Sometimes I try – like many PN readers I guess – to imagine myself in the position of a bereaved family in a civil war and know that revenge would be uppermost in my mind.
The intention to make somebody pay and suffer the same terrible loss and pain as yourself is near-irresistible and, maybe, even human nature.
Throughout my life, state gangsterism and political perfidy have sent me into towering rages and fantasies of revenge.
It’s then that I’m forced to recognise that, unbeliever though I am, the biblical teaching of an eye for an eye rises up from some received cultural depth and makes its seductive and persuasive case.
At the same time, of course, another less-winning voice urges me to turn the other cheek.
Losing our conviction
Sometimes you can see this internal debate become public – and en masse – when demos which set out to be nonviolent, and thus make the case for dealing with conflict in an alternative way, explode into anger and violence when the Powers That Be are perceived to be deliberately provocative.
I’ve been in these situations and watched demonstrators, who’ve participated with deeply-held convictions and intentions, just lose it and in the heat of the moment, resort, or be provoked, to violence.
Violence then begets violence and we’re all back in the mire whence we started.
So far, my own rage has never overwhelmed me to that extent at a demo but I feel sympathy for those who have; just as I feel – albeit often with some reluctance – sympathy for the police men and women who use the abuse hurled at them – and sometimes actual physical assault – as an excuse to retaliate or simply find it too provocative to resist.
Often in these situations you see some demonstrators trying to physically restrain their raging companions and the same rage is then directed at them.
I find this violence both predictable and understandable and it’s why training for nonviolent resistance is so necessary.
It’s a very hard discipline to adopt and understand. That desperate feeling we all get of needing to do something immediately, often (usually?) precludes participating in the necessary training sessions but soldiers don’t have access to such training, let alone choice in the matter.
If a military patrol – which only luck has saved you from being part of – is annihilated, I imagine the soldierly compulsion to make somebody – anybody – pay is irresistible and is bound up with an ethos of comradeship, morale, esprit de corps and notions of sacrifice and duty.
And so it goes.
The American poet Diane di Prima has been writing Revolutionary Letters* since 1971 when she and many of her comrades thought that a political revolution was possible – even perhaps imminent – in the USA.
By 2007, she’d written over 90 poem-letters and, as always in her work, her uncomfortable and contrary heart is worn on her sleeve.
The pros and cons of resorting to violence for political ends are argued out and she veers wildly from seeming to espouse violence to adopting a form of Buddhist passive resistance.
Thus in Revolutionary Letter No.7 she notes:
there are those who can tell you
how to make Molotov cocktails,
you might be needing
find them and learn, define your
aim clearly, choose your ammo
with that in mind
The powerful Canadian rock musician/activist, Bruce Cockburn, visited Central America on behalf of Oxfam in 1983.
He was so outraged by what he saw and heard at a Guatemalan refugee camp in Mexico he wrote his blistering song ‘If I had a rocket launcher’** and it became an unexpected Top 10 hit:
Here comes the helicopter –
second time today
everybody scatters and hopes it
how many kids they’ve
murdered only god can say
if I had a rocket launcher.... I’d
make somebody pay
The song provoked facile accusations that Cockburn advocated violence. Not so.
‘It’s not a call to arms’, he said, ‘it’s a cry’, and that’s exactly what it is.
In the face of dreadful events people do dreadful things and Cockburn’s song and di Prima’s letters wrestle mightily with these contradictions.