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A fine and fragile balance between peace and violence

The past four years, culminating in the events of Jan. 6, have shown us two contradictory sides of human nature

Susan Odegard cares for pets and gardens.

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.”

—Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

Westminster West

When I was in high school, I witnessed a vicious fist fight between two male classmates, and it shook me to my core.

The violence and the cheering of the crowd horrified me. I managed to hold it together until I got home, but the minute I saw my mother, I burst into inconsolable tears. I told her what I witnessed: the expressions of hatred and fear, the blood and cracking of bones, one boy ending up with a broken arm.

After a few minutes of motherly comfort, we had a talk as my mother tried to grapple with my wails of “Why?!”

She told me that the human species was capable of great kindness and the lowest of cruelties and violence. She told me to read history for proof of her claims.

My mother also reminded me of times when she witnessed my acts of kindness. But she reminded me of my own acts of violence — namely, beating up a boy in defense of a friend and roughing up my older sister when she humiliated me one too many times in front of her boyfriend.

Before leaving me to my thoughts and tears, she told me that I needed to toughen up — that life wasn’t easy for most people.

Amen, Mother. Amen.

* * *

I abhor violence, yet there are times when I can understand why people resort to it. I think of the Palestinians whose lives are filled with want, degradation, and fear at the hands of the Israeli government. I think of the capture and incarceration of those citizens of Hong Kong who refuse to accept China’s hard-fisted rule and demand for total obedience to their state.

On the home front, I think of our country’s two original sins, which still plague us to this very day.

I think of the betrayal of Native Americans whose homeland was conquered and raped, forcing them into abject poverty as the government lied to them repeatedly decade after decade.

And I think of those whose ancestors were brought to this country tortured with the evil bonds of slavery, producing generation after generation of one-hand-tied-behind-their-backs, second-class status and the brutality of the white hatred thrown in their lives’ paths. I can imagine resorting to violence if I were driven to such brinks.

Yet I’ve always been in awe of those who have led nonviolent resistance movements in the face of extreme circumstances.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi, and their followers, come to mind. They are rare exceptions among the human race, and I think of them as earthly angels. This common earthling can’t fathom having the discipline and bravery required for such feats.

* * *

Then there are the types of violence that I will never remotely understand: random violence, bully violence, violence against “the different,” and cult violence, which leads me to the Jan. 6 storming of our nation’s Capitol.

The mob attack on the seat of our democracy wasn’t surprising to me, but it made me unspeakably sad and angry. The looking-the-other-way, coddling, and back-door support of right-wing extremist groups has been a decades-long trend in the United States, and Donald Trump’s reign has given them a turbo-charged green light.

Those who have supported Trump despite all his heinous acts and words bear just as much responsibility. The right-wing-media liars who have sacrificed this country in exchange for their filthy lucre are a part of this tragedy as well.

The twin cowards, Rudy Giuliani and Donald J. Trump, made their call to arms on Jan. 6, as they stood behind bulletproof glass — the final push that the pumped-up Trump cult needed to justify their assault on the presidential election of 2020. The historic breaching of the Capitol was red meat to their movement, as was the apparent support of some police and security personnel.

As for Trump, I think he should be kicked out of office immediately via the 25th Amendment, but I doubt if Congress, the cabinet, and Vice President Mike Pence will really go through with it.

Even so, I hold out hope that the House will impeach Trump and that, very soon after the Jan. 20 inauguration, the Senate will convict him of that second impeachment charge, thus preventing him from holding federal office again.

Even with this best-case scenario, the Trump cult is here to stay for a long time.

* * *

I’ve always been split about the philosophies of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Thomas Hobbes, but I think both philosophers made astute observations about human nature. I boil it down to this: Rousseau believed that humans were essentially good and that society and government corrupted them, while Thomas Hobbes believed that humans were essentially bad and that society and government kept them in check.

I view these last four-plus years in the United States as a microcosmic example of human nature at play.

On its face, our interactions are not pretty, yet in quiet corners of each and every community, acts of care and kindness are playing out hour after hour.

I think within each one of us there is a fine and fragile balance between peace and violence, between selfish acts and service to others. I think most of us live somewhere in the middle when we’re not facing extreme challenges or dangers, be it in word or deed.

The question for me is: Do we resign ourselves to “nasty, brutish, and short,” or do we seek out and nurture the inherently good within each one of us?

When I read about the local recruitment efforts by antifa in last week’s Commons, my first response was a chill down my spine. For me, it said things are ramping up and may portend a second civil war in the United States. Indeed, I’ve heard repeatedly in the media from Trump supporters that they’re ready and willing for such a war.

In all frankness, I think the Trump cult is delusional and has projected all kinds of bogus qualities and beliefs onto the president, who is just a pathetic, mentally ill narcissist. Once he doesn’t need them anymore, he will throw his supporters under the bus without a second thought.

I can understand the need for an antifa, whose mission is to battle fascism and other far-right ideologies. Is it naïve to think that our country’s divisions can be solved through peaceful means, or do we just need to toughen up and get on with it?

I am so very conflicted.

And, dear readers, if you’re honest about it, I suspect some of you are as well.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #595 (Wednesday, January 13, 2021). This story appeared on page B3.

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