Friday, February 12, 2010

The devils inside

I know it's unworthy of me, but sometime I wish he would just go away -- Nicholas Kristof with his reports in the New York Times from the war zones of the Congo and Sudan. The gratuitous violence he describes churns the stomach and brings tears to the eyes. One feels helpless, and a little bit guilty. And shamed by those brave souls -- I know several young people, the children of friends -- who take themselves to the killing fields to do something for the victims. I'd just as soon not know -- put my hands over my eyes, plug my ears, seal my lips.

A voice from deep inside wants to disassociate from the violence -- "uncivilized savages," it whispers. And then I remember the oh-so-civilized Roman arenas. And the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre, in the midst of Europe's Renaissance. And Goya's "Disasters of War," sketched at the height of the Enlightenment. And the men who ran the gas chambers at Treblinka and Auschwitz who went home in the evening and listened to Bach. And the university graduates in the Middle East who strap bombs onto their waists and walk into crowded markets. That disassociating voice goes quiet and another one, from a slightly more luminous part of the brain, asks to what extent an appetite for violence resides in all of us, part of our biological makeup.

No, no, not us. But explain then why grossly violent movies, cable television series, and video games are so popular. Does watching a slasher movie satisfy the same itch that Congolese rebels work out with their machetes? Is a shoot-em-up game controller a sublimated AK-47?

I don't know the answers, but I suspect the human animal, the male especially, has blood on the genes. Perhaps someday we will identify genes that predispose us to violence, perhaps even find ways to ameliorate their effect. At the very least, we can face up to the devils inside and cultivate those cultural conventions that hold them in check. And for that, I suppose I should keep reading Kristof and be grateful for his reporting.