Violence begets violence
If justice is what love looks like in public, then that's the world we need to nurture into being
Summer was in motion in May 1962. The changing weather inspired Turkish poet Nazim Hikmet to write a poem titled, “I Stepped Out of My Thoughts of Death.” It’s a love poem about the approaching summer. The narrator puts death behind them to embrace “the June leaves of the boulevards.” I cherish that poem because I always welcome the moments when I can step away from my own thoughts of death, especially around this time of year. Yet, it’s hard not to think about death when mass shootings and public lynchings are daily occurrences. Lately, I’ve been thinking about how our culture of death feels inescapable.
Earlier this month in Farmington, three people were murdered in a mass shooting, with six others left wounded. The 18-year-old gunman roamed a residential street, firing indiscriminately at homes and vehicles. Throughout the day, I watched friends who live in the city update their social media, marking themselves as safe. Friends with children expressed worry about the world their kids are growing up in. My heart grew heavy and at the same time, I felt relief, knowing they were safe. But the heaviness lingered. Then I started wondering about what it means to carry so much grief on a daily basis. I asked myself, “Should I start rationing my grief? To leave room for the tragedies waiting for us the next day?”
Another thought came to mind. At a candlelight vigil for the victims, Farmington Mayor Nate Duckett commended the response by law enforcement. “These are well-trained law enforcement agencies,” Duckett said. “That comforts me, knowing that those folks are there and they are ready.”
Last month, Farmington police officers responded to a domestic disturbance call. But they showed up at the wrong house. Bodycam footage shows the police joking about the possibility of being at the wrong address, as they wait for someone to answer the door. The situation resulted in officers firing at the homeowner after he opened the door with a gun pointed toward police. The man, Robert Dotson, died from police gunfire.
In a news conference days after that shooting, Farmington Police Chief Steve Hebbe said police sometimes just end up at the wrong address. Hebbe said, “The results of it are terrible, but I will tell you that we do go to wrong addresses from time to time.”
I’m trying to understand the death drive as a way of life. We have heavily armed police ready to strike against heavily armed individuals. Yet there’s the risk of militarized police one night showing up at the wrong address, knocking on a different family’s home and killing one of the parents.
Or if you’re an unhoused person on a subway pleading for help, like Jordan Neely in New York, your cries may result in being choked to death by a Marine veteran. Neely was a 30-year-old unhoused Black man. He was experiencing a breakdown, and the ex-Marine responded by putting Neely in a chokehold for nearly 15 minutes while passengers watched.
In our culture of death, where does the escalation of violence lead us? When the Farmington mayor said law enforcement is around us ready for action, does that apply to the vigilante who murdered an unhoused man begging for help? And if there’s a numbness in people as they witness public lynchings like Jordan Neely’s, isn’t that a death of the soul for the onlookers?
When the Holocaust survivor Primo Levi wrote, “From violence, only violence is born, following a pendular action that as time goes by, rather than dying down, becomes more frenzied,” is this the world he was describing?
In 1915, as World War I was taking shape, the anarchist and feminist Emma Goldman delivered a speech in San Francisco against militarism. She confronted the Preparedness Movement, a campaign to bolster U.S. militarism by joining the war. Goldman titled her speech, “Preparedness, The Road to Universal Slaughter.” In it, she condemned the looming war, which she saw as the escalation of a militarized society. “Preparedness never leads to peace,” Goldman told the public, adding, “but it is indeed the road to universal slaughter.”
The words of Goldman and Levi haunt me as ongoing violence unfolds around us. Perhaps the violence we breathe in is blowback from the decades of global wars we’ve waged. Maybe it can be traced further – to the genocide of colonization and the brutalities of slavery; the unbearable violence inscribed in the borders and monuments of our nation-state.
When I can’t bring my thoughts to step out of death, I think of the advice from the Indian writer Arundhati Roy. She once wrote some words down for a friend in need, about what it means to live in dark times: “To never get used to the unspeakable violence and the vulgar disparity of life around you. To seek joy in the saddest places. To pursue beauty to its lair. Above all, to watch. To try and understand. To never look away. And never, never to forget.”
We live in unspeakable times, but it doesn’t have to be this way. I find power in that reminder. If justice is what love looks like in public, then that’s the world we need to nurture into being.
– Kirbie Bennett