Violence Breeds More Violence

Colman McCarthy, director of the Center for Teaching Peace in Washington, teaches nonviolence at Georgetown law school, American University and the University of Maryland. His book, "I'd Rather Teach Peace," is due next spring from Orbis Books

In the field of conflict resolution, there are two types of violence, hot and cold.

Hot violence is the death and chaos of this past Tuesday in New York and Washington. Hot violence is the Columbine High School massacre, the Oklahoma City bombing. The unspeakable horror is up close and visible; witnesses’ emotions are felt; outrage is immediate; media are quick to the scene.

Cold violence has little of that. It is beyond our view, so routine as to stir few emotions, so ordinary as to attract the media only rarely. Cold violence is the worldwide daily death toll of an estimated 40,000 people from preventable hunger-related diseases. But that is a distant and unseen reality, not an American reality, not the destroyed World Trade Center reality. Cold violence is the dying of Iraqis every day caused by U.S.-imposed economic sanctions.

We learn to compartmentalize. Two days after the Colorado school killings in April 1999, President Clinton went to a public high school in Alexandria, Va., to speak to a student peer mediation club: “We must do more to reach out to our children and teach them to express their anger and resolve their conflicts with words, not weapons.”


After the talk, he returned to the White House to order up the most intense bombing of Belgrade since U.S. and NATO pilots were turned loose a month before. In speeches, Clinton would call for alternatives to school violence while continuing to justify the military violence on Yugoslav civilians in their homes, offices and neighborhoods. His weapons that killed thousands were good. The weapons of schoolhouse shooters were evil.

The president’s thinking was revealed in “All Too Human” by former White House advisor George Stephanopoulos. When told in October 1993 that U.S. soldiers had been killed by street fighters in Somalia, Clinton said: “When people kill us, they should be killed in greater numbers. I believe in killing people who try to hurt you, and I can’t believe we’re being pushed around by these two-bit” guerrillas. All of this fits the pattern of double-standard ethics. Hot violence tends to be illegal and unofficial. Cold violence, legal and official.

In “The Respectable Murderers,” a classic text on nonviolence, Monsignor Paul Hanley Furfey, the Catholic University sociologist, wrote: “The sporadic crimes that soil the front pages, the daily robberies, assaults rapes and murders, are the work of individuals and small gangs. But the great evils, the persecutions, the unjust wars of conquest, the mass slaughters of the innocent, the exploitation of whole social classes--these crimes are committed by the organized community under the leadership of respectable citizens.”

The solution? Withdraw support--political, financial and emotional--from all double-standard practitioners of violence, hot or cold, illegal or legal. Transfer the support to those working to eliminate violence, no matter where it is found or who is madly justifying it. This is an apt moment, as retribution hysteria grows and the ethic of hit-’em-back-harder is sounded like a battle station bugle call.

The nonviolent response to Sept. 11 is in the tradition of Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Dorothy Day, Jeannette Rankin and groups like the Fellowship of Reconciliation and Pax Christi. It is saying to those behind the attack: We forgive you; we reject vengeance. And then, summoning still more moral courage, to ask them to forgive us for all of our violence--for being the world’s major arms peddler; for having a military budget many times greater than the combined military budgets of our alleged enemies; for our bombing of Grenada, Libya, Panama, Somalia, Iraq, Sudan, Afghanistan and Yugoslavia; for supporting dictators; and for blindly believing the jingoism of President Bush, who said, “Our nation is chosen by God and commissioned by history to be a model to the world.”

A model for what? Vengeance, retribution, score settling? In the minds of the hijackers, that’s what Sept. 11 was about. To perpetuate it from here is to guarantee more eyes for eyes.