A Wrathful Man Stirreth up Strife: Running Amok in the USA

When those intrepid 15th century Portuguese sailed round the Cape of Good Hope and headed across the Indian Ocean to the Spice Islands they stumbled across a bizarre phenomenon among the Malay people.   Every so often a man who up to then had been perfectly normal would undergo a change of mood.  He would become withdrawn, then begin to brood. Finally he would pick up a knife or an axe, run into a crowd and proceed to hack and stab total strangers or animals, maiming and killing them indiscriminately until finally committing suicide or being killed by the crowd.   The Malays and Indonesians called this meng-amuk ‘making a desperate charge’ and the person doing the killing was an amuko.    Westerners called it ‘running amok.’

If this sounds familiar, it should.   Suicide bombers in the Middle East are a variant of this sort of madman, delusional fanatics who believe the Creator of the Universe smiles to see them reduce a crowded marketplace to a bloody tangle of body parts.   In the United States the news is full of people running amok, mentally ill people who snap and explode with rage, taking the lives of the innocent in a few murderous seconds.  There are some differences from the old Spice Islanders, however.   The big one is that our amukos have their fingers on a trigger instead of a hilt so the numbers of the victims can be very large. Also, the attacks are often planned and their targets known to the attackers. It might be bosses who they feel slighted them, or members of groups they dislike, but the result is the same with innocent strangers dead or wounded.  There is one other important similarity: they are always men. Psychologists have speculated that running  amok may be a way for unsuccessful males to prove that they are, after all, real men, because what do real men do?  They wield weapons and are able to kill.

It is said that the Malay people accepted running amok as part of their culture, and did not hold it against the amuko.  It is our tragedy that running amok has become a regular part of our culture too, and while we do not forgive the assailant, over the years shock has yielded to a helpless sigh and a shake of our heads as we wonder how we ever got to this place.

What would it take to change that?  As a prelude to an answer, let me suggest as others have that the tone at the top has an enormous influence, and currently we have some very angry men in leadership positions.  You can’t help thinking of the old verse of Solomon: A wrathful man stirreth up strife, but he that is slow to anger appeaseth strife (Proverbs 15:18) .  Has there ever been a time in recent memory where so much strife has been so vigorously stirred up and so little attempt at appeasing it?

So what do we  do to make running amok a thing of the past? There’s plenty.

1) Congress: make it much more difficult for people with mental problems to get a gun

2) Health professionals / insurance companies: improve the care of people with mental problems

3) Media : reduce the frenzy around mass murders and he who stirreth up strife

4) All of us:  foster a healthier Spirit—yes, with a  capital S.  If the zeitgeist is currently one of taunts and trolls, anger and angst, invective and paranoia lets work to undo that.    Get off of social media, that slough of conspiracy theories, that echo chamber or hostility!   Be slow to anger and stop stirring it up.  And as far as Solomon’s “appeasement”  goes, it has been an unpopular word since 1939, but in the sense of “reconciliation” it’s one of the most important aspects of communal life, an essential part of the Sacrament of Forgiveness.  Let’s call it “getting along with others” and then it becomes something everyone can accept and work toward.  So let’s get started.



Peace in the Middle East Can Begin with Apologies

Today a BBC interview with Dr. Izzeldin Abueleish provided a much-needed wake up call to the world.   Dr. Abueleish lived in Gaza with his family in 2009 at the time when the Israeli army was striking back at the Palestinians. Two shells crashed into the bedroom of his house, killing 3 of his daughters and a niece while wounding several other family members.   Since then his mission has been to help end the violence that has engulfed the entire region. For him, a key part of this would be an apology from Israel, something he has not yet received.   Why would this be important? Because, he explains, it would be an acknowledgement that he and his family were not just the detritus of battle, worth no more than the rubble of a fallen building.  They were and are human beings, with all the dignity and value that entails.  This is the lesson that people in conflict forget time and time again. We dehumanize our opponents treating them as vermin or targets instead of  neighbors–real people, human beings.

It would have been so easy for the doctor to slide into a never-ending hatred of those responsible, but, as the old saying goes, hatred is like drinking a cup of poison and expecting your enemy to die. There has to be more, there has to be reconciliation, and for that there has to be a willingness on both sides to seek restorative justice and not retribution. It begins with the stories– the pain, the losses, the fear–all parties listening to the others,  humanizing what has been dehumanized.  Then there have to be apologies. It’s difficult to see why the Israeli government or military or both cannot say they are sorry for what happened to those girls in Gaza that day.  They claim they were firing on militants and maybe they were, but why should that make it more difficult to apologize?  Are they afraid of seeming weak?

Dr. Abueleish turned his back on hatred.  His way of dealing with his loss has been  to establish a foundation that encourages women from the Middle East to study at universities: Daughters for Life.  

He feels that educating young women is one of the keys to finding peace in the Middle East.  One of the keys.  There are so many.  But who can doubt that he’s right and applaud his efforts.


Charlottesville: In the Absence of Reason Try Reconciliation

Charlottesville goes down in history now. Once again we have people on both sides hell-bent on confrontation–shouting, raging,… you can almost hear their blood boiling as fists are clenched, the curses fly, and the trigger fingers start itching.

What an exercise in futility!   The anitfas are not going to change anyone’s mind this way.   They are just going to make more people on the margins become actively sympathetic to the alt-right.  We all know that the good people of Charlottesville did not want to let a white nationalist march go unchallenged, but where does this kind of angry challenge get us?  Innocent people dead and injured.

Ideally, rational people would sit down and talk about their differences and come to a way of working them out. But there comes a time when reason is absent, when people are so brainwashed, so ignorant, or so worked up they can’t think straight. What do you do then?

Suppose someone stands up in a meeting and says something outrageous, like “We should kill all the _________” (fill in the group of your choice).  There are several options for how to deal with it:

1) ignore it.

2) suppress it. We are loath to do that in our country because of the First Amendment.

3) shout them down. That’s what the counter-protesters were trying to do in Charlottesville.

4) indicate your disapproval publically but silently.   Stand up in the meeting and turn your back. Line the march with counter-protesters but silently fold your arms, shake your heads.

The fourth way is the best and is something I’ve heard the Quakers sometimes do. The third will almost surely lead to increasingly violent conflicts and ultimately deaths. It breathes oxygen into a smoldering fire.    The second way has its place, and every country in the world does outlaw certain kinds of speech, but this will lead to underground movements espousing forbidden causes. The first runs the risk of outrageous viewpoints spreading, which also is the case with the third.

This issue of the Confederate monuments is a difficult one. Of course Robert E. Lee was on the wrong side of history, defending a horrible institution, but is there a better way to go about this than rubbing the noses of the soldiers’ descendents in their defeat?

How about a competition to commemorate all sides in the War Between the States—more monuments to be placed near Lee’s, representing slavery, emancipation and most importantly, reconciliation.   I believe the leaders of Charlottesville are wise enough to realize that simply telling the alt-right to “Go home!” as the governor of Virginia did is not the answer. They ARE home and we have to live with them, just as they have to live with us.

see also Free Speech Rallies and Death in Portland and Confronting the Dark Side in Portland

Restorative Justice:The Sacrament of Forgiveness

The BBC reports this morning that a select committee of the British Parliament is recommending a bill that would enshrine into law the right to restorative justice.   This would allow victims of crimes to contact the perpetrators after trial and sentencing, and either meet them face-to-face or send letters in an effort to get beyond the rage and guilt, the nightmares and fears that often result. Those who have committed crimes may also initiate the contact.

Two very articulate parents appeared on the Newshour to explain how it worked. Their two sons had been in a fight. One son was killed and the other sent to the hospital with serious injuries. The three teenagers who attacked them were convicted of murder and sent to prison.   After two years, one of the teens was still having nightmares in prison and asked to meet the parents of the victims.   The parents were so full of anger that at first they could hardly think about it, but after some training on how the meeting would work, they agreed to go through with it. They went to a room in the prison and waited. When the prisoner walked through the door the first thing he did was go to the father and hug him. He turned to the mother and said, “May I?” and hugged her too. They talked. They got it all off their chests. It wasn’t easy, it wasn’t pretty, but as the mother said, “it turned a monster into a human being.” In the end, instead of anger there was compassion. They eventually met all three of the prisoners. When they reported back to their surviving son and urged him to give it a try he said he didn’t think he could meet face-to-face, but he wrote a letter. In it, he talked about his brother, how he would never be the best man at his wedding, never have kids….and at the end he wrote: “But I forgive you.”   Sending the letter transformed him.   He felt like he had been liberated, that he had thrown off some terrible, crushing weight.

This is the Sacrament of Forgiveness. In my book I give other examples of restorative justice, notably Desmond Tutu’s work in South Africa.   It won’t work all the time, but it can work. Violent crimes rob us of our personhood, our free will.  We feel violated right down to the core of our being and the consequences can be terrible.   Restorative justice is actually the restoring of our souls. It makes us human again.