ON VIOLENCE -- by Michael Ventura

The Austin Chronicle -- January 7, 1994

This is the testimony of Major Scott J. Anthony, First Colorado Cavalry:

"There was one little child, probably three years old, just big enough to walk through the sand. The Indians had gone ahead, and this little child was behind following after them.... I saw one man get off his horse, at a distance of about seventy yards, and draw up his rifle and fire - he missed. Another man came up and said, 'Let me try the son of a bitch; I can hit him.; He got down off his horse, kneeled down and fired at the little child, but he missed him. A third man came up and made a similar remark, and fired, and the little fellow dropped. After you do whatever you do when you read such a thing - a moment of silence or anger, prayer or disgust or resolve, or some alloy of them all - there are things to consider that may help us confront the violence we live with.

Major Anthony's words (quoted in American Holocaust, by David E. Stannard) were spoken to a Congressional committee in 1865 about an incident that had happened a year before: the massacre of a Cheyenne tribe at Sand Creek in eastern Colorado, involving not only the heartless murder of that boy, but the killing, rape, and mutilation of several hundred. (Only about sixty were adult males.) The date, and the fact that the major was speaking to Congress, are important, if only to show how official it all was: officially known, officially sanctioned, officially repeated. Investigations and publicity changed nothing. "Massacres of this sort," writes Stannard, "were so numerous and routine that recounting them eventually becomes numbing." By the time most out-right killing ended, circa 1900, in most areas of the United States only four percent of the original tribal population survived.

Those three cavalrymen taking aim at that little boy-they didn't watch too much television. They never saw a violent movie. They never heard of rock & roll. They used no street drugs. If they indulged in pornography, it would seem mild stuff to us. If they could read, then almost certainly their textbook (usual in that era) was the Bible.

They were Christian. Their commanding officer was an elder of the Methodist church at the time of this (routine) massacre, a massacre he was proud of: he ran for Congress on the strength of it. Which means his church and his community did not disapprove. (Theodore Roosevelt would later say that the Sand Creek Massacre was "as righteous and beneficial a deed as ever took place on the frontier.")

It's a statistical probability that most of those cavalrymen, and certainly their officers, came from classic two-parent families, and grew up, like most Americans of their era, in small rural communities. No street violence. No crime to speak of, at least no personal crime - locked doors were unusual. Respect for elders, and for authority. Rigid sexual prohibitions. Courtesy and politeness. Everyone knowing everyone else's name. No pollution. No over-crowding. Exactly the kind of community the affluent are scouring the hinterlands to find today. That cavalry troop would not have been exposed to crass Consumerism. Their communities would not have stagnated in political apathy (political involvement on the grass-roots level was politics in those days, and the world recognized it as America's national pastime). They would not have been taught "secular humanism" nor "relativistic morality." Nor would they have known any gender ambivalence - there were well-defined roles for all. And no atomic bombs would have cast shadows over their childhoods. Yet those three cavalrymen, and thousands like them, could gun down a little boy as though he were a rabbit - while millions cheered them on.

Vary the scenario only slightly and much the same profile fits the people who were responsible for, as well as those who cheered or tolerated: Auschwitz; Cromwell's Seventeenth Century massacres of the Irish; and the African slave trade (during which roughly fifty million died en route). Etc. Remember I am not speaking of war, which is another activity altogether; I am speaking of massacre, murder, mutilation, rape, without the pretense of a fight. Violence against the undefended.

All of which is to say:

None of the discourse today - whether it's about over-population, mis-education, poverty, violence on TV, decline of the family, deterioration of community, corruption of government, debasement of religion - none of that has anything to do with what causes violence. For if the discussed-to-death issues endemic to our time had anything whatsoever to do with the roots of violence, then other eras that didn 't have our problems would have had less violence. It can't be overemphasized: If our particular contemporary situation was really the cause of violence, other eras would have birthed far fewer people capable of either committing or tolerating brutality against the undefended.

But we do not have more violence against the undefended today than at other periods of history; statistically and per capita, it's even possible we have less. So the causes we keep citing can't be the real causes. Let's consider contemporary violence. Is it root different from the past, or is it simply pointed in new directions? The surface difference is that violence has become more random - an increase in personal rather than mass crime: drive-by killings, carjackings, the escalation of brutality during robbery, all juiced by the cravings for drugs.Yet, it's not as random, or even as personal as it seems. Violence against the undefended has always been about profit: tangible profit such as real estate, which excused (and continues to excuse) the massacre of tribal peoples; and intangible profit, such as how much better Germans would supposedly feel if only no Jews existed. But today the middle classes, who in the past not only tolerated but goaded, and benefited from, violence against the undefended, feel threatened by that same brand of violence - which is being visited upon them for profit, as they have visited it upon others. And there's not much that's random or personal about profit. I don't mean to justify anybody's violence by any twist of history. Brutality is brutality. To justify if is to join it. Gunning down that Cheyenne child or cutting up a woman for her purse equally disgust me. And I certainly don't mean to say that profit, whether tangible or intangible, is the motive of violence; it's the rationale, sure enough, it's the way people give themselves permission, but it's not the motive. I'm simply describing the motion that brutality has taken and is taking in our society: organized, as at Sand Creek; or not organized, as in a robbery murder - my point being that the differences between those acts are far less than they seem at first glance. I'm assuming that a murderer in a cavalry uniform is fully as much a murderer as one wearing gang colors. There aren't very many lines between people capable of killing children.

Which brings me back to the original theme: The murderer in the cavalry uniform and the murderer in gang colors, the slave trader and the drug dealer come from entirely different situations, but they are both capable of the same murders. The cavalrymen come from a world of community and Family and Christian education; the gangstas come from a world where those conditions have been ravaged - but they both are capable of the same atrocities. The social conditions, then, can 't be the cause. (I'm not suggesting we ignore social justice. Without justice there is chaos, and chaos breeds terror and the inability to bring things to fruition, both of which drive people mad. But does this address the question of violence? Americans aren't committing more violence now than they were 30 years ago. They're just committing it here instead of in Vietnam. Latin gang drive-bys instead of Southern mob lynchings. There are distinctions, but do they matter?) Some think violence is a problem of gender. For while the few who do the atrocities are male, the many who are necessary to the atrocities, who tolerate and profit from them, are well distributed between female and male. Even race isn't a factor. The Irish and the English, the Arab and the Jew, are the same races, and "black-on-black" crime has become a buzz phrase today.

Which leaves us with what? With this at least: that the discourse is nonsense. That's a beginning. TV; your bond with your father; rural or urban life; religion - these may influence the forms of violence, but history indicates that they determine neither the severity nor the frequency of the impulse. In Harlem they used to say: "A hole in your soul." Perhaps that's where the answer lies, or it may be a mistake to expect answers. If they exist, they won't appear until we admit that what we take to be intelligent opinion on violence is... static and mike-screech.


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