Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Our Social Disease

The Spirit of Life that I felt early in life succumbed to my training, my acceptance of the social meme of violence. "Meme" is a term first coined by Richard Dawkins in his book The Selfish Gene, as a way to adapt evolutionary theory to social and cultural ideas and practices. A meme, as a idea, does not require supporting, scientific truth to spread. That the earth was flat was both a meme, a paradigm, and also untrue. The word paradigm has some very difficult definitions that I will spare you, but a simple one that works for me is that it is a meme that everybody accepts as truth, and that all other memes must fit into. That one big overriding idea sets a framework. From that framework we build our political structure, our prisons, our legal system, our conflict resolution programs, and even our ideas of what peace means. One such meme today is that violence is our natural, genetic, predisposition. The meme states that violence is an inextricable part of human nature, and that there can be no other way, even if it means the extinction of our species. There have been tomes written on this meme. Yet, if we place this self proclaimed paradigm under the magnifying glass it begins to sizzle until all that's left is a charred spot and some smoke.

Probably the best way to examine the human propensity to kill another human is boot camp. Here we train our young men and women to fore-go any consideration of human life and kill someone that they do not know and who has done nothing to them. We need not go back to the Vikings to understand this, but just as an aside, the Vikings were a brutal group and yet if we look at their decedents today we find a changed paradigm. In Sweden we find peaceful resolutions on the national scale. That alone is encouragement that even America could one day live in peace. I will take us on a nostalgic trip down memory lane to World War II. The soldiers of this war have been commemorated by Hollywood for their bravery in combat. I certainly do not dispute their bravery. But I do want to point out that when questioned on the battle experience it was discovered that only 15 to 20 percent of the American riflemen would fire at the enemy. US Army Brigadier General S.L.A. Marshall coordinated the study. He went on to corroborate this study in the larger European theater, conducted thousands of interviews in over 400 infantry companies and again the results were consistent with the American study. What Marshall discovered was that even with training and demonization of the enemy there was a reluctance to kill another human being. Could it be that maybe this paradigm of violence has a flaw, a loose thread, that if we pull at it long enough, the entire wool covering our eyes might unravel to reveal our true nature, one of peace.

The Army took Marshall's studies very seriously. They could not tolerate conscientious objectors on the battlefield. Posturing by shooting over the enemies head rather then through it threatened the hierarchical chain of command. Changes were made. In Korea the resistance to killing dropped such that over half of our boys fired at the enemy. By Vietnam the numbers showed that 90 to 95% of our soldiers had no moral qualms in firing into another living person. Today, when our children are directed to kill every boy child of fighting age in Falluja, Iraq, they no longer grow a conscience as their grandfathers might have, they are able to kill children. So boot camp has changed, utilizing psychological warfare, not on the enemy but on our own beloved children. They began a process called "violentization" by the renowned criminologist Lonnie Athens. His life and work is presented in the book, Why They Kill: The Discoveries of A Maverick Criminologist.

How are violent actors created? This question plagued me for many years. My thoughts and dreams turned to violence more often than not. Lonnie Athens had grown up in a violent home. His older brother became violent yet Lonnie did not. His life's work centered around answering the question of why. Why didn't he also become violent? And once violent can we bring them back, restoring them to their community? Lonnie identified four stages to violentization.

The first stage is the Brutalization Stage. Within this stage the violent subjugation of the person takes place. This could be a drill sergeant spitting curses into the fresh faces of his recruits. This could be a father. I recall a particularly hot summer day in Nampa Idaho when my father put me and my younger brother to work moving debris in my grandfathers back yard into a pile for disposal. My father had left us to our work. After a time my brother, tired and sweaty, asked if we could take a break. I saw no harm and made the executive decision for us to sit in the shade for a bit. My father came out in seconds, screaming, face red, that we were not finished yet. We quickly jumped up. I tried to explain that we were only taking a short break. My father picked up a piece of antennae wire, grabbed me by the hand and began wailing against my exposed legs. My brother ran off, escaping punishment for the moment. When my father left I looked down at the bleeding welts raising up, angry as my father, against my white skin. I quickly returned to work, my sight blurred by tears of anger. I kicked and threw the garbage into the pile until I was exhausted. My brother rarely escaped these beatings. He suffered from ADDHD so his behavior rarely met with my parents approval. I witnessed his being whipped so many times. I know that he ultimately became immune to this punishment. This is another method of brutalization that Athens calls personal horrification. It is bearing witness to the violent subjugation of members of the primary group, for example a mother, brother, friend or fellow recruit.

Violent coaching is the final aspect of the brutalization stage. In this the coach teaches violence by glorifying it in story, ridicule or coercion. My brother, Scott, hated to fight. As a result my father called him some ugly names like "pussy" and "coward". One day my brother was running home and my father locked the door on him. My brother screamed to be let in because a neighbor boy was after him. My dad screamed back that if he wanted in he'd better kick that other boy's ass. Fuelled by his anger at my father, Scott turned and walked reluctantly back up the street toward the other boy. Scott was easily twice this boys size. Scott hit him one time and he went down. My brother received the heroes welcome after that. He had learned to be violent. He finally earned his Kentucky redneck. When the other boy's father came down to talk with dad, dad cursed him and his kid. Needless to say we weren't real popular in that neighborhood.

That brings us to the second stage, the Belligerency Stage. This is where we see a light bulb blink on above the subjects head. To stop myself or my group member from being violently subjugated I will need to take violent action myself. But this is only the first, mental step, toward violence. Usually at this stage we see verbal abuse and threats, not physical. At the completion of this stage is the first violent action. In High School I became friends with Tori, a fiery red-head with a personality to match. I went to her house to spend the night. Her mother worked in the local liquor store and gave us each two bottles of Tickled Pink before she drove off with her boyfriend. We walked around the night streets in this backwoods area of Shepherdsville Kentucky. A car pulled up. Tori knew the two boys in the car. She liked one of them. So they joined us for a walk in a field nearby. One of the boys offered us some ludes (Quaaludes) and we each took one. She walked on with the fella she liked and they laid down. I did likewise with the other guy. He proceeded to kiss me and I pushed him away. I told him I wasn't interested. He continued to persist in his plans, trying to get his hand down my pants. I jumped up and in a very loud and drunk voice told him he could go "f--- himself because I wasn't interested". My friend heard the commotion and jumped up too, zipping her pants closed. About that time I heard a shot and whizz of a projectile nearby, followed by an angry voice shouting something to the effect of "you blankety blank kids better get outta here or I'll kill ya". So we ran, stumbling and stupid drunk. The two boys were way ahead of us. As we reached the end of the field we saw their headlights heading away. I apologized to my friend for interrupting her evening but she didn't mind. We stumbled along, singing "how dry I am" at the top of our voices, all the way back to her house. Her mom was still out and the door was locked. As the ludes and alcohol swirled lazily in our heads, we lay down in the grass, cuddled together and fell asleep. The next week at school, the girlfriend of the boy who had attempted to fondle me (or worse), Donna, accused me of sleeping with her boyfriend and said she was going to kick my ass. She had caught in the hallway at my locker, trying to snare me into her triangle of love. I was bigger and taller than her. I knew I would win a fight with her. So, in my calmest voice, my eyes square on hers, I told her that I would meet her at 7am in the back parking lot but that I wanted her to know that this fight was not about the piece of s-*^ that she called a boyfriend, but rather I wanted to kick her ass for being so stupid as to believe that sack of s"-*^ could ever be faithful or truthful to her. I'd fight her all right, but only because I'd enjoy it. It was agreed.

That night I bragged to my father that I had a fight for the morning. He didn't seem quite a supportive as he had for my brother. I drank vodka and took a few Valium, but I did that often enough that it seemed to effect me more like coffee by that time in my life. Then I imagined every possible way I could hurt this girl. I pictured her over and over going down against the pavement and me grabbing her hair and pounding her head into it until it opened up for me. I did everything to keep my adrenaline high. I wanted to kill her. I wanted to prove to my father and anyone else that wanted to hurt me that I was no push over. My father drove me down to the appointed spot. All was quiet. I waited, pumped up on coffee, but still she never showed. I was deflated. I went in to class. I spotted her later in the hallway and confronted her. She humbled herself to me. She apologized. She told me I was right about her boyfriend, who was no longer her boyfriend. It was not the victory I had hoped for and I felt cheated. I was securely in the stage of belligerency and I would remain there throughout my college career, but not once did anyone ever give me the opportunity to act upon my violent thoughts, except for my father. Looking back on this incident what disturbs me most is that I never once considered the impact her death or injury might have had on those who loved her. Nor did I think about her as anything more than my enemy. I had somehow demonized this girl. I had rationalized my aggression placing the blame squarely on her. After all she was stupid enough to be with this jerk, so isn't this just survival of the more intelligent.

In observing my fellow Americans I've concluded that I am not alone in this state of belligerency. But here most of us stop the progression. Athen's speaks of the enormous energy, he even calls it courage, that it takes to actually go the next step, that of seriously injuring or even killing another human. This step is both frightening and dehumanizing. Athen's third stage is Violent Performances. Beyond making the resolution, a pact with violence, here the subject attempts real violence, uncertain of the outcome. If Donna and I had come to blows in the parking lot as planned, we would have instantly been surrounded by a ring of other students screaming and urging us onward. In the end one of us would have achieved notoriety in the hallways of the high school, while the other nursed their wounds. It's this reputation that sets in motion the next stage. Being respected and feared by your collegues makes the subject feel safe. This, after all, is the ultimate goal.The final stage is Virulency. With new fame comes confidence. Athens states the the subject becomes "overly impressed with his violent preformance and ultimately with himself in general." My father had his in-group, not unlike a gang but without the formalities. Many in this gang were brothers and cousins, the Cash boys. One had been a wife beater until the day that she could handle no more and hanged herself. All of these men were violent. They glorified their violence in recounting stories together while drinking and smoking pot. One night I opened the door only to see another door. John, Dad's close friend, had put his fist through a door in a rage. The swollen bloody fist could not then free itself. The group had removed the door from it's hinges and brought him to our house so dad could use his skillsaw to free him. Lucky for John, he didn't lose his hand in this druken episode. This group of belligerents scoured local bars looking for Mexicans. When they found a lone Mexican enjoying a cerveza they would begin antagonizing him. Eventually convincing the man to exit the bar and fight. I don't know if they ever killed anyone, but I hope not. This practice is clearly in the virulent stage. I doubt that my father was the instigator of this action, but his acquiesence was the same as approval.

Athen's believes that women often lack the coaching to become violent, but there are cases that show that these same stages work regardless of gender. These stages are independent of class, intelligence, race or age. The only requirement is the physical and mental competence necessary to perform a violent criminal act.

The question remains on how to bring someone back. With nearly 95% of our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan in this final stage of violentization we must find a way. The numbers for domestic violence are on the rise as are suicides. Post traumatic stress disorder, PTSD, is an epidemic among our children serving. They return to civilian life with a bottle of happy pills, sleeping pills and any other pills that might numb the cacophony of sound and images rattling between their ears. There's only one known antedote to this and that is a spiritual solution. It is a return to the pure state, before the subjugation, the coaching and the action, where the Spirit of Life could still be heard. It won't come in a pill. It takes hard work on both the part of society and the part of our wounded. We first must listen compassionately to the stories they tell. They need to tell them so many times, until the story loses it's power to break them apart. We must suffer with them. What they have been forced to do they did for us and we owe them our love and compassion. So listen. So cry with them. Go to a Winter Soldier event. Read their poetry and blogs. Hold them in their hour of despair. When all the stories are out, a quiet will ensue. They may try to drown it out at a local bar or dance club, but eventually they may hear it. The Spirit will speak just as it did for Leo Tolstoy, as it has for millions throughout the history of our species. When we listen to Life, we will stop training our children in the devastating art of violence.