The Arrogance of Revenge

“He said…the usual rubbish, talking about God again, that whatever wrong he had done on His behalf, he would like to be forgiven.”

The violence, and the drama, have ended.

The shock is dissipating. The crime scenes will be restored to normalcy, the blood will be cleansed away, and the memories will slowly fade into old news items, like Newtown, Aurora, and Columbine. People will ask why, but, finding no real answer, will forget, except for lobbyists and politicians and religious leaders, who will invoke a great and beautiful city in sermons and speeches and position papers, to illustrate an evil only they can correct, if people will just listen and accept their nostrums, or pass their legislation.

What happened this week began with what can only be described as an act of revenge, for what else is deliberately planned lethal violence with no conceivable goal, other than itself?

When political militants launch rockets across a border into nearby cities, or detonate themselves in crowds of people, this too is revenge, but revenge of the militarily helpless against a dominant power that is directly or indirectly involved with their miserable state. Thus, terrorism. Not quite senseless, although nearly, and still hopeless.

But what is violence against people who have no link, however tenuous, with the destroyer, his family, or his ethnic identity? The answer is disturbingly simple. It is revenge against the living.

It strikes out from time to time as an aberration, but under the surface looms an alienation that is far more common than mass murder, and by this I mean ‘alienation’ in both the social sense of being painfully unable to maintain relationships, and the psychological sense of self-hatred, hatred of those impulses and feelings which cause the pain.

Not so much today, but in decades past much ink was spilled over alienation, particularly by spiritual leaders and critics of Western society. Ironically, it was Karl Marx (who was, let us recall, a contemporary of Abraham Lincoln) who commented extensively on alienation as a consequence of society’s material development, that forces man apart from his pastoral connection with the soil; and materialism has long been a bête noire of theologians and pulpit-masters everywhere (until latter day evangelists managed to marry God with Mammon).

“Man’s separation from God” is the fundamental precept of religious teaching, and equally fundamental is the promise that happiness on earth, not just salvation in Heaven, is had by ‘accepting’ God (or Jesus, or the Supreme Reality). Vanity of vanities, saith the preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity.

Devout Christians ascribe original separation to the eating of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. True believers of the Communist faith laid it to technology and capital. What is plain is that unquestioned belief can be a source of comfort to the disillusioned, and the brotherhood of true believers a substitute for failed relationships of the more conventional sort, but the younger Marx had the clearer vision. Human intelligence will always question, and the questions must needs disturb and disrupt the comforts of acceptance and the balm of tradition. We cannot, and will not, renounce the fruit of the Tree.

A young man tried to make his way in a world he did not understand, and he failed. It’s a story as old as time. Somehow he arrived at a personal narrative, a ‘faith’, if you will, as well as the means, to exact revenge on those who succeeded where he could not. This, too, is a story old as time.

We try to understand the reasons why, not just to find ‘closure’, as the grief counselors have it, but to ask how society might be organized to prevent its recurrence. Can we somehow salvage young souls before they slip away? Can we keep them from tools of destruction? Must we find them, isolate them, restrain them?

 It is clear that society must protect itself. It is also clear it must do so very carefully, very thoughtfully. Even Marx wrote, “The way to Hell is paved with good intentions.”

This is no more true than here, in a republic whose laws are all too human constructs of an all too fallible intelligence, and all too arrogant character.

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