The Commerce of Violence

On the day of the bombing in Boston, The New York Times printed an op-ed piece by a human being who has been imprisoned at Guantánamo for more than eleven years, uncharged and, of course, untried. The occurrence of these two events on the same day was a coincidence, but that does not mean that they are unrelated.

What connects them is our devaluation, and when convenient our disvaluation, of human life as well as the earthly life of which human life is a dependent part. This cheapening of life, and the violence that inevitably accompanies it, is surely the dominant theme of our time. The ease and quickness with which we resort to violence would be astounding if it were not conventional.

In the Appalachia coalfields, we mine coal by destroying a mountain, its forest, its waterways, and its human community without counting the destruction as a cost. Our military technicians, our representatives, sit in armchairs and kill our enemies, and our enemies’ children, by remote control. In the Guantánamo prison, guards force their fasting prisoners to live; they do so as routinely as in other circumstances they would kill them.

And the Boston bombing? Like most people, I was not there, and I don’t know anybody who was, but I was grieved and frightened by the news. This fearful grief has grown familiar to me since I first felt it at the start of World War II, but at each of its returns it is worse. Each new resort to violence enlarges the argument against our species, and the task of hope becomes harder.

I am absolutely in sympathy with those who suffered the bombing in Boston and with their loved ones. They have been singled out by a violence that was general in its intent, not aimed particularly at anybody. The oddity, the mystery, of a particular hurt from a general violence—the necessity to ask, “Why me? Why my loved ones?”—must compound the suffering.

What I am less and less in sympathy with is the rhetoric and the tone of official indignation. Public officials cry out for justice against the perpetrators. I too wish them caught and punished. But I am unwilling to have my wish spoken for me in a tone of surprise and outraged innocence. The event in Boston is not unique or “rare” or surprising or in any way new. It is only another transaction in the commerce of violence: the unending, the not foreseeably endable, exchange of an eye for an eye, with customary justifications on every side, in which we fully participate; and beyond that, our willingness to destroy anything, any place, or anybody standing between us and whatever we are “manifestly destined” to have.

We congratulate ourselves perpetually upon our Civil War by which the slaves were, in a manner of speaking, “freed.” We forget, if we have ever learned, that the same army that “freed the slaves” established for us the “right” of military violence against a civilian population, and then acted upon that “right” by a war of extermination against the native peoples of the West. Nobody who knows our history, from the “Indian wars” to our contemporary foreign wars of “homeland defense,” should find anything unusual in the massacre of civilians and their children.

It is not possible for us to reduce the value of life, including human life, to nothing only to suit our own convenience or our own perceived need. By making this reduction for ourselves, we make it for everybody and anybody, even our enemies, even for the maniacs whose enemies are schoolchildren or spectators at a marathon.

We forget also that violence is so securely founded among us—in war, in forms of land use, in various methods of economic “growth” and “development”—because it is im­mensely profitable. People do not become wealthy by treating one another or the world kindly and with respect. Do we not need to remember this? Do we have a single eminent leader who would dare to remind us?

On the second day after the catastrophe in Boston, Thomas L. Friedman announced in The New York Times that “the right reaction is: Wash the sidewalk, wipe away the blood, and let whoever did it know that . . . they have left no trace on our society or way of life.” We should, said Mr. Friedman, “let there be no reminder whatsoever.” And he asserted, with a shocking indifference to evidence and his own language, that “the benefits—living in an open society—always outweigh the costs.” He is speaking to (among others) people whose loved ones have been killed and people who will never again stand on their own legs. How can he think that all the traces of any violence can be easily wiped away? How would he wipe away the traces of a bombed village or a strip mine or a gullied field or a wrecked forest?

Mr. Friedman, like other journalists, asks us, as he wrote, to “notice how many people came running toward the blast within seconds to help.” And that is very well. To know that people would run to help, perhaps at the risk of their lives, is consoling and reassuring. But we have got to acknowledge that the help that comes after the violence has been done, though it undeniably helps, is not a solution to violence.

The solution, many times more complex and difficult, would be to go beyond our ideas, obviously insane, of war as the way to peace and of permanent damage to the ecosphere as the way to wealth. Actually to help our suffering of one man-made horror after another, we would have to revise radically our understanding of economic life, of community life, of work, and of pleasure. We employ thousands of scientists and spend billions of dollars to reduce matter to its smallest particles and to search for farther stars. How many scientists and how many dollars are devoted to harmony between economy and ecology, or to amity and lenity in the face of conflict?

To learn to meet our needs without continuous violence against one another and our only world would require an immense intellectual and practical effort, requiring the help of every human being perhaps to the end of human time.

This would be work worthy of the name “human.” It would be fascinating and lovely.

Wendell Berry is a farmer, writer, and environmentalist in Kentucky.