A few years ago I was talking to the mother of a friend of mine. She worked in a facility that provided in-patient treatment for abused and troubled children. These were kids so damaged that by twelve they could no longer function among their peers or were considered to be at risk if left in their current situation.
Everyday she would sit down with these children and try to bring back their souls from whatever pit of despair an adult’s maltreatment had confined them to. Continually reminded of how unpleasant human nature can be at times, her frustration at what she saw as society’s failure to protect its most vulnerable could sometimes get the better of her emotionally.
On this occasion when we were talking, she was saying her worst source of frustration was the thought that nobody cared about these kids. Sometimes, she said, it felt like the only way you could get anybody’s attention about society’s problems was to blow something up.
There were days when she felt the only thing stopping her from blowing up mailboxes was that she couldn’t live with herself if anybody got killed. She would remind herself how awful she’d feel if one of her children died as a result of violence and this was all she needed to put an end to those feelings.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s in North America and Europe, a couple of groups did end up crossing over the line from protest to urban terrorism. In the United States there were The Weathermen, while in Germany it was the Baader/Meinhof group. Unlike other groups who formed at the time for a specific political cause like the PLO, the latter was born out of frustration similar to my friend’s mother.
My sister-in-law is German and grew up in the Germany of Baader and Meinhof. From her I’ve been told how both had, at one time, been dedicated social workers and journalists respectively and advocates for the rights of those being left behind by Germany’s economic miracle. At first they had been content to work via legal means, but in the end they finally crossed the line.
I’m sure for most people the thought of violence to advocate social change is as alien as it is reprehensible, and I include myself among that group; but that does not mean I can’t see how it could happen.
Have you ever been in a restaurant trying to get service and the waitress seems to be ignoring you? You’ve done everything possible to catch her eye save for standing up and shouting, and that begins to seem like a perfectly reasonable choice no matter what decorum or social mores say. In fact, sending up a flare might all of a sudden look good.
Now suppose that, day in and day out, you work to try and relieve poverty and crime in a poor neighbourhood. Day after day you beat your head against the door of politicians and bureaucrats who don’t do anything. For the most part they even deny there is anything wrong in world. Nobody is willing to meet your eye and does their best to ignore you and the problems you want to tell them about.
You try screaming and shouting and letter writing campaigns, and still another child joins a gang instead of going to school, another person dies of a drug overdose, and another single mother has to choose between feeding her child or paying to keep the electricity on in her apartment.
And nobody listens.
How big a noise do you have to make to get anybody’s attention? What will it take to make people hear the information you have? There are people eating dog food while others pay three million dollars on interior design and nobody seems to think there’s anything wrong.
What does it take to be noticed? How can you get past the I-Pods and cell phones to make them aware? The government uses violence when they want to solve things: the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, The War on Terror, The War on Drugs, and capital punishment is how they answer their need to be heard. So why not follow their example?
I have to admit there are times when my own brain goes that route. I get so frustrated with people not seeing or hearing that I would be tempted to blow something up to get their attention, but like my friend’s mother, I couldn’t bear the thought of taking an innocent life.
I’ve always considered violence as the recourse of the lazy and the cowardly. It’s much easier to shoot somebody than to try and work out your differences and possibly have to admit you were wrong about something. We have glamorized violence as the great problem solver through out most of our culture.
With the ‘settling it like a man’ in the boxing ring ethos when it comes to a dispute instead of talking it through, we are instilled with a ‘might makes right’ attitude to problem solving from an early age. We live in a society where intellect and reason are disparaged as being oddities and our heroes solve their problems with their fists and a weapon instead of their brains, compassion, and wisdom.
If I, with my attitude towards violence, can actually consider for even the briefest of moments using it to attract attention to a problem, how difficult would it be for someone else to cross that line? I will never condone the use of violence as a tool for problem solving, but I can see how seductive it could be as an option for those who think they have no other choice.
What surprises me is not that people have resorted to violence in an attempt to enact social change, but that more haven’t done so. I only hope this continues to be the case.