Flashes of memory stream into my consciousness. They take me back thirty years plus. I was a boy then, a newcomer to a poor and tough neighborhood. My parents, of moderate means and daring to a fault, had decided to move there after my father had accepted an editing job in the federal government. They had taken a lease on a low-rent brick house, which was also run-down, covered in filth, and littered with trash. I do not mince my words: Previous tenants had been pigs that got along with bugs and rats.
“The house has potential,” my mother had said to reassure me, seeing that I was aghast at its sordid aspects. Its one redeeming feature, besides its solid construction, was a large woody front yard, neglected, allowed to become a large dumping ground, as weedy as it was woody, but potentially attractive and pleasant, to be sure.
My mother was a hard worker with a great deal of stamina, creativity, and tastefulness. She mastered the art of doing wonders with little money. After three months of intense labor – which for the first week involved a carpenter and two garbage collectors plus two dump trucks – the house was transfigured, quite presentable, even nice, much to my amazement. It now contrasted sharply, cuttingly, with the slums at the rear of the house and on the left of it. On the right was a school and at the front, across the street, was a nunnery on a large piece of land. My parents had conveniently focused their attention on these establishments, as if the good education and good disposition of their teachers and sisters could shield us from the evils of the slums.
Needless to say, they did not. Violence was rampant in this neck of the woods and I was elected punchbag with only one dissenting vote: mine! At the root of this violence was malevolence, which grows from resentment, after one has been subjected to mistreatment. As much as my family projected an image of distinction, the neighborhood boys were malevolent and violent toward me. To them this image of distinction was an act of humiliation; their feelings were hurt and it was natural for them to hurt me. Of course it is a lot worthier to elevate oneself than to abase someone else. It is also a lot harder, and nature spontaneously levels everything the easy way. Moral excellence relates to culture, is an acquired trait, by virtue of which a human is courageous and just, worthy of praise.
One winter evening, I was crossing the field next to the rink where I had played hockey, when a gang of hoodlums encircled me like a pack of wolves. There were six of them, one of whom – a weakling who always relied on others to feel powerful – lived three doors down, east of my house, across the back street. The leader stepped forward and turned around with a snicker. “Hey shithead, come and kiss my ass.” I was tempted to kick it, not kiss it. “No thanks. Please let me go; I don’t care for trouble.” As I was finishing my sentence, one of the boys lunged toward me from behind and shoved me forward. I dropped my hockey equipment and braced myself to fight and suffer. I was big for my age, but big is small when outnumbered by six to one.
Again the leader took the initiative; the fight was on. With several thrusts, punches, and kicks, I repelled my assailants momentarily, until I was knocked and wrestled to the ground. Fists and feet hit me everywhere, nonstop, from all directions. Suddenly I heard a menacing shout and everyone slipped in a last blow before fleeing. A brave and kind man had caught sight of their misdeed and chosen to intervene, armed with a hockey stick. I was hurt but saved.
A few days later, still aching all over, I saw the weakling, alone by his house – his hovel to be exact, which was covered with old imitation brick, torn in places, and infested with cockroaches, rats, and woodworms. His face was bruised and wet from weeping, as he screamed with rage, “Fucking bastard, fucking bitch, fucking life, fuck, fuck, fuck!” My anger was now tempered with compassion. I unclenched my fists, prompted by a desire to spare him. I could not demean myself to add pain to his pain, already so excessive that it overflowed in streams of tears and curses.
His father was an illiterate and idle drunkard who collected welfare and spent considerable time and money at the tavern. At home, slouching in an armchair, he forever watched TV and drank beer or liquor. When grossly intoxicated, he sometimes vomited before reaching the bathroom and, without cleaning up his mess, fell unconscious on his bed, the armchair, the floor, or wherever. He was also vulgar and brutal. He often battered his son and his wife, and heaped insults on them.
His wife was an abusive and sluggish woman who had grown obese from attempting to fill her inner void with chips, cookies, and pop. Day after day she wore the same tattered nightgown and constantly found reasons for bawling out her son and swiping him. She drove him insane, then used this insanity as another reason for persecuting him.
These two loathsome and pitiful parents rendered his life at home unbearable. He usually roamed the streets with fellow-sufferers from similar – miserable and violent – backgrounds. Together they ganged up and took their resentment out on other kids such as me. My aggressors, first, were victims.
My insight into the origin of violence came to me at that time and has never left me. I saw then and still see a victim in every aggressor. Some say there is such a thing as gratuitous violence, committed by individuals whose youth was favorable to all appearances. Violence for the sake of violence, an exercise in brutality at the expense of others, without provocation, past or present? I beg to differ.
Appearances are not a valid means of assessing someone’s youth, whose favorableness or unfavorableness is a subjective, not objective, matter. Circumstances have no value in themselves, but in relation to people who consider them favorably or not. Attitude is here the only relevant concept. Also, brutality cannot be exercised at the expense of others unless these others are viewed heartlessly as expendable. This heartlessness is greatly suspicious, unlikely to belong to someone who regards humans with favor, thanks to a feeling of solidarity, of mutual benefit.
In my opinion, aggressiveness is triggered by hostility, without which it is dormant: a mere potentiality incapable of harm. It may include an abnormal sensitivity or intellect that intensifies or alters someone’s perception of the environment. The fact remains hostility, as perceived by someone who feels painfully antagonized and proportionally victimized, is always a factor. Therefore, aggression cannot be dissociated from victimization, not only that of the victims but also that of the aggressors. These aggressors are victims of their sick minds or of the ill treatment they have endured. They deserve compassion, besides indignation.
They are liable to a punishment that ought to be effective and exemplary, not vengeful. Vengeance and violence are one and the same thing. Both are resentful and harmful. Both are reprehensible. The harm inflicted does not remedy the harm suffered; it simply compounds one harm with another, and invites yet another harm. It lengthens the chain of savagery from x (a frightening number of savage links) to x+1, potentially +2, +3, +4, etc., instead of breaking it and helping to free humanity from it. There is no worse slavery than savagery. The best course is to make every effort to get over a wrong and forgive it, while bringing the wrongdoer to justice.
In sum, justice should not serve to avenge people. It should serve to prevent crime and protect the public, by intimidating or incarcerating those who are a menace to others except under threat or behind bars. It should never push the severity of this mandate to the point of cruelty, in which case it would be a perversion of justice, an ominous sign of barbarity. On the contrary, it should be a jewel in the crown of civilization and foreshadow the coming of a better humanity, more consistent with its true nature and purpose – in a word, more humane.
The difference between severity and cruelty is radical yet subtle; it must be emphasized. Cruel law enforcers delight in the punishments they inflict and readily overstep the mark. They are vicious and blameworthy, like the criminals they punish. Law enforcers who are severe, but not cruel, administer punishments reluctantly or regard them as a necessary evil they would gladly forgo if they could. They deplore the criminal element in society and strive to neutralize it through intimidation, or incarceration as a last resort, and preferably through reformation, a fundamental change of the criminal mind for the better. Their ideal, as unattainable as it is elevated, is the supremacy of justice without the institution of justice: no threats, no prisons, only people who deeply understand and freely exercise the principle of justice.
Impossible as this supremacy is, it is usefully pursued. The institution of justice can become less and less necessary for the manifestation of justice, which can become more and more customary. This progress depends on the wisdom and willpower of its proponents who make it their duty to educate, assist, and encourage potential followers. It also presupposes that these potential followers take an active part in this endeavor. They cannot be actual followers unless they welcome this education, assistance, and encouragement, and display intelligence and determination of their own.
How much can we collectively be civilized – that is, mutually respectful and helpful, in the knowledge that this high goal can unite our wills toward a common good of colossal proportions? In other words, what is the ceiling of our possible civilization, which implies responsibility and solidarity, an elevation of life to love? Nobody knows the limit, so none should be set but the sky!
Generally, in a loving environment, human beings show humanity as naturally as fruit trees give fruit in the summer. Love is to these beings as sunshine is to these trees. It helps them grow into what they are meant to grow into (unless their nature is flawed from the start, which is an exception to the rule): beautiful and bountiful creations, as opposed to ugly and puny aberrations. Yet, beware of love; it can be possessive and manipulative, selfish and devilish! Yes, some angels have horns, unnoticeable at first sight under their pretty hair; their paradise is hell.
True love is in the image of God (by God I simply mean the fundamental cause of everything. It brings us into existence and, within the limits of its might, supports us in our quest for fulfillment). It is a desire to nurture, not to capture. Under its divine rule, one always has the other’s best interests at heart. No one, however, should be supportive to the point of being an accomplice in someone’s oppressive or destructive acts of egocentricity, folly, or injustice. These evils should not be loved and served; they should be hated and combated.
Hate is legitimate toward them, whereas the people who embody them are worthy of love because they exceed them by their ability to do good. They are indeed greater than the sum of their evil ways; they include the power to improve them. Therefore hate is directed at these ways, and love at this power: It promotes the people’s ability to do good. What if a person who is oppressively or destructively egocentric, foolish, or unjust never responds to this love? In that case it is lost and the life of this person shamefully amounts to a waste of soul.
By a stroke of luck, my parents were bright and warm people who helped me blossom into a joyful and respectful individual. Their love was true and so was the love of many others who took part in my life. I was also lucky enough to be a good seed. I was a strong and healthy boy, extremely lively and moderately clever, cheery and gentle-natured, though impatient and self-assertive. In my eyes, until my family moved to the poor and tough neighborhood, civility was the norm among the members of society; it made sense. Barbarity, on the other hand, was a stupefying rarity. The abused weakling gave me an understanding of barbarity – which was common in this neighborhood – and replaced my stupefaction with commiseration.