Tag Archives: Violence

A Long Cold Summer When Civilization Seemed to Retreat

It’s been a summer of troubling drama, a time of “Sturm and Drang” (storm and stress) as one German writer put it, a season of disasters of Biblical proportion. Even those of us lucky enough to be a continent or an ocean away from various epicenters have not been left untouched by the seeming scourge of disease and human despair that seemed to jump borders with alarming speed.

Surely I’m not the only one who thought of Masada when the Yazidis and other religious minorities fled to the top of Iraq’s Sinjar Mountains to escape death at the hands of ISIS. Masada, the flat mesa on top of a mountain that rises in Israel near the Dead Sea, was the site of a mass suicide in 73 C.E. More than 1,000 Jews died there rather than fall into Roman hands. (One woman and five children hid and survived to tell the tale.)


Nor could I have been alone in thinking about the exodus of the Jews out of Egypt when I watched the refugees who came down from the mountain as they crossed that rickety bridge over a river on their way to find refuge.

And then there was the Israeli/Gazan situation, a conflict as old as the Bible itself.

Did anyone else think of Tiananmen Square when they saw the horrific pictures of tanks lined up against the people of Ferguson, Missouri as they protested peacefully after an unarmed Michael Brown was shot to death by a policeman?

An unidentified man attempts to block tanks entering the square

Wasn’t the outbreak of Ebola reminiscent of medieval plagues, when borders were closed and bodies were carried away in carts, their homes marked as houses of death?

Didn’t the deaths of hundreds in a disappeared jumbo jet and other airline disasters, as well as the deaths of so many notable figures, bear the overtones of Greek tragedy?

And yet, among all the events that seemed to suggest a leap into a frighteningly dystopian future, is there some hope to be found? Might we be at some kind of turning point, a profoundly learnable moment that will ultimately render us capable of finding what writer Mary Gordon has called “the simple beauty of the good”?

Could it be that we stand on the fragile threshold of a time in human history when instead of “circling the drain,” we might, in an attempt to survive, find our universal souls, returning to truth and justice as guideposts, to ethical governance and sensible, compassionate leaders who would replace the oligarchs leading us into anarchy?

These questions were no doubt raised after the colossal tragedy of World War I (and many wars before that). Surely they were asked after World War II and the Holocaust. I remember them being raised in the 1960s when assassinations seemed endless and military might on the streets of America made us wonder if we had reached the apocalypse. So, too, did we ask ourselves if we could return to our better selves after the genocides of Rwanda and the Balkans. It seemed then and it seems now a Sisyphean question that we are doomed to ask in perpetuity.

But, without wanting to sound delusional, I think it may be possible that we are about to enter a moral epoch marked by a collective, rejuvenated spirit of good over evil, right over wrong, moral choices over inhumane acts.

I suggest this possibility because it seems to me that we all feel dangerously close to the precipice of madness. I say it because of all the people in all the cities who rallied in support of an end to police brutality after Michael Brown was killed. I say it because of a community that stood up to an unethical businessman when he demonstrated corporate greed. I say it because of organizations like MomsRising and I say it because of the outpouring of help that occurs when humanitarian crises perpetrated by political insanity and potentially fatal diseases happen. I say it because, as Bishop Desmond Tutu wrote in a moving commentary in Haaretz, “you add together all the people who gathered to demand justice in Israel and Palestine – in Cape Town, Washington, D.C., New York, New Delhi, London, Dublin and Sydney, and all the other cities [and] this was arguably the largest active outcry by citizens around a single cause ever in the history of the world.”

I say it because I see no alternative.

And yes, I say it knowing that history has proved me wrong again and again and that bad people flourish while “good guys finish last.” But just imagine a world in which we find within us the ability, the strength, the intelligence and compassion to move our communal heritage forward instead of falling back to the Dark Ages!

Surely the majority of us maintain a moral vigor, a life force that can enable us to recapture the soul of our communities and countries, to find again our better natures, and thus emerge with new hope and dignity in a sustainable world.

Dare one hope that in the face of so much sadness and threat we might yet be on the threshold of our greatest hour? At the very least, could the winter to come bring with it at least some renewed and reassuring warmth?

Bullies, Brutality and Bullets: Violence in America Prevails

An army general admits to sexual misconduct and other serious offenses and gets his wrist slapped while keeping his pension. Police brutality in California screams for reform while an offending officer is dubbed “the best deputy in the department.” Congress yields to pressure against a potential Surgeon General because the NRA doesn’t like him calling gun violence a public health issue.

Who says this country isn’t all bravado, big brass and balls?

The case of Army Brigadier General Jeffrey Sinclair underscores that the epidemic of sexual abuse in the military continues.  General enters guilty plea as captain testifies to her emotional painSinclair plea-bargained his way out of jail for heinous crimes against women including sodomy, death threats and forced pornography.  He perpetrated these behaviors in four countries over at least three years.  At his court martial Gen. Sinclair crowed “the system worked.”

But it’s a badly broken system. The Pentagon estimates that 26,000 incidents of sexual assault and unwanted sexual contact occurred in 2012. No wonder Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) was appalled when her attempted legislation to remove prosecutions in the military from the chain of command failed to garner 60 votes needed for passage in the Senate.

When Daniel Johnson’s disabled father dropped a cigarette on the ground in front of his California home in late 2012, the elder Johnson little expected that the involuntary act would lead to his 26-year old son having his genitals burned with a Taser because a Los Angeles sheriff’s deputy thought he was out of line.

The deputy issued a $1,000 fine for “littering” when he saw Daniel’s father, who drops things because of medically documented nerve damage in his hands, let go of the cigarette butt.  When Daniel explained that the “littering” was accidental because of his father’s medical condition the officer threatened to ticket him too. Daniel pleaded with the officer to let him retrieve the butt because they couldn’t afford the fine. That’s when things got scary. Another deputy slammed Daniel against the patrol car and the initiating officer beat him. This assault was followed by the Taser attack as his horrified parents watched. Daniel, a UC/Berkeley graduate who like his father is black, was arrested for battery on a police officer. Charges were never filed. Daniel’s lawsuit is pending.

A recent TV expose on Aljazeera America helps explain why there is an epidemic of police brutality in America. According to its program Faultlines, “federal money and combat equipment is transforming U.S. police departments into military-like forces.” 

Increasingly, police departments, which receive billions of dollars in Homeland Security grants along with free post-conflict military equipment, are using military-style tactics for routine daily operations.  SWAT teams have grown exponentially along with the number of police officers who once served in the military.  And non-violent protesters who want to see an end to “war games” and “urban warfare” are likely to be designated “domestic terrorists” when they dare to raise their placards at events like the trade show held in the San Francisco Bay area last year where vendors hawked everything from automatic weapons and surveillance drones to “crowd control” weapons. 

Despite the fact that the number of innocent people (mostly black or Hispanic and young) killed by police is escalating, cities like Boston are now arming police cars with military weapons. The tragic reality is that kids are killed every day by overzealous police, and Daniel Johnson’s awful experience is not uncommon. 

Dr. Vivek Murthy, the president’s nominee for Surgeon General, knows a lot about senseless killing.Dr. Vivek Hallegere Murthy is shown. | Courtesy Meredith Nierman Harvard educated with an MD and M.B.A. from Yale, he has seen plenty of gun violence victims in emergency rooms. That’s why in 2012 he declared that “guns are a health care issue.”  You can imagine how that went down with the NRA.  But his colleagues say they “are appalled that a candidate of such high caliber – with impeccable credentials, a well-earned reputation as a ‘doctor’s doctor’ and formidable experience in management and leadership – could be derailed for a moderate position on gun violence that aligns with the vast majority of America’s health professionals.”

The 36-year old Dr.Murthy works at a Harvard-affiliated hospital in Boston and teaches at Harvard.  He co-founded TrialNetworks to leverage technology to improve clinical trials and he started a non-profit educational organization, VISIONS, to address HIV/AIDS.  He also supports the Affordable Care Act. No wonder the far right can’t abide the thought of him as America’s top doc.

As writer Lauren Friedman and other social critics have noted on various websites, “gun violence unquestionably is a public health issue.” In 2009, it caused over 31,000 deaths and guns were involved in more than 73,000 non-fatal injuries. The American Public Health Association calls gun violence in the U.S. “a major public health problem and a leading cause of premature death.” 

And yet we continue our destructive bravado.  Like a frenetic ‘film noir’ in which brutalities flash across the wide screen that is American life, our psyches are bashed until we are inured to the underlying violence. 

That in itself, it seems to me, is a public health issue.

America’s Culture of Violence Calls for Attention

Sadly, some topics bear repeated scrutiny. America’s penchant for violence is one of them, so once again, I am driven to write about the prevalence of gun violence, rape and violence in the media – all topics that pundits write about and TV talking heads ponder, while nothing seems to change.

Let’s revisit some facts. More than 84 people are killed by guns daily in this country; annually there are more than 31,000 gun-related fatalities. In 2010 we had more than 8700 murders by firearms; Great Britain had 638. There are over 300 million firearms in America, a country with a population of 311 million. Most disturbingly, the Children’s Defense Fund reports that in 2010 more than 2600 children and teens were killed by gun violence. That means more kids here died from guns in one year than all the soldiers in WWI, Vietnam, or the Iraq War. “We are a country drenched in bloodshed,” as Henry A. Giroux wrote on truthdig.com.

Current attention focusing on rape and sexual assault in our military has illuminated what some call a culture of rape in America. Tens of millions of women here suffer this heinous form of gender violence, including a large number of young women on college campuses. Last year’s documentary, “The Invisible War,” revealed that at least 20 percent of female veterans have been sexually assaulted while serving in the military and that a woman in a combat zone is more likely to be raped by a fellow soldier than killed by enemy fire, as Francesca Bessey pointed out in an op ed. posted to neontommy.com.

Bessey also reported on sexual violence on college campuses across the country where an estimated one in four women is raped or sexually assaulted during the course of her college years. Incarcerated women are also raped in large numbers. According to a report by the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics, an estimated 80,000 inmates experienced sexual abuse during a twelve-month period prior to the report’s release. That’s four percent of all prison inmates and 3.2 percent of jail inmates nationally, figures that include juveniles housed in adult facilities.

Meanwhile, military action and aggression in general are glorified on TV, in video games and in movies. Social media is not far behind. Facebook has come under criticism for allowing postings of rape and domestic violence by advertisers or individuals. A recent open letter to the CEO demanded that pages such as Kicking your Girlfriend in the Fanny, and Violently Raping Your Friend Just for Laughs, be banned along with photos of women beaten, bruised, tied up, drugged or bleeding.

To be fair, the U.S. is not the only country with gendered violence issues. Recent reports of raped and murdered women reveal horrendous acts of violence in countries as diverse as South Africa, India, Egypt, and Brazil, to name just a few.

But we need to ask ourselves what this is about in our national culture. There’s no doubt that the NRA is a force related to gun violence, but as Henry Giroux points out, “it is only one factor in the culture of symbolic and institutional violence that has such a powerful grip on [us].” The reality is that “violence saturates almost every aspect of North American culture.”

Studies show that by the time an American child is 18 years old, they will have seen about 200,000 acts of violence on television, including over 40,000 real or dramatized murders. The impact of that exposure is deeply troubling. One study conducted in 2000 by the Congressional Public Health Summit found that young children who have witnessed media violence have a much greater chance of exhibiting violent or aggressive behavior. A similar correlation exists when it comes to video games. Another study found that children who watch TV violence excessively around age eight are more likely to be arrested and prosecuted for criminal acts when they are adults.

In a recent op ed. posted to the blog readersupportednews.org, writer Tom Adams pointed out that the U.S. is the largest arms dealer in the world. We have more violent deaths per capita than any other developed nation and we have the highest incarceration rate of any country. Our homicide rate is by far the highest among industrialized nations. Arguing that “the harsh reality is that the violence that is deeply entrenched in American culture is inextricably tied to our economic and political systems,” Adams, like many others writing about or researching this topic, raises a number of important issues that require further exploration and conversation.

Meanwhile the violence continues, “saturating our social landscape like a highly charged forest fire burning everything in its path,” as Henry Giroux puts it. We are all in the path of that out-of-control inferno. That’s why we must fight it with everything we’ve got until the flames of violence are arrested once and for all, and we are safely out of its grip.

Remembering a Rape Victim and the Meaning of Her Death

It was a summer night in Florence, Italy. I was returning to my hotel after attending a concert at the Pitti Palace. Suddenly, five young men encircled me, hurling sexual innuendos. One of them smacked his lips and pointed to my crotch. I was sure they were going to gang rape me. The terror I felt was so intense I thought I would pass out. No one who has not experienced that kind of fear can understand what it feels like.

I was lucky. A passerby appeared and I was rescued. I was 23-years old, like Jyoti Singh Pandey, who was not rescued in India even though she was with her boyfriend. She was so brutally raped that what was done to her does not bear repeating. Suffice to say that she died of her injuries. Until her father released her name and picture we didn’t have a sense of her but as one blogger wrote, “I don’t need to see a photograph to cry for her.”

Violence against women in India has increased dramatically over the past two decades as women have become more autonomous. More than 600 rapes were reported in New Delhi alone last year and that number is small compared to those that don’t get reported. Even reporting rape can be dangerous. Recently an 18-year-old woman in Punjab State killed herself after police humiliated and then raped her themselves, admonishing her to marry one of her rapists, a remedy for the shame of rape often proposed by family members. Even as I write this, another gang rape on a bus has been reported.

But India isn’t alone in its murderous attempts to control women and to use them sexually as political pawns. The Women’s Media Center’s project Women Under Siege recently documented the horrific rapes of women in Syria, “usually by government forces.” Again, what has allegedly been done to young girls to sexually mutilate them doesn’t bear repeating. Congo is another case in point. In fact, there isn’t a country in conflict that doesn’t use rape and sexual assault as a form of intimidation and humiliation. And there isn’t a country in the world in which violence against women does not occur on a regular basis.

Here in America someone (overwhelmingly female) is sexually assaulted every two minutes. Mostly we don’t know about these incidents unless they are as heinous as the recent multiple rapes of an unconscious young woman in Steubenville, Ohio. Every year we average over 208,000 victims of reported sexual assault. Eighty percent of these victims are under age 30, 54 percent of assaults are never reported, and 97 percent of rapists never spend a day in jail.

No wonder most women are afraid, at some level of consciousness, to leave home, to travel alone, to dress the wrong way, to make eye contact with or to smile at someone they don’t know.

And what is our own government doing about it? Not much, thanks to the right wing of the wrong party. While the Violence Against Women Act was reauthorized in the Senate last year, some House Republicans failed to advance the Senate’s re-authorization because they didn’t think immigrant, Native America or gay women were worthy of being included in the Act. Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) has vowed to re-introduce the legislation this year.

What is it in individuals and cultures that fosters, overlooks and perpetrates such heinous gender-based violence? How can such violations of women’s bodies, such physical and psychological cruelty, continue unabated? The answers are complex and go beyond theories that include the threat posed to patriarchies by self-determined women.

But Sandip Roy, a blogger who wrote about the Indian woman’s rape, offered some food for thought. There were lessons to be learned, he said, by the tragedy in India. (Many of them relate to the lessons of gun violence as well.)We learned, Roy said, that “it’s an exercise in futility to assign a hierarchy of rape as if one rape is more deserving of attention than the other.” We learned that “it is possible to shake a country out of its apathy” and that “if enough people raise their voices a government cannot ignore them.” We learned that “safety is not about what women do, wear or when they go out. It’s about what men around them do.”

“That girl could have been any one of us,” an Indian mother cried at a candlelight vigil for Jyoti Singh Pandey. “We can only tackle this by becoming Durga,” the Hindu god who slays demons, she said.

Let’s hope we can discover the Durga in all our countries and cultures, and that whatever gods we pray to give us the courage to confront the scourge of rape and other violence against women. Until we do, none of us can claim to be safe, or to assume we live in a civilized world.