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"Violence in This Country"

     My wife found this passage in one of Anton Chekhov's short
stories.  He's describing small-town Czarist Russia in the
1890's, but it could be here and now:
     "You may look in vain for justice and protection in this
dirty, wretched little town...  And, indeed, is it not absurd
even to think of justice when every kind of violence is accepted
by society as a rational and consistent necessity, and every act
of mercy -- for instance, a verdict of acquittal -- calls forth a
perfect outburst of dissatisfied and revengeful feeling?"
     TV and print media commentators express surprise and chagrin
that high school kids are capable of mass murder, bombing and
suicide.  Parents are blamed; school cliques, guns, violent
stories and images in the media -- all are blamed.  I'll add my
nickel's worth, and blame the entire society, starting at the
     Our President wonders about it, shares people's pain, he
says, but seems oblivious to what is perfectly obvious to some of
the rest of us.  Violence breeds violence.  The President was
labeled a draft-dodger by that now-forgotten draft dodger, Newton
Gingrich.  He should have replied as follows:  "The Vietnam War
was immoral, illegal, unwise, unconstitutional and unwinnable
militarily.  Those of us who opposed it at the time, as students,
were right about it.  Those who think the sovereign citizens
should never question the actions of officials in power are
     He could have said that, but instead he has thrown away the
opportunity for moral clarification and has joined the ranks of
his war criminal predecessors, bombing all and sundry, including
in the vivid memory of living high school students Sudan,
Afghanistan, Iraq and Yugoslavia.  In doing so he has openly
violated the UN charter, which is a treaty supposedly binding on
this country.
     His justification for these violent acts is bullying and
vengeful blustering.  He and the pundits often state that he is
"sending a message" to one person or another, and the message is
this:  "Don't mess with us.  We are the only surviving
superpower.  We spend ten times as much on weapons of mass
destruction as the next eight spenders taken together.  We have
all this destructive power and we're not afraid to use it.  We're
not interested in Truth or Justice; we want you to be impressed
with our power -- impressed enough to do what we say."
     He is in charge of immeasurable quantities of violence: 
imprisonment, zero-tolerance, bombings, beatings, more police,
more fire-power -- that's how you impress your peers that you're
not to be messed with.  And then he is puzzled that a small
fraction of the youth of our country think that his violent
behavior is to be imitated.  
     In the mid-sixties an anti-war music group called The Fuggs
sang a song about all this.  It was a parody of old-fashioned
revival hour gospel music.  While the choir hummed the tune, an
angry young man yelled, "Who dealt this mess anyway?"  Yeah, an
old card-player's term, but we can use it to understand frontal
politics...  Who was it set up a system, supposedly a democratic
system, where you always end up voting for the lesser of two
evils?  I mean, was George Washington the lesser of two evils? 
Sometimes I wonder...
     "We got this guy says, 'My God, we gotta stop havin'
violence in this country,' while he's spendin' sixteen thousand
dollars a second snuffin' gooks!"
     Then the choir sang again the theme they've been humming --
"River of Shit, river of shit," while the gospel pianist runs up
and down the keys in that old sawdust trail pattern.  Then the
angry guy, furious by this time, shrieked, "Damn!  Big wide river!
Wider'n all hell -- for our posterity, every man, woman and
     That was more than thirty years ago.  I wonder if that song
has ever been played on the radio.  Probably not, but it's as
fitting now as it was then.
     Our nation has never found healing from the guilt of the
Vietnam War.  Current wars simply add more poison to the mixture. 
And when high school kids act like modern soldiers, with their
weapons of mass destruction, it's a sign that the poison still
festers and occasionally comes to the surface, in places we don't
like.  A society as violent as ours, starting with genocide and
slavery and ending with bullying and bombing, should not pretend
to be surprised when violence breaks out into the open.

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Copyright © 1999 Harry Willson

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