Challenging the Violence Belief System in the Wake of Newtown

Ken Butigan Dec 26, 2012

The uneasy vigil that the teachers and children of Sandy Hook Elementary School held stealthily in their classrooms last Friday as gunman Adam Lanza rampaged through the building is one of many chilling images that have emerged from the Newtown, Conn., mass shooting. In a zone that should be inviolable — and one where students these days are regularly taught that conflicts should be resolved in a respectful and constructive way — children hid in a pile of winter jackets and heard the spatter of gunfire. Some of the teachers sang seasonal songs in a low voice with the children to help them stay centered. Others kept an anxious silence, hoping against hope that the shooter wouldn’t burst into the room.

If the national conversation in the wake of this carnage is any indication, Newtown may turn out to be a tipping point that, while not likely to break the grip of the National Rifle Association on American politics, potentially clears the way for a more comprehensive gun control policy. With some pro-gun politicians beginning to break ranks and even a gunmaker having second thoughts, a new ban on assault weapons has a chance of passing, while other components may also get some consideration, including national gun titling and registration and perhaps even a rollback of “conceal and carry” legislation — something Michigan Governor Rick Snyder did on Tuesday when he vetoed a bill that would have allowed concealed weapons in schools and daycare centers.

A national gun buyback program would also be a welcome provision, something that Australia created after a series of mass shootings there. (In Oakland, Calif., this past weekend a successful gun buyback event was held.) Legislative progress will likely depend on how quickly steps for change can be taken, as an aide to President Lyndon Johnson stressed in a recent reflection on the missed opportunity for comprehensive gun control four decades ago following the assassination of Robert Kennedy. Successful legislation will depend on mobilizing nonviolent people power in the next days and weeks.

But there is a chance that the impact of the Newtown tragedy will go deeper still. The resounding horror of what took place touches a nerve about guns, but it also may prompt a concerted exploration of the larger culture of violence in the United States. We are called by the anguish of that hushed Connecticut classroom — and by our long, baleful history of violent action—to question our belief in violence and to embark even more steadily on the path of nonviolent change in our lives and in our world.

The proliferation of firearms is rooted in national and local policies that have increasingly gained ascendancy, but these policies are themselves rooted in a cultural and ideological belief in the power of violence to do good. This violence belief system is enshrined at every level of our society and, though it long predates the establishment of the United States, it has played a guiding role throughout its history. (This is the case despite indications, for example, that contrary to the conventional reading of the American Revolution, the United States’ founding was accomplished not through armed struggle but through nonviolent resistance and nation-building carried out between 1760 and 1775, a view held by none other than one of the revolution’s architects, John Adams, as recounted in Jonathan Schell’s 2003 book, The Unconquerable World: Power, Nonviolence and the Will of the People.)

This belief system lies at the heart of our cultural operating system that permits and glorifies the potential and actual use of injurious force, from sexual assault to income inequality to human rights violations to perennial war. Violence is pervasive because it has wide buy-in. Last Friday’s horror sharply calls us to question this belief in violence and its fallout, whether it’s the death of children in Connecticut or on the south side of Chicago or — equally loved, equally grieved — in one of the hundreds of U.S.-directed drone strikes this year in Afghanistan or Pakistan.

It will not be easy to re-write the deeply embedded code that legitimates and systematically organizes violence. But it is not impossible. In the past century we have seen a global movement for creative nonviolence gain traction. It has tackled numerous specific outrages and, at the same time, challenged the very foundations on which those outrages rest, what can be called “violence’s project.” While this project is at least 5,000 years old, nonviolence is older. When Gandhi said nonviolence is as old as the hills, he meant this, not as a rhetorical flourish, but as a matter of the human record. Without nonviolent options violence, by its escalatory logic, would have spun irretrievably out of control. We likely would have disappeared long ago. Instead, peacemaking, peacebuilding and peacekeeping in many guises and using many tactics have neutralized that logic and spawned a saner alternative.

Throughout history there have been glimpses of this exception to violence or passivity. In our own time, despite the enormous violence we face, the aperture is widening to reveal this cooperative and connecting power more clearly. We see this in a growing database of successful nonviolent movements, proliferating tools (from restorative justice to trauma healing to anti-racism training), and accelerating research on nonviolent options, including a project which established that rats demonstrate empathy and a report this week that compassionate healthcare was practiced in Neolithic cultures. We will not create a utopia free of conflict, violence and injustice, but we can contribute to creating a culture that promotes and applies the power of nonviolent transformation in the face of violence and injustice.

Even Newtown demonstrates that violence is not the end of the story. If this were the case, there would be no outpouring of concern. This torrent of fellow feeling is proof that violence remains problematic and is not simply accepted as the way things are. It is a rebellion against the inviolability and inevitability of the violence belief system. It is a vote against it. And this defiance is a basis for something larger — a refusal to uncritically accept and rubber-stamp this belief system and how it reaches into every part of our society and every recess of our minds.

So, in the aftermath of Newtown, we are nudged to smoke out our beliefs in violence and live by something else — a way of being that wagers that we can grapple with the deep frustrations of this life without resorting to inflicting harm; which peers into the fog of the chaos of human life and see that we are all irrefutably connected; and which finally recognizes that our survival depends on one another. This takes nothing more — and nothing less — than personal, communal and social moves bent on transforming fear, anger and powerlessness.

A few days after the shooting, Huffington Post blogger Deborah J. Levine wrote a column entitled, “Will Your New Year’s Resolutions Include Nonviolence?” What if, to honor the victims and survivors of violence everywhere, we each sat down to write our resolutions for the new year with this in mind.

A resolution to overcome Us vs. Them thinking. A resolution to call out racism and sexism and homophobia in a firm but loving way. A resolution to carefully parse our own beliefs in violence, and to try on beliefs in the power of nonviolent change. A resolution to bring nonviolence home. A resolution to bring it into every part of our waking life.

And maybe an even more audacious resolution. A few weeks ago no violent crime was reported over the course of an entire day in New York City. A New York police department spokesperson said it was “first time in memory” that the city’s police force saw such a peaceful 24 hours. So, how about a resolution to help our nation experience a violence-free day next year on December 14, the first anniversary of the Newtown? It might end up feeling so good we’d opt for another. And another. And another after that.

The more we experienced this, the more we just might find our deeply-rooted belief in violence wavering.

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