Why violence is worse than other existential threats


“No more hurting people” - Martin Richard, 8, killed in Boston Marathon attack.

Violence: “The intentional use of physical force or power, threatened or actual, against oneself, another person, or against a group or community, that either results in or has a high likelihood of resulting in injury, death, psychological harm, maldevelopment, or deprivation.”

The World Health Organization’s World Report on Violence and Health states that violence is “among the leading causes of death among people aged 15-44 years worldwide, accounting for 14% of deaths among males and 7% of deaths among females.”

Millions of people lose their lives to violence and millions more are injured and maimed every year. What is infinitely disturbing is the myriad forms this violence takes and how pervasive and borderless it is. Across the globe and across the centuries, humans have committed the most barbaric acts, limited only by their imaginations, and the march of civilization has done little to change the grim reality that on any given day, in every corner of our planet, gruesome and ungodly things are done to women, children and men.

Growing up in Beirut during the 70s and early 80s, I witnessed terrible acts of violence, car bombs at markets and artillery strikes on residential neighborhoods, bloody bodies and corpses in the street, the carnage of urban warfare. I saw the darker aspects of human nature, the willingness of people to brutalize one another. After four decades on this planet, I still cannot fathom how a man can rape a baby, how people can gas, hack, strangle, shoot, bomb, smother, burn, and torture their fellow humans. Rather than become dulled and inured, I am ever more appalled and horrified by violence.

Preventing violence should be our highest priority. Tragically and deplorably, it is not. For every paroxysm of grief and shock over a mass killing, there is apathy in the face of events like this:

Denis Mukwege, a Congolese gynecologist, cannot bear to listen to the stories his patients tell him anymore. Every day, 10 new women and girls who have been raped show up at his hospital. Many have been so sadistically attacked from the inside out, butchered by bayonets and assaulted with chunks of wood, that their reproductive and digestive systems are beyond repair. “We don’t know why these rapes are happening, but one thing is clear,” said Dr. Mukwege, who works in South Kivu Province, the epicenter of Congo’s rape epidemic. “They are done to destroy women.”

Something like this should stop the world in its tracks, but it doesn’t:

Jessica Marie Lunsford was a nine-year-old girl who was abducted from her home in Homosassa, Florida in the early morning of February 24, 2005. … Couey entered Lunsford’s house through an unlocked door at about three o’clock in the morning, awakened Lunsford, told her “Don’t yell or nothing,” and told her to follow him out of the house. He admitted in a videotaped and recorded deposition to raping Lunsford in his bedroom. Lunsford was kept in Couey’s bed that evening, where he raped her again in the morning. Couey put her in his closet and ordered her to remain there, which she did as he reported for work at “Billy’s Truck Lot”. Three days after he abducted her, Couey tricked Jessica into getting into two garbage bags by saying he was going to ‘take her home’. He instead buried her alive as he decided he could do nothing else with the girl. According to the publicly released autopsy reports Lunsford had poked two fingers through the bags before suffocating to death.

Or this:

Turkish police have recovered the body of a 16-year-old girl they say was buried alive by relatives in an “honor” killing carried out as punishment for talking to boys. The girl, who has been identified only by the initials MM, was found in a sitting position with her hands tied, in a two-meter hole dug under a chicken pen outside her home in Kahta, in the south-eastern province of Adiyaman. … Media reports said the father had told relatives he was unhappy that his daughter – one of nine children – had male friends. The grandfather is said to have beaten her for having relations with the opposite sex. A postmortem examination revealed large amounts of soil in her lungs and stomach, indicating that she had been alive and conscious while being buried.

No fate seems more ghastly or any act more abhorrent than the kind of evil deeds described above. That these things occur every day, every hour, across the planet is horrific beyond words. That the world is largely apathetic about it is loathsome.

There is something qualitatively different, something worse about violence than other existential threats. It may be impossible to distinguish between the mortal terror of being trapped under a building in an earthquake and being trapped under a building after a car bomb, between the agony of death from cancer and being beaten to death. But there is a difference. We all die in some manner or another, but an act of human will, of intentionality, a choice by one person to harm another, is not the same as an act or accident of nature or a cruel vagary of fate. The immediacy, intentionality, and physicality of a violent act sets it apart, precisely because free will is involved, because it is a choice in the moment, because it is avoidable by virtue of being the will of a person.

Although the relative scale is disproportionate (vastly more people are at risk from hunger and disease) violence touches virtually everyone, directly or indirectly. Is there a single person reading this who hasn’t been affected by it in some way or who isn’t concerned about being harmed or having their loved ones harmed? In many ways, violence – the fear of it, the reality of it, its history, and its many representations/permutations in art, film, music, media and modern culture – defines our modern life.

I believe that the decision by an individual or group of individuals to destroy or inflict damage on others, to rob them of their freedom, to strip them of their dignity, to dehumanize them, is fundamentally worse than any other mortal threat we face. Violence is an affront to our souls, a stain on our humanity.

Should it be our top order of business to eradicate violence? Yes. Is it possible to do so? The report I referenced at the top of this piece is a good place to start.

Shocking and brutal crime in Canada: Colonel Russell Williams snuffs out a life on video


It’s easy to focus on the heinous treatment of girls and women in places like Somalia, Afghanistan and Congo, but we should never forget that women are brutalized by men in every corner of the world, across every social and economic group.

This story out of Canada is hideous beyond words:

A Canadian colonel who admitted to 86 lurid sex crimes videotaped the brutal rape and murder of a corporal under his command, a court heard on Tuesday.

Colonel Russell Williams, 47, a married pilot who once flew the jet used to ferry Canada’s prime minister as well as the British royal family on a visit, photographed and videotaped his repeated sexual assault over 4½ hours of Corporal Marie-France Comeau, the Crown said.

The killer cross-dressing colonel Russell Williams and one his victims, Jessica Lloyd.

Bruised, bloodied and limp, Corporal Comeau used her last breath to beg for her life, according to an audio tape played in court: “Have a heart. I’ve been good all my life. I don’t want to die.” “Shut up,” Williams responded before he taped her nostrils and her mouth closed and watched her suffocate.

Days before he killed her, he broke into her home and snapped 18 photographs of himself in her underwear and standing next to her pressed air force uniform. On the night of November 23, 2009, he left his office at the Trenton military base, parked his car outside her home, and listened in the dark to her telephone conversation using a sensitive sound-detecting device.

Williams then broke in through a basement window and attacked her. They struggled. He beat her nearly unconscious with a flashlight, tied her up and covered all of the windows in the house. She pleaded with him: “I don’t want to die. Leave me alone. I don’t want to die.” Afterwards, Williams washed her bed sheets and drove directly to Ottawa for a meeting with military brass.

He would later send a signed letter of condolence on behalf of the Canadian Forces to Corporal Comeau’s father – a 45-year veteran of the military.

Williams commanded Canada’s busiest air force base, the 437 Squadron in Trenton, east of Toronto, for more than a year before his arrest. Previously he was in charge of Canada’s secretive Camp Mirage in Dubai. He faces life in prison, with no possibility of parole for at least 25 years.

I could think of worse punishments for what he did.