It merely threatens and attacks.

Violence can be spectacular. It attracts our attention. But violence does not really seek to persuade. Persuasion requires an argument. Violent acts are not arguments. That’s why violence does not create or convert.

The ugly truth about violence is well-known. Gandhi explained it. So did Martin Luther King, Jr. Both advocated nonviolence as the higher road.

Oct. 2 marks Gandhi’s birthday and is an International Day of Nonviolence. Gandhi said that even when violence appears to do good, that is merely temporary. Nonviolence creates lasting change because, as Gandhi explained, nonviolence is a “process of conversion.” Instead of destroying those you hate, nonviolence builds bridges and finds common ground.

Gandhi demonstrated that organized nonviolence can be a powerful force for change. Martin Luther King Jr. put this method to work in the United States.

In his Nobel Peace Prize lecture in 1964, King explained the critique of violence this way: “In spite of temporary victories, violence never brings permanent peace. It solves no social problem: it merely creates new and more complicated ones. Violence is impractical because it is a descending spiral ending in destruction for all.”

This truth is reaffirmed as we reflect on the aftermath of the war on terrorism. After 20 years of war, we wonder whether the war was worth the cost. The war in Afghanistan teaches us that violence is a blunt instrument for transforming hearts and minds.

The “Costs of War” project at Brown University provides a recent summary. Totaling deaths from Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere, they estimate that almost 930,000 people were killed in the war on terrorism. This includes over 7,000 American military personnel. About 38 million people were displaced as war refugees. The war is estimated to have cost $8 trillion.

We did kill Osama bin Laden and other terrorist masterminds. But terrorists still lurk in the shadows. And the Taliban quickly returned to power. The war did not resolve the social, political, and cultural problems that give rise to terrorism and oppressive regimes such as the Taliban.

War is a destructive force that breeds reactive antagonism. It does not educate, democratize, or humanize. Political violence does not create just or lasting change. Rather, it destabilizes and provokes, causing polarization and pain.

This truth about war and violence is easily overlooked. There is a primal urge to employ violence. We are animals after all. Like the lion, we roar. When pushed, we attack.

The world’s moral traditions teach us to subdue the lion within. We are not merely animals, after all. We are human beings. We can learn to “turn the other cheek” and resist animal aggression. This is the message of Jesus and the Buddha, as well as Gandhi and King.

Our own culture often ignores this message. We celebrate violence. Pop culture is full of gangsters and cops, super-spies and superheroes. Our culture encourages us to falsely believe that might makes right and that in the end the good guys are justified in using violence.

But we are not superheroes. We are fragile and flawed beings. And unlike in a James Bond fantasy, real lives are destroyed when we uncage the lion.

The good news is that we are intelligent beings. We can learn from our mistakes. Violence involves a kind of smug self-certainty. It fails because it treats other human beings as animals and objects to be manipulated by physical force. But human beings are not persuaded by violence. We are motivated by pride and love, reason and morality.

Nonviolence is not always effective. But in the long run it is wiser to keep the lion in his cage. Nonviolence appeals to the better angels of our nature. It treats human beings with the care and respect we deserve.

Violence, Culture, and Character

Fresno Bee, June 27, 2021

Violence is rising. The Washington Post reports that gunfire killed 54 people per day through the first five months of 2021. This exceeds the death toll for the same period in 2020, which was the deadliest year in two decades. Here in Fresno, the story is similar. Last year there were 70 homicides, the highest number in 25 years. This year we are on pace to eclipse that number.

The epidemic of violence is especially tragic here at the end of the pandemic. We have endured a difficult time of dislocation and loss. But the worst is over and the future is bright. How sad that violence is raging when the world is reviving.

There is a general sense that people have become angrier and meaner. Some violence is racially charged. Some is connected to gangs and other crime. But some is merely random spite. In Los Angeles, 6-year-old Aiden Leos was shot on his way to kindergarten by an angry stranger on the freeway. Mass shooters have attacked in San Jose and elsewhere.

Commentators have offered various explanations. Some say this is the result of the stress of the pandemic. Others blame inequality. Pundits on the left blame Trumpism. Pundits on the right suggest that efforts to defund the police have empowered criminals.

Many blame guns. The White House is launching an initiative focused on guns. Biden’s Press Secretary, Jen Psaki, said “We believe that a central driver of violence is gun violence and the use of guns.”

There is no doubt that guns make violence easier. The history of violence is about the evolution of killing power. Cain killed Abel with a club. Achilles went on a murderous spree with sword and spear. Guns produce more killing with less effort.

Technological innovation exacerbates all kinds of vice. Modern chemistry produces powerful psychoactive drugs, including distilled alcohol. The Internet makes porn readily available. Social media makes it easy to gossip. And fast-food chains facilitate drive-thru gluttony.

But technology only explains part of the problem. It is human beings who put technology to use. Most people avoid addiction, debauchery, gossip, and gluttony, just as most people avoid violence. There is some truth to the slogan “guns don’t kill people, people do.” The same is true of other vices. Booze does not cause alcoholism. And French fries don’t cause obesity. Somewhere in the background is human culture and psychology.

What gives people the capacity to resist the supercharged temptations of modern technology?

Virtue and character provide part of the answer. Moral psychology must be on the table as we confront the epidemic of violence. Virtuous people control anger, cruelty and spite. Every human being gets angry. But good people resist this negativity. They resist their vicious instincts. And they find affirmative outlets for negative emotions.

Defective character is an overlooked aspect of the increase in violence. Angry and violent people are lacking in psychological development and spiritual fulfillment.

The good news is that character can be improved. We are not pre-programmed. We can learn to speak a language and play the piano. We can also learn to defer gratification, control spite, overcome hate and become compassionate.

Culture matters in character development. Good culture supports us in doing the right thing, while bad influences contribute to vice. As we analyze the increase in violence, we must consider cultural inputs. What kinds of ideas and images inspire us? Who are our role models? Are we reinforcing kindness or teaching cruelty?

We must also think critically about violence itself. Violence is not natural or normal. Violence decreased during past decades. This shows that violence is not inevitable. People can learn to be less violent. But that requires lessons and reminders about the fact that violence is a sign of moral failure. It is shameful, stupid and sad. Decent people do not celebrate cruelty. Nor do they lionize villains, thugs, and murderers.

Finally, we must give people productive ways to find meaning, purpose, and happiness. Violence is a dead-end for hopeless souls who have lost faith in life. Another antidote to violence is to create a world that provides social connection, creative outlets for the human spirit, and opportunities to experience joy, love, and hope.

Erotic Untruth and the Violence of January 6

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. 

Nonviolence and Naked Power

Nonviolence exposes the brutality of naked power.  By responding to violence with courage and grace, nonviolence provokes the conscience and inspires solidarity. 

When organized and mobilized, nonviolence can change the world, as it has in many cases.  I discuss this in my new book, Nonviolence: A Quick Immersion.  Nonviolence has been used to overthrow colonial regimes, to oust oppressive governments, and to transform unjust social conditions.  Some of the strategies of nonviolence are quite forceful, involving marches, boycotts, and protests. 

But there is also the startlingly subtle power of unarmored, unclothed vulnerability.  We’ve seen this in recent protests in Portland, Oregon.  One lasting image is of Christopher David calmly withstanding the assault of security forces who beat him with batons and sprayed gas in his face.  There has also been a “wall of moms” who turned out in yellow shirts to challenge the brutality of federal authorities.  And then there was the so-called “Naked Athena,” a woman who danced nude in front of the camouflaged troops.

These techniques have a history. The Civil Rights movement in the U.S. included terrifying images of police beating unarmed people. One famous image is of John Lewis, Chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee being beaten by cops in Alabama. This image changed minds. Lewis himself went on to become a Congressman and an influential advocate of racial justice and nonviolence. Lewis died last week.

John Lewis beaten by police in Alabama on “Bloody Sunday” (March 7, 1965)

Images such as these demand that we pick sides.  Violence muddies the waters, making moral judgment more difficult.  When fists fly on both sides, it becomes hard to tell who is right and who is wrong.  But nonviolence is edifying and enlightening.  When armed forces assault vulnerable and exposed bodies, clarity dawns.  When bullies beat and gas defenseless people, moral judgment crystalizes.

By exposing themselves to violence, these activists enact what Vaclav Havel called “the power of the powerless.”  Havel demonstrated how simple acts of defiance were used in resistance to Soviet-backed totalitarianism.  In the background of his account is the parable of the emperor’s new clothes.

The act of pointing out that the emperor is in fact naked exposes the false reality of the power structure.  It soon dawns on us that what we are seeing is a mere show of power, camouflaging its cruelty beneath titles, insignia, flags, and guns.  And once naked power is revealed as such, it appears as flaccid, shameful, shriveled, and puny. 

Guns, gas, and truncheons can do real damage.  But when they are exposed in their pathetic nakedness, they lose their legitimacy.  They can kill us but they can’t convince us.  They can harm us but they cannot dominate our thinking.  They can enforce conformity but they cannot destroy the spirit of liberty.

Which brings me back to the Naked Athena who exposed her body and did so while dancing.  This brave woman transfigured vulnerability into strength, power, and grace.  She revealed a moment of beauty and freedom in the face of brutality.  She thereby transformed the power structure.  The unclothed body is typically seen as a symbol of vulnerability.  Consider the cruelty of forced nudity, as seen in images of naked bodies that come from the Holocaust or from the techniques of torture employed by American forces in Iraq at Abu Ghraib prison. 

But in affirming her nakedness, the Naked Athena forces us to choose sides.  On the one hand, we have guns and uniforms.  On the other, we have vulnerable human bodies—mothers, dancers, and unarmored men.  Which side are you on?

The advocates of nonviolence have always been on the side of the vulnerable.  Jesus offered praise for those who clothed the naked, fed the hungry, and visited the sick.  The Catholic priest John Dear explains, “we come into this world as a vulnerable, nonviolent, powerless baby, and we live in that same vulnerable, nonviolent, powerless state.  In our vulnerable humanity is the power of nonviolence, compassion, and love.”

It is our shared vulnerability that unites us.  The forces of domination want to create unity through violence.  But the advocates of nonviolence aspire to what Martin Luther King, Jr. called “the beloved community.”  The recently departed icon of nonviolence, Representative John Lewis put it this way: “We are one people, one family, the human family, and what affects one of us affect all of us.”

When brutality is unleashed upon “the least of these,” as Jesus would put it, we see the shame of violence.  This opens the door toward solidarity.  It pricks the conscience.  And in moments such as these the nakedness of power lies indicted before the power of nakedness.