The Violent Imagination

I’ve been listening to “What’s so Funny ‘Bout Peace, Love and Understanding”  and thinking about the title “What’s so Funny About Truth, Justice, and the American Way?”  And it’s made me mad.  It’s made me sad.  Worse still, it’s made me preachy.  I wrote a 300-ish word post called “What’s so Funny?”, which I might haul out sometime if I need an example of what not to do.

Ultimately, this is one more stage in the transformation of my imagination.  Like most American kids, I was raised on a diet of sanitized violence, the heroism of the fist.  And to a large degree I love those stories, still, stories where a single death is treated as a tragedy, not a footnote or statistic.

Honestly, the violent imagination problem isn’t about loving Superman or Optimus Prime, any more than the materialistic consumer problem comes from believing in Santa Claus.  It’s what happens when the story grows up without really maturing.  Regarding materialism, the problem comes when the wide-eyed wonder of Christmas morning becomes, not the wide-eyed joy of giving, but the short-lived “hit” of buying new stuff (if television is the opiate of the masses, consumerism is its crack cocaine).

The violent imagination problem comes when we leave Superman behind for The Authority, or The Punisher, or Dirty Harry, or The Bride from Kill Bill.  Or Hamlet, for that matter.  We are taught, by media both vulgar and elevated, that things will get better if the good guys kill the right people.  We’re taught this by our government.  We’re taught this by our news media.  We teach and learn this from each other.  Our civil religion teaches us this is so, echoing the sentiment from ten thousand pulpits.

The message is so ingrained in our culture that it’s nigh-impossible to avoid it, and it even feels a little bit like treason to try.

But that doesn’t change the truth.  The world will NOT get better just because we kill the right people.

I’m not a pacifist.  Maybe I will be one day, but I’m not right now.  I believe that sometimes, fighting is necessary, and when necessary, it is right, even if our past behavior set the wheels in motion.  On September 12, 2001, we couldn’t go back in time and undo all the times our foreign policy screwed over the people of the Middle East, pushing them into the arms of murderous radicals.  Those sins were committed, relics of an abominable Cold War strategy that said, effectively, “we’ll support any anti-communist, no matter how cruel, despotic, or dysfunctional he is.”

Likewise, in 1942, we couldn’t undo the Treaty of Versailles that ended World War I and saddled Germany with oppressive, punitive reparation payments it could not pay, leaving the German people demoralized, impoverished, and ripe for a demagogue’s pickings (I know the U.S. never even signed the Treaty of Versailles, but President Wilson could have worked a lot harder to stop it, perhaps by making U.S. rebuilding aid to England and France contingent upon a fair peace treaty with Germany).

And so we fight, because we have to.  But this is not glorious, and it is not bloodless.  Whether Dresden or Afghanistan, even our necessary wars still leave thousands of dead civilians in their wake.

But we never seem to learn.  We never learn to be peacemakers, to stop laying the seeds for the next brutal conflict in the resolution of this one.  We never learn that we are a giant in a playground, and that we cannot behave like (for example) France, because we are not on their scale, and our actions have far more devastating consequences than theirs.

But we’ve been taught since childhood that we are the good guys, and so it follows that whatever we do is good.  We measure the body count of our wars in American dead, as if brown foreigners don’t count.  But it’s not because of racism, not really; it’s because we’ve been taught to divide up good and bad, and glory in the bad guys’ deaths.

 

And it is maddeningly hard to shake this.

And even more maddening to do it in a way that doesn’t disrespect the sacrifices our soldiers have made to protect us.  Their most sheltered supply clerk has sacrificed more for America than I have: enduring boot camp, moving to wherever the army tells him or her to go, sacrificing, at least while he or she is within the army, the right to free speech and expression.

Heck, with an easily-acquired (for those without criminal records) permit, I can carry a firearm a huge number of places, including my home.  Soldiers who live on base don’t get to do that; they don’t even get to have guns in their homes.  They can still worship freely, but they’ve pretty much sacrificed the rest of their Bill of Rights protections in order to serve.

Many servicemen and women have given far more: years away from family, their babies’ first steps, arms, legs, marriages, lives, traumatic brain injuries that steal their intellect and even personalities.  Even those who escape the combat zone apparently unscathed often have nightmares that linger for years.  I never want to minimize that, or pretend I know what it’s like.

But that doesn’t change the truth.  I can’t cheer anyone’s death, not any more.  And I can’t write in such a way that my writing cheers anyone’s death.  So where does that leave me?

I’m not a pacifist.  Sometimes terrible forces must be met with force.  Saying “everything would be better if everyone was a pacifist” doesn’t really help.  The question is, will we unilaterally be pacifists, or will we not?

And the answer is, we’re suicidal to just unilaterally become pacifists in the face of Hitler, Mao, Stalin, even Bin Laden.  Passive resistance works against fundamentally decent people (like the British in India or Americans during segregation) who are committing an atrocity, because once they are convinced they are committing an atrocity, their decency will force them to put an end to it.  It doesn’t work against a totalitarian war machine that is already in process of killing tens of millions.  Its record isn’t even that good against small-potatoes Third World dictatorships, though it does, at least, have a chance there.

But if pacifism is too far to go, we can be peacemakers, reserving violence only for the last resort, and actively working to de-escalate situations that can lead to violence.

This is the responsibility of everyone who legally carries a concealed handgun: to de-escalate situations, to let the other guy have the last word, to even let yourself be spat upon, because you know you are carrying death in your pocket, and you cannot unleash death unless death is already threatened  (I’ll leave off any comments on the Travyon Martin case, and simply say that all parties need our prayers.  I will say that Mr. Zimmerman should voluntarily surrender his permit to carry a weapon, even if he is not guilty of murder.  Following someone around and confronting them is a violation of the peacemaker mentality required to responsibly carry).

So, once more, where does this leave me as a writer?  I mean, I like writing action scenes.  But I can’t glorify killing.  And I’m not sure I can, with a clean conscience, write the kind of chivalrous, bloodless violence that Superman, the Lone Ranger, and their comrades practice.  That doesn’t really exist in the real world.

So what do I do?

Right now, I’m writing a lot of unhappy endings, or rather, pyrrhic victories and bittersweet endings.  That can’t really last forever.  I like happy endings, and I want to figure out how to get there from here.  I can think of two roads forward: unlocking my nonviolent imagination by learning more about creative nonviolent resistance, and learning to write creative nonviolent resistance; and really thinking about the good take-away messages of childhood heroes.

Much as Santa Claus can teach the joy of giving, the message of many of the best stories about the childhood heroes is that of self-sacrifice, of bravery, of putting others ahead of oneself.  Every time Superman steps in front of a missile (which could, perhaps, hurt him), we see a four-color version of our own better natures.  The fistfight with the guy who shot the missile is far less important than the act of stepping in front of it.  Time and time again one of these cartoony characters steps into a doorway to hold that point against an army, so a group of innocents can escape.  Of course they escape, most of the time.  Sometimes they don’t, though the authors always seem to bring them back.

Sometimes, the bloodless violence fistfight types (Superman for example, or even Batman [spoilers],  etc.) can serve as counter-arguments against those who say that the ends justifies the means, that wiping out the bad guys is the right move, that the ends justifies the means.  But I still don’t think I can write that kind of sanitized faux-violence, not having seen what real-world violence is.

So what do I do?  This is part of what the short story challenge is all about, even more so than character voice, unified premise, or proactive protagonists.  It’s about figuring out what a hero is, and learning how to write it.

No wonder I’m nervous.

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No Innocent Use of Violence

“Peace?  I hate the word, as I hate hell, all Montagues, and thee!”

– Tybalt, Romeo & Juliet, by William Shakespeare.

I’ve spent the last couple of months trying to find something to believe in, so to speak, writing-wise.  It struck me so hard that not only was there a problem with the ultimately nihilistic take-away message of Blood for Blood but with its casual acceptance of violence.

One thing I took (and still take) pride in was Blood for Blood’s very human portrayal of vampires, their complex society, the steps they’ve taken to tame their violent urges, and the costs they’ve paid for that.  The flip side of this is that killing them is morally no different than killing a human; they’re not the monsters of Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot, not subhuman or demonic.

Something I learned from reading Laurel K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake stories was that you can always write a character into a situation where brutality, even torture (or whatever else you feel like writing), is the “only way out” or “the right thing to do.”  Inside a book or story, the writer is, effectively, a god, and holds a god’s responsibility for the situations his or her characters find themselves in.

So, no, I won’t fall back on the tired excuse that Benedict’s use of violence was necessary in the situations I put him in.  From his perspective it was … but I wrote him into those situations, and so the word “necessary” hardly applies to me.

Miroslav Volf said, “One could sketch scenarios where I very clearly wouldn’t think that it would be morally responsible not to deploy violence. Nonetheless, repentance for violence would be in order even in those situations; in my view there is no innocent use of violence.

My friend Sally said much the same thing some time earlier (we were talking about World War II and personal self-defense), but I wasn’t ready to hear it then.  Sorry, Sally.  You were right.

To clarify, I’m not a pacifist, and I even worry about parents who are totally nonviolent.  Adults can consent to a friend or lover or spouse who won’t lift a hand to defend them, but children can’t.  I mean, I respect their conviction, but I do worry about the unintended consequences.

And I don’t believe it’s right to call yourself a pacifist and then dial 911 so the police will protect you.  That’s just passing the buck to someone else.  If you’re unwilling to fight to defend yourself, then fine, but don’t ask someone else to do it for you, and then call yourself non-violent.

No, I’m not saying you shouldn’t call 911 in a violent situation; you should.  But if you do, you should own up to the fact that you’ve just responded to violence (the assailant) with violence (the police and their guns).  A bullet wound bleeds just the same if it was a cop or a civilian’s finger that pulled the trigger.

And if you do have to defend yourself, I believe in using the most effective means available to you.  For me, in the US, that means firearms … but I pray that I never have to so much as point one at another human being, much less pull the trigger.

I don’t believe in letting violent aggressors have their way, to let Genghis Khan kill his 40 million, in the name of nonviolence.  Are we really to be so Kantian that the consequences of our action and inaction don’t matter, so long as our means are pure?  Surely not.  Just as the ends don’t justify the means, neither do the means justify the ends.  We are responsible for our actions and inactions and their consequences.

But I don’t believe in looking for trouble, either.

I don’t believe in using verbal violence and expecting the situation not to escalate to physical violence.  If you want to have peace, you must speak peacefully.

I also don’t believe in going into dangerous situations unnecessarily.  I keep away from places where I’m likely to fall into violence – you can call this personal security, cowardice, or peacefulness if you like: perhaps it’s a bit of all three.

Oh, yeah, I don’t believe in shooting someone over property, either, whether you’re a homeowner or a government.  My TV is not worth killing over.  Nobody’s is, even if it’s 52 inches.

So why was I so fast to write, and effectively, glorify a character who hunts and kills people (vampires, but people-vampires, not rabid beast-vampires) as a vocation?  Looking back, I can think of   reasons:

  • I accepted the cultural acceptance and glorification of “good guy” violence.  It’s there in American, Japanese, Hong Kong/Chinese, and at least some European media (media being the main cultural transmission means), and I pretty much grew up surrounded by it.  Kurt Willems has a great series on nonviolence.  Part 7 addresses “The Myth of Redemptive Violence.”
  •  When my Granddaddy, a World War II veteran, was still alive, I didn’t read the subtext in his conversations about the war.  I knew he only told stories about supply runs and flight-testing repaired airplanes, and virtually none about his combat sorties (and those only in the vaguest terms, as compared to the vivid detail of his other stories).  It never penetrated my soul that the reason he didn’t talk about the combat missions were because they were the worst thing that he’d ever experienced, even though he’d volunteered for the Army Air Corps and volunteered for the combat missions after he’d been in the Air Corps for over two years.  I completely missed the point.
  • As I’ve mentioned before, I really wasn’t paying much attention when I wrote Blood for Blood.  I was just so glad to be writing that I planned a basic Algis Budrys-style 7-point story outline for each section and bulldozed ahead.  There is a lot of good stuff in there, but I was pretty much driving blind.  “Without a vision, the people perish,” as King Solomon said … or, as my friend Nathan says, you have to have intentionality if you want to make something good.

Don’t get me wrong: I like adventure stories.  I like action.  But as my friend Nathan said, “there’s a difference between action and violence.”  It’s always easier to put them both together, but easy isn’t necessarily good.

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