Virtuous violence

Thursday, March 11th, 2004

We cup the flame of violence in our hearts. Don’t let it go out! It’s what keeps us human.

What a mess it makes, but what can you do? Alas, sigh. Here’s the old warrior, Bob McNamara, self-acknowledged war criminal, coming clean, or halfway clean, in the halfway remarkable documentary, “The Fog of War,” about the colossal blunders of Vietnam, but concluding — in a voiceover as we watch footage of a Vietnam-era soldier orgiastically loosing round after round of machine-gun fire at no particular target: Man will always go to war. It’s our nature.

And we’re all off the hook. Holy cow, that was close. As Gabriel Breton wrote 42 years ago, “Peace constitutes a terrible danger.”

This is how he begins a prescient essay called “Violence on Trial,” which I came across while researching a talk I recently gave in Appleton, Wis.

He goes on: “As (peace) presents itself today, it threatens to deprive us forever of the justifications of virtuous violence. What shall we do? Along with representations of hell, it is the destruction by arms of large human groups which nourishes most assiduously the popular imagery. If violence ceases to be demanded by right and justice, will we have to deal directly with the monster who inhabits each one of us?”

Breton, a psychologist, unstintingly probes the human heart in his essay, finding in it “an unfathomable abyss of ferocity and violence.” We wouldn’t have survived as a species if we hadn’t found a way to control it, institutionalize it, keep it leashed in the service of social order.

The problem in 1962 — in the toddlerhood, you might say, of the nuclear age — was that 50-megaton bombs and the imminent danger of all-out war with the Soviet Union rendered institutionalized violence null and void as a sane alternative. The human race, as he wrote, was at the brink of its most serious confrontation ever: with its own psychological makeup.

“Yet, such a catastrophe can be avoided,” he noted with fine irony. “We can annihilate ourselves through atomic war.”

While the world has changed enormously in the intervening years, the terms of our predicament, as Breton described them, are exactly the same. The Cold War has ended, but we may very well be less safe than ever, as the technology it spawned spreads to second- and third-rate national powers and “virtuous violence” rocks every corner of the globe.

“The purely political categories disappear and any position, opinion or policy is classified as good or evil,” wrote Breton, anticipating by four decades the notorious “axis of evil” catchphrase in George Bush’s 2002 State of the Union address. “Violence,” said Breton, “has never tried to look so righteous.”

And since 9/11, oh Lord, it’s been holy.

Witness the president’s new ad campaign. The desperate Bush administration, whose glorious crusade in the Middle East and Central Asia has chewed up more than 10,000 innocent lives so far on its way to quagmire, has returned to Ground Zero to reinflate its image, juxtaposing the country’s “war president” with footage of bodies being exhumed from the rubble of the Twin Towers.

“It’s as sick as people who stole things out of the place,” a Queens firefighter told the New York Daily News. “The image of firefighters at Ground Zero should not be used for this stuff, for politics.”

But virtue knows no shame when it serves the cause of violence. The stakes are too high. Too many people around the world see the truth, that war as a legitimate, “moral” channel for the ferocity in our hearts is pushing us to extinction.

“The right to violence exists no more,” Breton wrote. “The noises which we make, the peremptory clamors with which we deafen ourselves, are only an extravagant effort to establish certainties which we do not have.”

We must confront the danger of peace and find new certainties. Many people, possibly millions — including me and perhaps you, too — will march for peace on March 20, the one-year anniversary of the invasion of Iraq.

Others will shake their heads, choosing, along with Robert McNamara, to believe we have no choice but to kill ourselves.