As a child I saw too many violent movies and it changed me. Instead of becoming desensitized as often happens, I went the other way. I became unable to bear the sight of violence. I almost never watch R-rated movies. Sometimes I have to explain this to people and am not sure they understand my trauma and weakness. I remember learning about the Spanish Inquisition in school -- seeing pictures of torture devices in encyclopedias and processing that this meant that people invented ways to inflict pain on other human beings, designed these instruments, and had blacksmiths build them. As a hardcore Monty Python fan, even Life of Brian was difficult for me to watch despite the humor. Crosses with bleeding Jesus's are everywhere. Although I try to look on the bright side of life, I am haunted by such iconography. When I was young, I saw authentic film footage taken at Auchwitz or Buchenwald or... some other concentration camp, I don't know. That kind of thing stays with you.
So many Hollywood movies, especially horror movies, perplex me. I cannot understand why people buy tickets to see fictional representations of extreme violence and gore. Presumably there is pleasure in that -- people do actually pay money for it. Sometimes the violence is not gratuitous and is necessary to the story. I understand that. I just can't abide it. I first heard about snuff films when I was in college and spent days back then, and days since, trying to find a place in my brain to file such information.
Humans perpetrate torture, photograph and film it, and consume it for pleasure. It's real or it isn't. Of course, there is a difference between viewers of snuff films and viewers of horror movies. I don't even know how to think about the pictures and videos of gruesome bombing casualties or men stoning women that float through my Facebook newsfeed these days. Is this yet another example of the commodification of violence, or is this what it means to be an informed citizen in the digital age? I think a lot about that cartoon going around that says, "My desire to be well-informed is currently at odds with my desire to stay sane." I know a lot of us have this struggle.
In times of war, the enemy is seen as less human, perhaps not at all human. Men kill other men as if stepping on bugs. Women, in particular, are seen as things, objects to be used, sold, and brutalized as men see fit. War allows men (and sometimes women) who would otherwise live within the rules of civilized society to become animals. But for the most part, animals do not display the calculated and indiscriminate savagery of humans, who are not killing to obtain food.
Are there any other animals that kill or torture for reasons other than survival? I suppose that question implies an ability to understand animal cognition and motivation. Do animals recognize that other animals have feelings and experience pain? Some animals, such as elephants and the great apes, show empathy. Yet chimpanzees wage war...beat and rape females, kill other males, commit infanticide. Gangs of young, sexually frustrated male bottle-nosed dolphins brutally kill solitary porpoises with blunt force, by cracking jaws and breaking ribs, sometimes focusing their attacks on the genital region. They do not eat the porpoises. The killing is for sport. Orcas appear to play with seals and penguins before killing them -- tossing them high up in the air, over and over again, to prolong the inevitable -- but scientists believe this could be for the purpose of stunning their prey or training young whales in hunting strategies. House cats are often seen toying with mice before killing them. Are they "playing?" Cruelty can masquerade as fun and games. Does the cat understand that it is causing the mouse more agony than a swift execution would? I doubt it. How does this work with people? The Greek poet Bion said, "Though boys throw stones at frogs in sport, the frogs do not die in sport, but in earnest."
I look at faraway bands of marauding soldiers wielding machine guns, their faces twisted with hatred, their mouths open in primal screams. I see these images from the Middle East and I think, they are animals. It's the word we all go to in describing behavior that is not fit to be considered human. I wonder about these men, their childhoods, what happened to them to turn them into such beasts. Were they abused? Were they trained by elders to be violent? Were they brainwashed? Were they proselytized by militant religion? Were they simply told, "Be a man," and given the duty of slaughtering other humans for this cause or that one? Are they the people who would, in other circumstances, still have become murderers or rapists or animal abusers...their innate violence loosed upon their enemies by the green light of war? If any of them had been adopted as babies and raised by loving parents in peaceful societies, would they have grown up gentle, or would they have become those children who stomp on turtles and put out cigarettes on dogs?
The numbers, God the numbers. So many violent people on this planet. So much suffering. I won the lottery of birth. I was born into a relatively privileged life where I am protected in my little house in my safe suburban neighborhood in America. I can make decisions that allow me to escape not only experiencing violence, but seeing or hearing about it, if I choose. This is not to say that random violence could not befall me. I could be beaten or raped or shot in a movie theater by an angry young man with an assault rifle. No one is completely safe. But some of us are safer than others.
So many human behaviors are framed as nature vs. nurture and most behaviors are some combination of both. There are bad seeds who commit violent acts with no apparent provocation, and there are so many wounded survivors of childhood abuse who replicate what was done to them. There is mental illness. There is the science of genetic disposition towards psychopathy. It is often difficult to tease apart the why's of violent individuals. But war is collective violence, a tool of oppression or self-defense or false proxy for pursuing the imagined will of someone's god. What great violence there is in the perversion of an otherwise peaceful soul into a perpetrator of mass brutality, and even more so, into a perpetrator of not just war, but of war crimes and crimes against humanity. Violence and war are sometimes unavoidable, but torture, civilian rape, enslavement, and many of the other illegal excesses of war are choices. One might say those choices deliberately contribute to a desired reputation those soldiers cultivate to intimidate enemies, or one might wonder if that level of barbarianism attracts barbaric individuals who enjoy what they now have permission to do to other human beings.
Who aches with me? Do you? I don't know what the answer is, but I know what it isn't. It isn't to bury my head in the sand. It isn't to place my own emotional comfort ahead of my duty to acknowledge and speak out against such wanton savagery. I know it is complicated. I read history and current events and if you're reading this, I bet you do too. So we all know that war and violence are bigger than the story told by all of the journalists and authors and bloggers and researchers who can only chip away at it bit by bit. I felt like joining them, and it does help my heart to have done so, for whatever tiny impact I've made.
Our world is so beautiful and so tragic and so miraculous and so broken. Try to make it better if you can. Whatever world you want to leave to your children or other people's children, be a part of that project. It's a big one and we need all hands on deck.
Lori Day is an educational psychologist, consultant and parenting coach with Lori Day Consulting in Newburyport, MA. She is the author of the new book Her Next Chapter: How Mother-Daughter Book Clubs Can Help Girls Navigate Malicious Media, Risky Relationships, Girl Gossip, and So Much More. You can connect with Lori on Facebook, Twitter, or Pinterest.