Getting in the Ring
When is it time to throw a punch?
I don’t recall ever being in a real fight, the kind where you square off with someone and let rage call the shots. There were scuffles on the soccer and lacrosse fields, but that was in high school and college, and I was probably smart enough at that point to realize my average size and weight weren’t going to win any real fights.
There were the ongoing battles with my brother. However, fighting your brother—which, in our battles devolved into more of a cartoonish WrestleMania than true fist-on-face violence—seems a bit like fighting yourself. The stakes are small, and the battles tend to be over distinctions without a difference.
In high school we had boxing in P.E. I remember being put “in the ring” against my friend Frank and feeling my first punch to the face. That didn’t feel good, but it didn’t engender the rage I expected. What’s more, it was all sanctioned as part of our education, if you can imagine that. It was clinical violence at best.
I do remember, vividly, my first experience with true malevolent violence. Years ago, I was in Manhattan for a meeting and went for an early morning run in Central Park. There was a misty rain falling. I remember because when I glanced down an alley, I saw a slick of blood on the wet pavement. It was pooled in front of a dumpster—yellow police tape cordoning the area. A dozen or so people were milling about, some in uniform, some not. It was so surreal I thought it must be a movie or TV shoot. But I lingered long enough to know it wasn’t. Someone’s life had ended there in the night. I tried to imagine what had transpired in those few moments before someone ended up in a dumpster. How could you get to a point where you could plunge a knife into someone and watch a life drain away? What in the world would you do with that memory?
The word violence gets used so in many contexts—“violent seas,” “violent colors”—that its meaning gets diluted. At its roots—Latin and Indo-European—the word really means extreme force or aggression against others. Force on others.
For people fortunate enough to grow up without violence, the idea of becoming violent seems so far-fetched as to be fantasy. I sometimes wonder if there would ever be an occasion when I could be truly violent. Most parents can probably envision becoming violent if their children were being threatened by someone. Run through the thought experiment, and you’ll feel rage—the fuel of violence—rise up for an instant.
It seems the Ukrainian War has supplanted COVID as the world’s great tragedy. COVID was and is a tragedy almost antithetical to violence. There is no malice between it and others, no emotion to it. It is somewhat random in its path, more insidious than forceful.
The tragedy of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, on the other hand—so brazen and unabashed—is a much thornier tragedy. It raises the question of when, if ever, is it justified to use violence to stop a more depraved version of violence? Are there degrees of morality when it comes to violence?
Despite the reporting and documentation of what is transpiring in places like Bucha and Mariupol, the world as a whole really hasn’t grappled with what is going on there: a maternity hospital being bombed, families cooking meat scraps over a fire in the rubble, mothers fleeing with toddlers in their arms and little else, people tied up, shot in the back of the head and left on the streets, mass graves, rape, torture, anarchy. They feel like scenes from another era, or they should be.
Putin is obviously a psychopath and will likely go down in history with others of his ilk: Stalin, Hitler, Mao Zedong, Pol Pot. But that does little good for people like Vira Makoviy pictured above. Her mother, Oleksandra Makoviy, fearing she and her husband would be killed, scrawled Vira’s name on her back so that should she be found alive someone could piece together who she was.
I have a 3-year-old daughter who is in pre-school. I try to imagine being so desperate as to scrawl her name and birthdate on her back. Again, I come up with nothing. It’s too remote; I can’t conjure the situation to feel the emotion.
Occasionally, she will come home from pre-school confounded by the fact that another child had pushed her to get to a toy or climb the slide first. “Why did he do that, daddy?” she will say, eyes as big as the sun. There is in her voice the faintest hint of outrage, to the extent a 3-year-old can express outrage.
But then I wonder, what the hell is the matter with us? Surely, her instincts are right. Where is our outrage? Does not rape, torture, bombing of pregnant women, indiscriminate killing of civilians count for outrage? Granted, there is one big elephant in the room: the danger of provoking the use of nuclear or chemical arms. But given our remarkable technologies, the smarts and talents of our military, I have to believe there are multiple ways beyond economic sanctions to stop a psychopath. And yes, violence to stop the butchering of innocents is one of them. It’s not a moral position I would brag about, but I think it is the right one floating in a sea of bad ones.
Perhaps hollow words from a guy who has watched the fights of his life pass him by, but some fights you have to take.
I was mulling similar thoughts this morning (not as eloquently as you). I was wondering specifically what darkens in a person's soul to make the kind of violence we've been hearing about possible. Nice work packaging some thoughts and putting them out there.