I was watching a nature show segment the other night in which two bugs were fighting to the death on the surface of the water when a fish shot up from the bottom of the pond and ate them both. And I thought to myself, there's a moral there.
The scene stayed with me as I read gruesome details of the suicide bombing that killed 20 young people in Tel Aviv. And it stayed with me later as I absorbed the minutiae that attended the execution of Timothy McVeigh in Terre Haute, Ind.
I kept wondering what the moral of the two fighting bugs might be and how I could apply it to the violence that keeps washing over us. It didn't really matter what the bugs were fighting about. The fish didn't care. In the motives of prey, the predator has little interest.
I thought about it while driving and I thought about it before falling asleep at night. It even stayed with me during an interview with Rabbi Marvin Hier, founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center's Museum of Tolerance, but I didn't bring it up because, again, I didn't know what to do with it, if anything.
I had gone to Hier in the first place after a comment he'd made that urged Israel to retaliate for the attack in Tel Aviv. "Enough is enough," he had said. "No country, including the United States, would ever stand idly by without immediately striking back."
The irony of a man of tolerance calling for more death surprised me. Retaliation is nothing more than vengeance, adding to a cycle of violence that never seems to end. They kill 20, we kill 30. They kill 40, we kill 50. They kill 50, we kill 100, and so ad infinitum, ad nauseam.
Rabbi Hier is a man who many times has called for peace in the caldron of religious violence that bubbles in the Middle East. I spoke with him once at some length on the general subject of hatred as we toured the Museum of Tolerance, its exhibits overflowing with depictions of the horrors humanity has committed against itself.
He came across then, as he has many times since, as a man who would stand between warriors, urging restraint rather than vengeance. I wondered now how he could reconcile his position of tolerance with his call for retaliation.
"I've thought about that long and hard," he said to me one day in his office across from the museum. "The only way mankind can exist is to tolerate each other, but every human being has the right to protect himself. You don't sit on your hands and say 'Lord, save me.' You have to save yourself."
Then he added thoughtfully, "It's hard to preach tolerance to a guy with a sword in his hand or a bomb that he's ready to detonate."
Hier is a bright, articulate man, a strong man, who thinks on his feet and delivers a message that manages to combine war and peace in a coherent blend. He sees suicide bombers as agents of evil, killing the children they've never met, whose views they have never heard. It is a war against them, the terrorists, that needs to be waged for the peace that needs to be won, he says. First war, then tolerance.
And the two little bugs go on fighting.
Our hunger for the details of Timothy McVeigh's death is yet another example of an appetite for violence that is never sated. McVeigh killed, so we kill him. I discussed this with a death-sentence advocate, who praised the execution of McVeigh and added, "It's just a damned shame that we couldn't kill him 168 times."
That made sense in a way. Applying the logic of retaliation in a culture that tolerates capital punishment, it would seem right that he who kills 168 times ought to die an equal or even greater number of times.
The logic would have been served had McVeigh been left to survive in prison for the rest of his life, a kind of darkness that would have been far greater than 168 deaths. But confinement lacks the drama that killing provides, the theater of finality that has appeased the masses since the dawn of history. McVeigh himself understood that, offering a poem as his valediction. "My head is bloody but unbowed." The End. Curtain.
In both the suicide bombing in Tel Aviv and the federal building bombing in Oklahoma City, children paid high prices for the positions we take in the name of God or political postures. We kill for holy books and holy borders, for causes and campaigns of twisted moral righteousness.
What it amounts to is that we're killing each other and perpetuating--tolerating!--a psychology of violence that means we will continue killing each other, suffering the little children for the crimes of our distorted lofty intentions.
I don't know how it will all end and neither do you. But I keep thinking about those two bugs on the surface of their world, and the big fish that shot up from the depths of their world and ate them both.
Al Martinez's column runs Mondays and Thursdays. He is at email@example.com.