Hooked on killing?


By Frank Wessling

“You shall not kill.”

Moses presented that command to the ancient people of Israel as the law of God. Was it as hard to follow for them as it is for us today? Reading the Hebrew Scriptures suggests that it was; deadly violence has been a persistent disease of the human race at all times and everywhere.

But we might be among the best at creating an environment for killing.

At home we live and breathe the air of competition, some of it extremely toxic. In school, in business, on the playground, nearly everywhere the prizes go to those who are better than others, to the winners over the losers.


Competition has its uses in goading us to be better. But in the mix of friendship, common interests and competition, we have such a reverence for competition that it can easily overwhelm those other social goods. The strain of individualism in American life rides close to an edge with violence, and it takes only a small push for some of us to step across. Then we make it easy to kill by letting guns be everywhere.

Meanwhile, in our self-appointed role as world policeman, the noise of killing in far-away places loses its sharpness by repetition and fades to background static. In Afghanistan and Iraq a few American deaths receive short notice, the locals who die in greater number are never more than statistics and the killing goes on seemingly without end. The model was laid out by George Orwell in his novel “1984.”

“You shall not kill.”

How to get out of the habit: that is the question. The habit is not killing itself. Rather, it’s the rush to violence as the solution for tension. Anything less, like negotiation, like patient listening within tension, is for wimps. Get rid of the problem and do it now. That is our preferred way.

In Afghanistan the military leadership is admitting that it can’t pacify the place by killing alone. The supply of fighters there is “effectively endless,” Gen. Stanley McChrystal said last week. He told his troops they would have to win over the people in some way, a laudable aim reminiscent of a hard lesson learned in Vietnam 40 years ago.

It will be no easier in Afghanistan than it was in Vietnam to impose our will while the killing goes on. Is it possible that we can only “win” in the world by not killing? We finally quit Vietnam when our part in the killing there appeared futile. Vietnam then settled into its own homegrown version of stability and peace. We fear that we can’t do the same in Iraq and Afghanistan because the forces against us there can export “terror” to us.

And we won’t stand still for another 9/11. We must kill or be killed.

“You shall not kill.”

It’s a commandment not only to live without violence among us but a goad to think, to imagine, to use creative energy in managing the tension of life. To be known for intelligence, compassion and wisdom rather than sheer physical power. To be a police officer who listens with respect rather than rushing to use force and violence.

In the first commandment revealed to Moses we are told to remember that we are not gods, not the creators, masters and owners of either our own lives or that of others. We are given life to share it in a bond of equal goodness.

That is the challenge where competition should be focused — not who can “win” in a race of all against all, but what can each of us add to the sum of shared good.

Killing and the news of killing can become a habit. Habits, and the presumptions behind them, are hard to break. A first step is to admit that we are hooked. Can we do that?

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