The bombings at the Boston Marathon raise a central question. Why, after centuries of fruitless war and genocide, does the human race continue to use violence as a means to settle conflict? Women are less inclined to employ it, but they are by no means immune, (“An Appetite for Aggression,” by Roland Weierstall, Maggie Schauer and Thomas Elbert, Scientific American Mind, May/June 2013 pgs 47-49.)
Researchers have a partial answer to my question. Their findings suggest that two types of violence reside within us. The first occurs when we are forced to defend ourselves from brutality. The second, appetitive aggression, is the feeling of superiority we experience when we have the ability to inflict pain at will. Unfortunately, the latter form of violence is both addictive and pleasurable, resulting in behavior of the kind we’ve seen at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo.
Oddly enough, meat consumption may have played its part in our capacity for appetitive violence. Eating wild game nourished our brains and increased our mental capacity, but it also unleashed a taste for violence that drew no distinction between animal prey and humans. Any restraint we developed came from living within tribes where cooperation was required for mutual survival. Those outside the tribe, “the other,” commanded no similar consideration. (Ibid, pg. 48.) They were deemed less than human. This mindset, which we’ve carried down through the ages, has allowed some of us to rationalize unspeakable atrocities, like the Holocaust.
What happened on 9/11 or in Boston has no justification. But we Americans would do well to root out instances of “appetitive” violence within our society. Let us discourage any inclination to see cultures different from own as “the other.” We can begin by changing our language. When our drones kill innocent people abroad, let us insist upon seeing those maimed or dead as victims and not as “collateral damage.”
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