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Violence is akin to an addict’s quick fix —

Where does the
come from?

by Francis Underhill

In my last column (American Diplomacy, Spring 1998), I explained why I think war is now obsolete for modern, industrialized states. I left for another day my companion belief: that states are more threatened by violence generated internally than by warfare between nations.

A glance at our world today produces plenty of supporting evidence for my thesis. None of the modernized states are at war and there are no significant cross-border conflicts going on. Yet the world is awash in violence, virtually all within national boundaries: Algeria, Northern Ireland, the former Yugoslavia, Egypt, Liberia, Congo Brazzaville, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Iraq, Myanmar. The killing is made worse by the modern arms provided by the advanced countries, but clubs and machetes work well on a smaller scale.

It is tragically ironic that the violence is the evil flip-side of one of humanity’s great qualities, the capacity to perceive differences. The richness of human culture rests on it. Without the ability to see distinctions, to judge between good, better, and best, we would have a gray, monochrome world without literature, art, architecture or morality. “Discrimination is the mark of an educated person,” was a favorite observation of my college philosophy professor.

But when discrimination is directed at racial, religious, and ethnic differences, it can produce hatred and stimulate violence. Passions are often inflamed by brutal, bloody-minded politicians seeking to ride them to power.

There seems to be a universal human need to distinguish between them and us, to have a group to look down on, ridicule, blame, and abuse. We have seen this in all the countries where we lived in the Foreign Service, even those with the most homogeneous populations. In a benign form it produces a genre of jokes designed to show the comic stupidity of the denigrated group, Polish jokes in America, Irish jokes in Britain, Cholla (the southwestern home province of Korea’s new president) jokes in Korea, South Dakota jokes in Montana.

Violence is also directed against our government in the United States. For the first century of our existence as a nation, the functions of the federal government were limited. It fulfilled the Jeffersonian ideal that a government that governs least, governs best. It provided defense from outside attack. It provided essential public works such as roads and harbors. It helped finance the construction of canals and the expansion of the railroad system, but little else.

By the end of the nineteenth century, however, it was clear that a broader, more active role was needed. Modernization and industrialization had created large concentrations of economic power in the U. S. steel, oil, railroad, and banking industries that were exploiting and violating the public interest. The use of adulterants and preservatives in canned and prepared foods was almost universal. The average daily menu was found to contain forty different chemicals and dyes. Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle (1906) revealed the loathsome conditions in the Chicago stockyards. Manufacturers of poisonous patent medicines made misleading and false claims for their nostrums.

Wasteful, prodigal, unthinking exploitation of America’s natural resources was proceeding unchecked. Hundreds of millions of tons of coal were wasted by poor mining methods, hundreds of millions of barrels of oil wasted by criminally reckless drilling. Billions of cubic feet of natural gas were allowed to escape and fifty percent of the annual timber cut was lost through inefficiency.

These conditions produced anti-trust legislation, railroad control acts, pure food and drug laws, work-safety standards, and conservation measures. The regulatory role for the government was not the creation of power hungry federal bureaucrats, but undertaken in response to overwhelming popular demand. It was pushed by a Republican president, Theodore Roosevelt, against the vigorous opposition of those he described as “malefactors of great wealth.” It saved American capitalism from itself.

The government’s regulatory role in a modernized economy is essential. Private enterprise is innovative, efficient, and cost effective, but the market is ethically blind. Only the government, responsible to the people, can strike a balance between social needs and private gain. The individual is helpless in the face of the concentrations of corporate power. We need government to insure that airplanes and cars are safe, that our bank deposits are secure, that our drugs are effective, that the air we breath and the water we drink won’t poison us.

Bill Clinton proclaimed over a year ago that the era of big government was over. But it clearly isn’t over. Big government is necessary to confront big corporate power, but like all big organizations, it can misuse its power and become unfeeling and arbitrary. The saving difference is that these aberrations can be corrected at the ballot box.

The American people are ambivalent about government. Many cling to the Jefferson ideal, bewail government bigness, and demonize the tax collector. At the same time, they expect the government to provide protection and a wide range of support and services. Former senator William Cohen, now secretary of defense, has said, “The government is my enemy until I need a friend.”

Population pressures have intensified the need for social controls. In a more crowded environment, exercise of one person’s rights and freedoms can more easily impinge on and damage the rights and freedoms of others. Hostility to the controls that protect the freedoms of all have produced the militia groups, the revived Ku Klux Klan, skin heads, and white separatists who are armed and openly advocate violence.

Violence has been given a wash of respectability by politicians who live in the center of big government, enjoy lavish single-payer medical benefits, a princely retirement scheme, and who regularly brand the government as evil and oppressive. They are then shocked and outraged that a share of responsibility should be traced to them when their words are translated into action at Ruby Ridge, Waco, Oklahoma City, and Jordan, Montana.

I have no solution to this worldwide problem, but I offer the thought, scarcely original with me, that violence can be viewed as an addiction. Violent actions can give a quick, temporary sense of having effected necessary change. There is a tendency toward irrational belief everywhere that more of the same will solve problems, whatever they might be. Violence therefore inherently tends to escalate, more’s the pity.

© Copyright 1998 by Francis Underhill. All rights reserved.

[Author Francis Underhill]

Ambassador Underhill, now retired from the U.S. Foreign Service at Flat Rock, N. C., frequently contributes to this journal. The above opinion piece is adapted from a column originally published in the Hendersonville, N. C. Times-News of January 28, 1998. Republished by permission of the author.


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