Friday, June 27, 2008

Thoughts on Violence

While on vacation I went on a tour of the local museum with my father-in-law. They had an exhibit on the Battle of Tampere, which was a significant engagement during the Finnish Civil War. Much of the information was, of course, in Finnish, so after I got home I looked it up on Wikipedia. Pretty stark stuff, made all the more powerful by the revelation that my wife's grandfather fought in the war when he was 13 years old.

Then yesterday I read one of Michael Totten's reports on Bosnia. It occurred to me that Americans--indeed, most of the Western nations--are very lucky. We've lived a life of such relative security that it's almost impossible for us to comprehend that one's government or way of life could ever fall apart. It's difficult for many to understand that while all conflicts can be resolved, some are not worth the cost. It's almost inconceivable for many that someone could feel the "right-ness" of their viewpoint--or the "wrong-ness" of yours--so strongly that they would feel the only proper response is violence.

The reality is that governments can and do fall apart, and not everyone has the same idea of how things should be put together again. People do fear the idea of a rival viewpoint carrying the day that they are willing to kill others to advance their own viewpoint or defend against someone else's. And when someone is trying to kill you, it doesn't really matter if their viewpoint makes sense or has valid points. You don't want them to kill you, so you must be prepared to kill them. And once the killing starts it is extremely difficult to stop it and figure out how to work together again.

It happened in Finland. It happened in Yugoslavia. It's happening in Lebanon and Sudan, and could be about to happen in Zimbabwe. But we in the West sit back and think "Oh well, those were different times, or that's a different culture. We're better than that. We can work out our differences."

And we can, right up until the point when we can't. Your right to swing your fist ends where my nose begins. We don't have civil war in America because we still believe in the authority of our government. We still believe that no matter how extreme some political ideas may be, the reality will always fall more or less in the middle. We still believe that violent conflict between groups is futile because our government will put a stop to it.

If that ever changes then America could become as deadly a place--if not more so--as Yugoslavia ever was. We could see civil warfare as violent, destructive, and inhumane as anything in Darfur or Finland. Because when someone else starts reaching for their gun to back up their viewpoint you'll want to make sure you've got one, too.

It's all the more amazing to me now to realize that we have a government that has allowed as much freedom as it has while remaining viable and strong as it has for as long as it has. Not many nations can say that, really. We may be one of the younger nations in the world, but when it comes to continual, static forms of government, we're one of the oldest.

It's not come without a cost. I wonder if we are still willing to pay the cost. If we're not, then our government will lose its viability. And if that ever happens you can bet people will be reaching for their guns.

No comments: