Amid the outpouring of blogging that tried to make sense of the Boston Marathon bombing — the tiny core of solid reporting and its vast, coruscating aurora of bloviating punditry and reciprocal finger-pointing — the sanest post I read was Arthur Goldwag’s round-up of “ the people–also driven by personal demons and/or ideology–who are certain that they already know all there is to know.” Goldwag, of course, is a self-taught hate-ologist, a journalist who tracks and reports on the various hermetically-sealed worldviews that pollute public discourse (at their best) and spin out crazy people with grudges and weapons (at their worst.) And for the first part of the post, he catalogs the usual crop of conspiracy theories and predictions that hit the airwaves while doctors in Boston hospitals were still amputating limbs. (If you really want a scorecard to identify those players, go ahead and click on the link above.)
However, what made Goldwag’s post truly helpful, what moved it beyond the usual tuttuttery about “the echo-chamber of the internet and 24/7 news channels”, was his analysis of the ways we often try to squirm away from horrible truth. We find someone to blame — at worst, we blame the victim. We critique the performance of first responders. We decry some tendency of human nature, generally one that is conveniently unfixable. And we distinguish ourselves from the victim(s), pointing out that we are careful, sober, health-conscious, well-organized, ample insurance-carrying paragons of planning ahead.
All of it is true, none of it is crazy or hateful–but to me it’s revealing that so many people feel the need to broadcast those thoughts out loud. What they are saying, in effect, is that the world is still rational and meaningful, even if terrible things happen from time to time. There is always an explanation; there are never victims, only martyrs or fools, and someone is always to blame. It’s a spontaneous act of theodicy, as if they all want to let God off the hook–and/or to reassure themselves that they are too smart to ever be a victim themselves.
I’m not criticizing the tendency; I’m just noting it. Alex Jones wouldn’t have the megaphone or the resonance that he has if there wasn’t a little bit of him in all of us.
If we take care to distinguish ourselves from the victims, we are even more frantic in our efforts to distance ourselves from the perpetrators of violence. While I hate to pick on Andrew Sullivan, whose writing I admire and who is by no means the worst offender on this score, his series of posts on the subject “Of course it was jihad” pushed most of the buttons remaining in my addled brain.
His argument is that Islam is warlike because the Prophet led armies, whereas Christianity is peaceful because the Christ of the gospels is a peacemaker. (Notice he says nothing at all of the Christ of Revelations.) Speaking as a Jew, I am always tempted to call for a pox on both those religions’ houses, though, taking history as a whole, I think Islam has been less sanguinary. One wonders if Sullivan has forgotten the Troubles in Northern Ireland or the attempted genocide by (Christian) Serbs in Bosnia, or if he feels that Christianity has completely matured in the past twenty years…
One can only imagine what the New Atheists are saying — I am too easily bored by repetition to follow most of those blogs.
Everyone — Russians, Chechens, Dagestanis, Kyrgystanis, and gods help our education system, even the Czech Republic — have distanced themselves from the Tsarnaev brothers. Cambridge doesn’t want to allow the elder brother to be buried, partly, I’ll admit, for practical reasons. Muslim clerics don’t want to assist with the funeral.
But here’s the problem. While Islam (or religion generally, or ethnic identity, or colonial oppression) may provide the rhetorical fig leaves, the basic psychological mechanism is the universal tendency called “vendetta”. Someone — often a young man whose life is going poorly — adopts the pain and sense of oppression of a group, and acts as self-appointed family hero, revolutionary, freedom fighter, or soldier of God.
Although the “virus meme” metaphor is overused, I think of vendetta as a bit like shingles. The original infection may be an armed invasion by conquerers or colonizers, sparking an outbreak of resistance and revenge that can be compared to chickenpox. But while the original situation is eventually resolved, seeds of buried resentment build protective cysts in the culture and wait to infect susceptible people.
Revenge and vendetta are not, at base, religious urges — they may be among the few human customs that pre-date religion. They are responsible for most of the most horrifying examples of inhumanity. A small initial injury can cause cascades of violence, with the level of violence rising from one incident to the next. It is in this context that the lex talionis — an eye (rather than a life or a village) for an eye — was a step forward for justice, despite our disdain for it today. Religions have generally condemned revenge, but have not been notably successful in preventing it.
Revenge is not usually strictly proportionate. “For every one of us you kill, we’ll kill 100 of you” is a pretty common sentiment. Worse, revenge is often taken against someone who is considered somehow equivalent to the original offender, meaning that it targets innocent people. If you doubt that this tendency still continues, ask yourself this: why, after 9/11, did Americans allow themselves to believe the justifications for going to war in Iraq? I submit that it was because immediate revenge was blocked in Tora Bora, but SOMEBODY had to suffer.
All the bad characteristics of revenge are amplified in vendetta. Vendettas can continue for centuries — remember, for instance, that the Bosnian Serbs were “avenging” offenses that occurred about 800 years earlier. By definition, the perpetrators of the original offense are dead, so vendetta never proceeds against the actual offending parties. And one of the reliable human tendencies is to improve the technology of killing from one generation to the next. (If we are killing tens of people at a time with drone strikes, can’t we expect to see the poisoning of major municipal water supplies or the bombing of huge stadiums in reprisal, twenty or fifty years from now?)
I have a spiritual practice I use to try to avoid distancing myself from either victims or perpetrators of violence. It is a variation on the charnal ground meditations described in the Satipatthana Sutta. We don’t generally have charnal grounds today, but we do have plenty of examples of horrid violence, often with graphic images. I hold it to be a duty to engage with these situations, and their images.
When I am confronted with such things, I focus first on the victims. I remind myself that I am subject to death, subject to injury, subject to illness, subject to the loss of those I love, etc. Nothing separates me from the sufferings of the victims except circumstance.
When I come to understand this — and practice does, in fact, wear down the barriers to recognizing the facts — then I have every motivation to do what I can to help. Can I help this victim? Can I help other people in similar circumstances? If there is something to be done, that it is possible for me to do, I go ahead and do it. If not, I resolve not to forget. (After all, it might become possible to do something later.)
The second step in my practice is equally important. If there is a perpetrator, I think carefully about them. I remind myself that I am not a fully-enlightened Buddha, and that, therefore, I am subject to delusion, to hatred, to greed. What separates me from the perpetrator is… circumstance. I am fortunate that I have not lived that person’s life. I am motivated to practice toward enlightenment (when I can truly be free of bad inclinations.)
Also, I remember that there is no fixed self, and no immutable character. Yes, there are people genetecially lacking some of the important elements of morality, as psychopaths are lacking empathy. But for the most part, people’s character and moral choices are products of both individual tendencies and cultural norms. (If you doubt that a rotten culture can destroy the morals of ordinary people, I direct you to the scientific work of Philip Zimbardo.) For that reason, I have to do what I can to contribute to a healthy, humane culture.
Obviously, I am not advocating for specifically Buddhist practices. But I offer this example because it is one way of addressing what I feel is our main duty, not only in the aftermath of violence, but at every moment — resisting the tendency to squirm away from unpleasant truth.