The Violence Trap Part 5: A Violent Myth

There is a lie we all believe: violence stops violence. Some even take it further proposing that violence prevents violence. There’s even a term for it: The Myth of Redemptive Violence. It has become a common story model from ancient legends through modern action movies.

The Babylonian creation myth is one of the oldest examples. It begins in chaos with warring gods and heroes. The worst of them oppress the gods and thrives on breaking the rules. Eventually, one god steps up with a plan – he will defeat the antagonist in exchange for the right to rule above all of the other gods. The agreement is made and absolute power is given to this one god who proceeds to annihilate his foes with increasingly creative and gory methods of sadistic vengeance. Once evil is conquered, this violent god creates the world from the corpse of his greatest enemy. Babylonian mythology teaches how humanity’s existence was built upon brutality – that the violence of the gods redeemed us.

When I was a kid, my favorite show was The A-Team. Unjustly disgraced war veterans make a living as soldiers of fortune, rescuing the oppressed while evading military police.

image courtesy of NBC

Like many episodic shows of the era, The A-Team’s plot followed the same formula from one week to the next. The team worked as mercenaries, hired by people that were in trouble with an array of villainous villains: religious cults, corrupt cops, drug runners, Vegas mobsters, street gangs. Their first attempts usually failed so they hatched a new plan. There was a montage of them MacGyvering a collection of weaponry and modifying BA’s GMC creeper van – all set to epic 80’s action music. This was followed by an all-out assault on the bad guys, their clients were freed from their troubles, and the A-Team walked away heroes just before they could be arrested by the authorities.

The A-Team was one of the most violent shows on television at the time – despite no depiction of bloody wounds or bruises, and the team never killed anyone. The show also perpetuated the myth of redemptive violence. Episode after episode, they confirmed the idea that the weak and powerless could only be saved by an onslaught of machine gunnery and gratuitous explosions. It taught that a peaceful resolution was impossible and an exercise of brute force solved all problems.

We continue to see this myth in superhero movies. Superman defeated General Zod but half of Metropolis was destroyed in their battle. Destruction follows The Avengers wherever they go, from Manhattan, to Malibu, to Sokovia to fight off the threats of demigods, aliens, madmen, and killer robots. Even Captain America and Iron Man viciously pummeled each other over a difference of ideals.

In the real world, we flex military muscle. These days, we engage in preemptive conflict – the absurd notion that we can prevent war with war. We believe that the only way to conquer our enemies is to destroy them. We don’t even restrict our wars to foreign battlefields. We bring it home to our own turf. Rival gangs. Drunken bar-room brawls. Clashes between protesters and police. Martin Luther King Jr – the advocate of peaceful protests repeatedly said, “A riot is the language of the unheard.”

We believe that mightily overcoming the enemy is the solution we need, but instinctively we know it isn’t true. We know that violence does not bring peace. Violence creates greater violence. This is proven if you’ve ever seen a pair of junior high kids get into a fight. It starts with an insult, then a comeback. The invectives and name-calling escalate into threats. Soon one bumps into the other and the other pushes back. Push comes to shove and the shoves become more and more potent until someone throws a punch. Left to their own devices, the retaliatory punches continue until both are rolling on the ground kicking and pulling hair and choking each other.

In theory, we think that violence redeems us, but in practice, violence is a mold that spreads exponentially. Jay-Z knew this to be true. In his song ‘Justify My Thug,’ Jay-Z rapped, “Now if you shoot my dog, I'ma kill yo' cat. Just the unwritten laws in rap. Know that for every action there's a reaction.” In essence, his words are a warning. If you push me, I punch back. If you step on my shoes, I’ll burn your house down. You injure me, I’ll bury you. Jay-Z knew that life is much more primal – that retaliation will always be bigger than the originating offense.

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