I’ve walked a German concentration camp in silence, absorbed as much trauma in the Rwandan genocide museum as I could handle and touched the ground by Cambodia’s killing fields. My lifetime has included the Balkan War, the napalming of Viet Nam, the brutalities of apartheid, and the Cultural Revolution.
It always starts this way–in legitimate grievances, in desperation–with frightened, wounded, angry people seeing no other path to wellbeing–in verbal dehumanization of the other, in violations of property with the first killings seen as aberrant.
It often begins among people shaken to the core by uncontrollable factors that feed resentment or futility: economic instability or stagnation, rapid cultural or demographic change, abrupt political shifts. In this gestalt, voices in the media or in the church or in government or other positions of power put words on the gut feeling that something is wrong. They point to a perpetrator, someone who is other, who is bad clear through, and who must be stopped at all cost.
Whether lines are drawn along racial, tribal, class or ideological boundaries; whether violence is perpetrated by over-dogs or underdogs, eruptions of violence, large and small, *almost always* feel justified and righteous to the perpetrators. While committing violence, we almost always feel like either victims or saviors.
“Feel” is the operative word here, because the intellectual rationalizations follow feelings. We are almost all capable of looking with horror on the atrocities committed by people who are not us, while simultaneously feeling justified in our own. We use different words to describe what we are doing, to soften it, to sanctify it, to make it holy.
But there are other paths, including in the struggle for racial equity that must be carried forward now amidst a pandemic that has flooded our communities with anxiety and uncertainty. Nelson Mandela modeled it. Van Jones articulates it here. There are no action figures or superheroes on this path. It’s not the stuff of guts and glory. It isn’t cathartic.
Peace and justice are built by ordinary people who stand by their neighbors in violation of the boundary lines drawn by conflict, who steadfastly oppose goading and instead channel their grief and anger into the painstaking, grubby work of creating the change they want to see and the future they dream for all.
Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington.
She writes about religion, reproductive health, and the role of women in society.