In Suketu Mehta’s Maximum City, he writes of the old story, “the powerful wish of minorities all over the world to be the oppressor rather than the oppressed.” His descriptions of the conflicts between India’s Hindus and Muslims reminds me of William Vollmann’s observation that while we kill each other for many reasons, some excuses have more justification than others. We kill, and are killed, for land, for love, for lust; we kill to protect, or so we say, whether it be ourselves we are protecting or others. We kill to possess, and we die in an effort not to be possessed. We fight for power, for status, for things, both to preserve what we have and to claim that which we feel others possess but that we deserve. And we find a way to be both oppressor and oppressed, to dance with justification and to blur the boundaries between awareness and deception within ourselves.
Eleventh-century Christians invaded the Holy Land in part because of a sense that their holy sites had fallen into pagan hands, in part for a hunger for Eastern wealth, and in part out of retaliation for Muslim incursions into Spain in the 7th century (a Spain which would, in fact, remain largely in Muslim hands until well after the fall of the last Crusader citadel in Palestine). Saladin reacted to the Crusaders; the Crusaders reacted to him. The Fourth Crusade sacked not a Muslim city but the Eastern center of Christianity for many reasons, among them jealousy and spite and the sense that the decadent lords of Byzantium no longer deserved what they held.
Genocides in Rwanda, Cambodia and the Sudan are a witness to oppression; the challenge, often, is what happens when the tide turns and the oppressor becomes the oppressed. When Israelis fight Palestinians, images are often of Israeli tanks and poorly armed opponents. But there was once a different day, a different time, and the “oppressor” wore a different face. And there are those even today who preach the eradication of Israel and who hunger for the day when it is their hand that holds the whip, the gun or the controls of a nuclear-weapons system. In ancient Greece, when Athens fought Sparta during the Peloponnesian War, both sides ended up the loser in the sense that each committed an escalating series of atrocities against the other, alternating between victory and defeat, between oppressor and oppressed, in which the earlier acts of the enemy justified the perpetration of some new horrific behavior.
It starts simply enough, this dance between oppressor and oppressed. As children on the playground, we see it emerge. One takes, one cries; one hits, the other reacts. And with each escalating blow we hear, “How do you like how it feels?” We are taught, in many forms, the idea of the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Supposedly the Buddhist variation is something like “do not treat others in a way you would not like to be treated.” Whether positive or negative or with some sort of New Age gloss, the principle remains the same: The idea that the way we treat others will, somehow, in some way, come back to us like birds returning home to roost. These early childhood battles remind us that we are often far less concerned with that principle than with the sense of vindication or retaliation: We want to give as good as we get, and then some.
In his book Rising Up and Rising Down, William Vollmann notes his early displeasure with the application of the Sunday school lesson about turning the other cheek; as he puts it, often that simply gives one’s assailant another opportunity to harm you. Perhaps the Golden Rule has a caveat, or a corollary, about what to do unto those who do you harm. Perhaps it is best to treat them as you would hope objectively to be treated if you were a bully – namely, taught a lesson, humbled, and instructed on the proper way to interact with others.
Our movies are filled with these metaphorical images: We know the Karate Kid deserves to kick the crap out of the bullies who bother him, because we want the same thing. The stereotypical image of the high school geek turned millionaire, while the homecoming king is the assistant manager down at the Burger King, is a manifestation of that same sort of instinctive imperative: The oppressed victim often hopes to be able to come back and shove his former oppressor’s head in the school toilet, if only in a symbolic sense.
In Akira Kurasawa’s The Seven Samurai, the poor farmers regard the samurai with a measure of fear, distrust and outright hostility, even though the samurai are, in large part, the mechanism of their salvation (albeit from other samurai who had become ronin, and thus outlaws). In The Last Samurai, Tom Cruise works overtime to glorify Japan’s fading feudal past while glossing over the hostility between the warrior class and the peasants inherent in that system. Indeed, according to ancient custom (hardly practiced by the setting of The Last Samurai but historically existent nonetheless), a samurai could literally kill a peasant without consequence. Perhaps it is understandable then that in a more democratic culture, the formerly oppressed peasants would exact a measure of revenge upon the samurai by stripping them of their right to wear weapons in public and even mandating that they change their style of hair and dress. Failing that, it is not so illogical a progression for them to eradicate their former oppressors in a largely symbolic battle in which the democratizing tools of technology permit the weak and less experienced warriors to defeat the professional-warrior class. As the old saying goes, God made man, Colonel Colt made man equal, or at least a little more equal than before.
The oppressor and the oppressed. It is impossible to have one without the other, two sides that form one coin (a fact we often conveniently forget). Is it a component of human nature to seek out the weak and in some fashion dominate them? They say rape is an act of violence rather than an expression of sexual desire; in other words, the rapist seeks to dominate – to oppress – the victim. In cinematic reflections of this reality, victims or their surrogates seek vengeance upon the perpetrator. A violent act for a violent act; an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. But there are those who suggest this ancient Biblical principle was actually designed not to validate violence, but to minimize the escalation of it. In other words, if I am harmed in some manner, I may exact the same in kind – but I may not make the perpetrator suffer a worse fate. I may have no more than my due.
I watched the artist formerly known as Captain Kirk in an advertisement for a television show recently. It appeared he reacted to a criminal defendant who had committed a horrific crime but dismissed his own actions on the basis that perhaps the victim was “asking for it.” The good captain responded with a gun; as I did not watch the program, I am uncertain of the resulting harm. But it seems that this is an almost visceral common response: We want to see those who cause pain suffer pain themselves, especially when they seem unrepentant.
I am reminded of a story I read years ago about the Rwandan genocide. Given that so many people participated in the atrocities and murder of their neighbors, it simply was impossible to arrest or convict them all. In Maximum City, Mehta spoke to Indian Hindus who had burned Muslims to death simply for the crime of being Muslim, and yet went unpunished for their crimes. For those in Bombay’s Muslim community, seeing this triggers a response: Like Charles Bronson in Death Wish, they turn vigilante, becoming gangsters in pursuit of the elusive sense of justice they find lacking.
In ancient Rome, the legends say, they threw Christians to the lions in the Coliseum as a form of public enjoyment. In the 21st century, an Iraqi prisoner claims that the soldiers of a so-called Christian nation tossed him in with the lions at a local zoo. Planes explode into buildings and thousands die because terrorists feel oppressed and strike back at the symbolic images of that hated “other” they blame for their ills. The war of terror and the war on terror: In each are found the seeds of this dance, this symbiotic relationship between the powerful and the powerless, between the oppressed and the oppressor.
I do not know how easy it is to break the cycle, to end the dance. Clearly it cuts across cultures and centuries to represent one of mankind’s enduring challenges. In Iraq today, those who were formerly powerless under Saddam Hussein have the opportunity to exercise power. Observers everywhere wonder what they will do with it – and how they will treat those who formerly oppressed them. The war on terror itself reflects this continuum of oppression, between extremes of possible behavior. Terrorists behead prisoners for the shock value; American soldiers detain thousands and interrogate many of them with techniques which border upon torture, if they do not exist perpetually within the confines of that concept. One can say they are not parallel responses, and that one is “more” justified than the other, but it fails to address the reality that in each are found the provocation for further escalation, further pain, further death. Rage simmers and then explodes in a cry for retaliation in kind.
That which is natural may not always be best for me. My immediate reaction to punch someone who is bothering me may be natural, in that it is instinctive. But it may be an instinct best controlled; reason may well encourage another response. The world is an imperfect place and man is not a saintly, sinless construct capable only of making the right choices. In the midst of such a place, and surrounded by such other beings as ourselves, it is difficult, if not impossible, to simply turn the other cheek and surrender to the tender mercies of those who wish us ill. But we must strive for honesty, rather than self-deception; we cannot simply say, like small children, that “he started it.” We can not use another’s behavior as the measuring stick for our own. We must try to assess accurately the validity of that which we do. There is a point at which defending oneself becomes oppression itself; the boundary may be blurry but it exists nonetheless.
We should strive for freedom, but a freedom from oppression – and a sense of freedom which recognizes that far too often, the struggle for liberty becomes the mechanism of empowering tyranny. The Russian Revolution and the French Revolution both began as legitimate complaints of an impoverished populace. They became something else instead, as the hunger for freedom (and food) fostered an environment in which dictators flourished and the formerly oppressed citizens exacted a measure of revenge upon those they felt had wronged them.
In meeting the enemy, perhaps we will find that he is us; in truth, we should remember that the peril lies not always in the pursuit of victory but in the maintenance of it. The seeds of Hitler’s rise were found, many historians say, in the harsh dictates of the peace treaty negotiated at the end of World War I. To the victor go the spoils, but the victor best be careful how its winnings are handled. For the oppressed often dream of becoming the oppressor, and those dreams, once reality, often transcend into nightmare.
Author’s Note: This article was originally posted at Wallo World.