Orwell once wrote, “People sleep peaceably in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf.” Whenever a new political turmoil starts (or an old one resurges), this is one of the first thoughts that comes to my mind. I certainly thought it last week when the United States government decided to bomb Syria. We who are removed from grave political turmoil often look at issues from a macro perspective – we hear the politicians and their reasons, we see the “bad men” that we are supposed to hate; we are told to want vengeance and retribution.
What we do not see often is that there are very real people who live in these situations. We do not see the children, the mothers, the fathers who must pack up and leave their homes. Or who must live in fear. Or who must learn to live with the very real reality that tomorrow is not guaranteed for them or their loved ones. We value certain lives over others, and we tell ourselves that war, which by its very nature is violent, is a necessary evil. I think we focus far too much on the necessity of it, rather than its evil.
I was born into a military dictatorship in Nigeria. I was born to a father who would pick up his family and leave his home because he sought to expose the evil of those in power. My father does not like to talk about it very much, and most of what I know about it, is from listening to the often reluctant past recollections he would have with my mother and his colleagues. I was very young but my brothers were certainly old enough to remember the feelings and fears of military men coming into our home. They do not talk of it much either. But it is because of this upbringing everyone in my family feels uneasy about war and the political but often impersonal conversations we tend to have about it.
This summer I paid close attention to the news surrounding Israel-Palestine. I tried to write the perfect article that would capture my views on this ongoing tumult. But I could never seem to write what I wanted, in the way that I wanted it. My views are quite simple though: These are human lives; all are human lives that have a God-given right to life. Who are we to take that from anyone? And indeed I wanted to write too about the persecution of Christians in Iraq; and I wanted to write more about the unceasing violence in the north of Nigeria, my homeland. I wanted to write and I eventually did about the violence in the place I call home currently: Chicago. But all of these pieces I did write or would have written would all essentialize the same thing: All violence is human failure.
It is not just the violence and tragedy of politics, although all issues are political (Another of Orwell’s insightful quotes), and along with economics, politics is the central reason for the gravest violence. But violence is also in the racism that we perpetuate in all its forms, it is in the sexism that we deny, it is in the homophobia we ignore, and it is in all the ways we choose to deny the humanity of people that results in their psychological and physical genocide. Our treatment of those who suffer from mental illness is often violent. Poverty is violence. Rape is violence. Homelessness is violence. A culture of death in which one gets to decide who is more human than another, is violence. And these are the consequences of not just living in a fallen world, but in a fallen world where power silences truth at all costs. Once you silence truth, all other virtues are haphazard.
The truth is we live in the world we live today not because of some accident, but by very calculated events that took place in history, and ones that we perpetuate in the present. And indeed we all have to live with the tragedy that if we have even just a little bit of power in any context – whether by the virtue of your color, your ability to purchase beyond your needs, your gender, etc. – whatever that power is, you are likely oppressing someone else with it; you probably have blood on your hands.
This is what violence does – it makes all of us culprits and none of us innocent; our ignorance is not an excuse. And every time we ignore our responsibility to keep each other alive, to see each other as human, we fail a little bit more. But what is our solace then? Death? The fact that we only have to be responsible for so long? Happiness? The fact that we can still have it in such a broken world. I’m asking because I do not know. These are the questions that make my heart heavy. These are the questions I dare not answer.
But if you ask me about violence, if you ask me what it does to me and you, I will tell you it makes us less human. I will tell you that you and I fail every day. And perhaps I will leave you with another’s words for your contemplation, these ones by Marshall McLuhan, “Violence, whether spiritual or physical, is a quest for identity and the meaningful. The less identity, the more violence.”