Rant Number 329 27 November 2008
In the movie Dirty Harry tough cop Clint Eastwood gets asked why he thinks a murderous psychopath called the Scorpio will kill again. ‘Because he enjoys it’, deadpan Clint returns.
Quite. Scorpio, a common criminal, kills because he gets a kick out of it. But, you know, so did at least one of the gunmen responsible for yesterday’s Bombay (Mumbay? No, thanks.) attacks. Don’t care if he calls himself a holy warrior, one of the mujahedeen, a freedom-fighter, whatever. As I examine his blurred photo splashed over the Metro paper front page, I feel morally certain: this gun-toting guy enjoys it. A rictus over his young face, eyes glinting, the hunter’s craving for blood is written all over his stance. He is having a whale of a time. He wants to kill. Because he likes it.
This morning the alarm clock interrupted my strange dream. There was a man on fire. People pointed at him and laughed. While shaving I listened to an Indian voice on radio, some counter-terrorist expert, blabbed about the clash of civilisations. (Incendiary stuff. Synchronicity, perhaps?) The terrorists are Islamists who have declared war on the infidels, he claimed. The usual suspects, Al Qaeda and so on, were evoked. Terrorists themselves no doubt will lend him credence. The usual lists of stock grievances will be paraded. Kashmir, Afghanistan, Palestine, Chechnia…I would not discount an over-determination of causes at work there. Yet, I stick to my hunch: that boy killed because he enjoyed it.
No reason to be shocked. Terrorists are of course morally bad. The priest says that loud and clear. They are bad above all when they target the innocent. But they are also universal whipping boys. They are like Dr Freud’s id. The dark side. That unconscious where you are said to expel all disagreeable, unacceptable things about yourself. Soldiers, on the other hand, are kosher. They are ‘our boys’. In fact, soldiering has always involved killing and many soldiers must have relished it. Today’s secular pieties portray Western armies as engaged in lovely humanitarian, almost charitable activities. Assisting peasants, aiding refugees, helping girls to go to school, that kind of laudable thing. Military people interviewed by the media sound more and more like benevolent social workers. I surmise, however, that many SAS, Ghurkhas and paras too have a bit of a dark side. Don’t they ever feel the occasional thrill when they get their man? They too probably ‘enjoy it’. To pretend otherwise may make many feel good but it can’t be true.
In some ‘primitive’ societies a youth was not considered a real man until he killed his first enemy. That was the case amongst certain tribes. But the Romans also enjoyed seeing gladiators slaughtering each other in the arena. Despite the insights of Stoic thinkers like Marcus Aurelius (‘a spider catches flies; a soldier, barbarians – where is the difference?’), the general culture was pretty savage. Nor were God’s own people different. The Hebrew king Alexander Jannaeus sat down to eat a hearty meal while watching thousands of his vanquished enemies being tortured to death. The father of a friend still shudders when he recalls the sadism he suffered at the hands of the Japanese when a POW. And those civilised, carpet-bombing pilots in WWII – how many of them did not feel a certain inner glow in releasing their death cargoes? I wonder.
Long ago St Augustine wrote about the evils of bloodlust. While rejection absolute pacifism, he conjured up the image of the Christian just warrior, who should fight the enemy not with hatred, with desire to hurt and dominate but with justice and with ‘with sorrow in his heart’. That is not impossible. And it is commendable. A kind of ideal. But such ethical warriors cannot have been exactly thick on the ground even when there were Christian armies, I suspect, though I could be wrong. The evil tendency in human beings is not easily subjugated.
Depressing? A lot, but there is hope. It is called Advent. The church season immediately before Xmas. Advent Sunday falls indeed on November 30th. The first of four weeks preceding the feast of the Incarnation called Christmas. Leading up to the explosion of joy for Christ’s birth in Bethlehem. Hence a time of spiritual preparation. For the celebration of Him who Cometh. He comes around every year, naturally. Christianity, like Islam and Judaism, does not subscribe to the Hindu and Buddhist views of cyclical time. Of the eternal recurrence of the same, as Fred Nietzsche would put it. Instead, it affirms a linear, progressive development of sacred history, marked by unique divine interventions, like Creation, the Fall, the Incarnation and Redemption. Yet the church calendar preserves a bit of cyclical time. Because holy seasons like Advent come round again each year. A chance to relive spiritually, or at least to ponder, certain tremendous truths.
Why is it that Jesus of Nazareth never killed anyone? Why is it that when he was reviled he did not revile back in return? Why did he forgive his persecutors when they were about to nail him to a Cross? There was no bloodlust in him nor did he ever urge his followers to go out and kill, with sorrow or otherwise. Violent people of all the world, if you have ears to hear, do hear.
It is easy to duck the challenge posed by these questions, sure. By pointing to the disgraceful behaviour in history of all too many followers of Jesus. The burning of heretics, the persecutions of the Jews, the internecine wars…Only the other week Christian monks in the Holy Land were cracking each other skulls with crowbars over some petty disputes in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, in the name of the God of Love. Enough to make you cry. But the Gospels precisely challenge and subvert all that. Listen! The Sermon on the Mount sounds like a shotgun (a spiritual one!) going off: do not return evil for evil. Instead, love your enemy. Help him. Turn the other cheek. Give to him who asks you. Go the second mile. Forgive. Be perfect, as your Heavenly Father is perfect.
If human beings gave that a real go, bloodlust would be no more.
Revd Frank Julian Gelli