In Francis Ford Coppola’s sublime cinematic masterpiece “Apocalypse Now,” a general who will soon order the film’s protagonist on a mission of dubious moral character reflects upon the nature of human violence. In its simplicity, said to hard men sitting around a supper table who themselves are used to ordering and inflicting death, the line […]
In Francis Ford Coppola’s sublime cinematic masterpiece “Apocalypse Now,” a general who will soon order the film’s protagonist on a mission of dubious moral character reflects upon the nature of human violence. In its simplicity, said to hard men sitting around a supper table who themselves are used to ordering and inflicting death, the line captures the potential for good and evil inherent in the human species:
“In this war, things get confused out there, power, ideals, the old morality, practical military necessity. But out there with these natives it must be a temptation to be God. Because there’s a conflict in every human heart, between the rational and the irrational, between good and evil. And good does not always triumph. Sometimes the dark side overcomes what Lincoln called the better angels of our nature. Every man has got a breaking point. You and I have one. Walter Kurtz has reached his. And very obviously, he has gone insane.”
Yesterday’s tragic events in Boston — where bombs ripped apart spectators and participants alike during that city’s famous annual marathon — once again brought home that essential truth of the human condition: that within ourselves is the capacity for both great violence, but also great compassion. On the dark side of the ledger, of course, we have hideous proof of man’s inhumanity to man in the bombing itself. Three dead, scores wounded — many horrifically — and chaos and fear strewn throughout one of America’s great cities.
Such tragedies seem disturbingly commonplace nowadays both at home and abroad. Recall the recent mass shooting at an elementary school in Newton, Conn., which left in its wake heaps of slaughtered schoolchildren. Or think about the violence in the many political conflicts taking place around the world. In countries like Syria, Afghanistan or Iraq, for instance, violence on a Boston Marathon/ Sandy Hook scale happens weekly or daily. Indeed, the only reason we Americans are not horrified by that violence is because we hardly ever hear about it.
Then there are the historical holocausts. The millions gassed and cremated by the Third Reich, the 800,000 chopped up into pieces by machetes in Rwanda, or countless numbers imprisoned and starved by the likes of Stalin, Pol Pot and Mao. If human violence could be imagined as a cityscape, these wars, pogroms, and atrocities stand out like a towering skyline, dominating an urban representation of human evil.
Just as terrible but often forgotten are the countless smaller massacres, like Monday’s bombing or the Sandy Hook shooting, which spread out from that dark, evil core of historical mega-deaths like some never-ending, nightmarish suburban sprawl.
The message to “be afraid”
Since this is what our political and media institutions so often focus on, one could be forgiven for thinking, like the mad colonel in Coppola’s movie, that humanity itself has gone insane. What else explains the violence that seemingly confronts us at every turn? Wars and rumors of wars, crimes great and small, dark, driving emotions leading us to do terrible things to one another — all are grist for political commentary and journalistic sensation. This treatment reinforces our fears and deepens our darkest suspicions about friends, neighbors and countrymen, let alone strangers. Be afraid! That is the message we receive from all this.
This message, however, is demonstrably false. It is not true. Do not believe it. The reality of human history, though indeed dark at times, is nonetheless filled with many more examples of our basic goodness. In Boston, for instance, many more individuals than conceivably could have been involved in planning and carrying out the bombing rallied in the midst of life-threatening danger to help the wounded and protect the larger community. Many were trained professionals. Many were not. Many, if reports of marathon runners donating blood are true, were at the very limits of their physical and mental endurance when they did so.
Even in the darkest moments of our collective, bloodletting inhumanity, there are instances of people, enormously brave, doing what they can to help. The Holocaust, for instance, saw not one Oskar Schindler, but many; in those smaller atrocities we find teachers, armed with nothing but their bare hands, throwing themselves at a madman armed with a machine gun.
The message here, obscured by the political and media fear-complex, is very different and is one contained in every philosophical and religious text known to man. Like living scripture, they tell us what we know already but often fail to acknowledge — be not afraid, they say, for we are with you. As the late, great Fred Rogers once said, there are always helpers out there — you just have to look for them.
The truth, which heroes like the slain Sandy Hook teachers or Boston’s first responders prove, is that the world today is far less violent, chaotic, and terrible a place than it used to be. It does not even take catastrophe to prove it — simply walk down the street in most every community in the world and you will be confronted by individuals going about their business in peace, and probably worrying and thinking about the same things you are.
They worry about their children, their husbands, wives, family and friends. They worry about providing for their family or, if they are lucky, going on vacation. For every Boston bombing, there are literally billions of everyday human interactions that do not end in horror and death.
Evil still exists, true, but in scale and scope it is so much diminished from what used to be that to compare even our greatest contemporary tragedies to historical norms is to make a molehill into a mountain. Violence is, in fact, on the decline worldwide. War, terrorism, rebellion, mass killings, even murder — all are on the decline. Incidents like the bombing in Boston are sensational precisely because they are so rare. They disturb us from our rather boring reality — the world is as peaceful as it has ever been, and getting more so every day.
The power of an idea
If you doubt it, and prefer the objectivity of cold statistics to the warmth of human anecdotes, then one could do no better than read the entirety of Steven Pinker’s massive 2011 book, “The Better Angels of Our Nature.” Therein, Pinker documents the long-term decline of violence in organized human society at almost every level.
The causes are multiple, but the story of human progress towards nonviolence boils down to the power of an idea — that we are all human and thus deserving of compassion and fair play — becoming ever more embedded in our various social institutions through the slow, steady elimination of physical want. Marx, in other words, was right — material progress leads to both social and, if Pinker and other like-minded philosophers (including this one) are right, spiritual progress as well.
This is so because as the data show, all good things go together. Peace, freedom, equality and prosperity all reinforce one another, creating a force that gets more powerful over time. Eventually this force becomes self-sustaining and creates a new world where things like war or terrorism not only do not occur, but are inconceivable. Indeed, in so many parts of the world today we have reached that point already. Like residents of a tourist resort, those who live there do not notice the paradise they’ve created because it is so ordinary and familiar.
Thus, bombings like the one that took place on Monday do not represent the future. Our future is the one represented by the marathon itself — people of different faiths, creeds, colors, genders and nationalities coming together, in peace, to partake in common, mutually beneficial activity.
This future, however, has to get here first. It has to rise, like a newborn colt lifting itself up on spindly, unsteady legs, by overcoming the inertia of human tragedy that so often smothers progress before it can really get going. Preventing that from happening in the aftermath of what happened in Boston on Monday requires us to keep calm and carry on, to be not afraid, and to let the better angels of our nature prevail over those darker passions that, in some individuals, led to this bombing in the first place.
So know hope, friends. The future is getting better every day. These bombings are nothing compared to the peaceful reality we are building through our very participation in it. We, not events, determine the future through our everyday, collective actions. Let’s keep making progress in the way we always have — slow, steady, and with the knowledge that the future, no matter how far off, is getting better. It’ll get here eventually. We just have to keep working at it.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Mint Press News’ editorial policy.