What Ails Us

The recent senseless events in Aurora, CO brought home to me yet again the central irony that underlies the security of our society: that two of civilization’s greatest strengths—compassion and free speech, two noble ideals—are also our greatest weaknesses. And it made me turn again to a favourite play written 2,500 years ago.

The fact that I’ve taken very little interest (beyond the general facts) in the Aurora killings doesn’t mean I have no opinion. I have no need (do you?) to see rescuers carrying blood-soaked victims from the scene, or scenes of anguished, weeping parents and friends of loved ones, or to know the shooter’s background and what others thought of him. I know we seek out the detail, the minutiae, largely because we need to understand how and why these terrible, senseless things happen, why previously harmless people suddenly blow and slaughter random, innocent strangers; yet for me, the how and why seem terribly obvious.

But let’s look at the irony first.

The Aurora, CO shooter, like almost all these sickos, got exactly what he wanted: fame. He got it because the rest of us believe in free speech and a free press. The same holds true for terrorists—where would they be if the media simply ignored them? Powerless, since their power is rooted in fear. Similarly, terrorists use our compassion against us by taking hostages. When we place high value* on every individual life—as we do in civilized societies—they have us over a barrel. So although logic dictates that one should never, ever accede to a terrorist or kidnapper’s demands, we invariably (and often despite public denials by the authorities that demands were met or ransoms paid) do. Again, publicity pays a part, but compassion is the underpinning here. Because we place a higher value on a single life than people in many parts of the world place on a hundred, an entire nation’s foreign policy can be affected or its leadership toppled by fanatics on the other side of the world taking a few dozen hostages.

But whatever logic may dictate, humans don’t typically act on it, much less so where strong emotion is involved. Although simply denying extravagant publicity to terrorists and flashy mass murderers would rob them of a good deal of their power, I don’t expect it to happen soon.

So where does this leave us? Returning to domestic (i.e., US) violence, I don’t for a moment believe more stringent gun laws are the solution. They didn’t help in Norway, and the Aum Shinrikyo cult in Japan came within an ace of  killing thousands without firearms**. We could argue about smaller capacity magazines causing less deaths, but that doesn’t address the core problem, which is one of a very deeply sick society. Just two generations ago dynamite and fully automatic weapons were freely available in the US, and nobody went around shooting up cinemas or blowing up high schools. What happened? What changed?

For an answer, we could do far worse than look back 2,500 years to the great Greek tragedist, Euripides. Euripides was over 70 when he left the frenzied, disillusioned, war-obsessed city of Athens for the freshness and mountains of Macedon, never to return, and it was there that he wrote his penultimate and, to my mind greatest, play, The Bacchae.

For those who aren’t acquainted with the work, The Bacchae is overtly about the conflict between Dionysus, God of fertility, ecstasy, and wine, and King Pentheus, the arrogant and masterful king of Thebes. But for a deeper look, let me offer a few brief extracts from translator Philip Vellacott’s excellent introduction to the Penguin Classics edition:

The play sets forth two opposite sides of man’s nature. First there is the rational and civilized side, on which a large community like a city depends for its stability. Since Pentheus is a king, he is in Thebes the official representative of this side, which is concerned with law, the conventions of sex and property, the organizing of war. Then there is the instinctive side, which by its simplicity by-passes all the errors of rational man, enjoys the life of the senses without the ability or desire to analyse it…

When the civilized grows arrogant and masterful, it is betrayed from within by the bestial…

The ‘worship’ which the Greek Gods required  (…) was simply a recognition that they existed, that they were an integral and immutable part of human nature, of human society, of the natural world…

The Bacchae is—among other things—a demonstration that the consequences of refusing ‘worship’ in this sense to Dionysus are disastrous, since such a refusal is a denial of undeniable fact; it is a ‘condemnation,’ if you will, of intolerance, violence, and cruelty, all of which are generated when humanity tries to deny either of the two sides of its nature.

Does any of this ring bells?

In my recent 4th July post, ‘On Freedom,’ I wrote about the increasing and often petty limitations on our own freedom, such as not being allowed to enjoy a beer on a beach. In our earnestness to make our society ever safer, we continually tighten the restrictions on individual behaviour at the same time as we turn up the heat and pressure on everyone. Oh, it’s all well-meaning: we are compassionate, we want nobody to be hurt or suffer. So we legislate for every eventuality, and then look for more loopholes, and close those off. Public drunkenness makes us uncomfortable, threatens us, so we have rules against it; but soon those rules don’t seem enough, so we make more rules… and more… And like King Pentheus, the more rules we make, the greater our fear of and sense of threat at even minor infractions, until eventually, all of us feel penned in and unable to move, with all the safety valves shut off. Something has to give, and some people will blow—with sometimes catastrophic consequences.

In a conflict between a God and a king, who would you place your money on?

*     *     *

*someone recently calculated, using a complex and arcane procedure, that the value of a human life in the US is currently around $8 million.

**police found the cult had explosives, Anthrax and Ebola cultures, and stockpiles of chemicals to produce enough Sarin gas to allegedly kill  four million people

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