The Climate of Violence
(Editorial in The Nation, 14 December 1963, pages 406–407)

      What is needed in the wake of the tragic events in Dallas is not a national psalm-singing, breast-beating revival. Nor will it suffice when spokesmen for the “good people” of Dallas confront the TV cameras to discuss the problem of rehabilitating the city’s “image.” Nor is it enough to bewail the number of “disturbed” individuals in our society and the need to help them. Rather, national attention should be focused on the disposition to violence which lurks so close to the surface, not merely in Dallas and other parts of the South, but in every section. There are always “disturbed” persons about, and of moral regeneration we will always stand in need. More to the point is the fact that much of today’s violence can be related to “official” attitudes and policies. A society that dedicates a large part of its energies, and the major part of the nation’s budget, to the creation of fantastic instruments of destruction, can hardly plead surprise if traditional taboos against violence begin to abate. Recently we have gravely discussed the possibility that we might have to kill several hundreds of millions of human beings. The discussion has been conducted at all levels, even by the nation’s religious leaders. When theologians assure us, as they have, that it is ethically proper to “gun down” a neighbor who might try to seek entry to one’s private family shelter, it is hardly surprising that a great many people might come to accept the notion that “violence” has its uses. Newsreel shots, and vividly colored picture-spreads in national magazines, about the charms of napalm bombings and other aspects of jungle warfare, including the slaughter of civilians, can hardly be expected to instill a reverence for human life. Stories of CIA cloak-and-dagger activities in various parts of the world, including successful plots to overthrow “unfriendly” regimes, are not likely to augment respect for the rule of law. One could make up a library of sermons, editorials and speeches which have not only advocated violence in international affairs, but have incited violence against citizens with whose views the inciters have not happened to agree. Throughout the South, of recent years, there has been a steady build-up of violence, with more and more incidents, each a bit ghastlier than the ones before. Girls in a Birmingham church are blown to fragments. A sniper kills a Negro from ambush. Mob violence disgraces a university campus. Acts of violence receive implicit sanction and approval by elected officials. Defiance of law and order is incited, though precept and example, by these same officials. And so it has gone. All of which suggests that it is not alone a mood of national “repentance” that is needed so much as it is a closer look at “the big picture” of war and preparation for war, of the steady preachment of violence in one form or another and in the eclipse of social idealism. It is easy enough to generate a mood of “unity” in the wake of the tragic death of the President and to call loudly for an end to bigotry and hatred and violence. More to the point would be an effort to change the social climate in which violence, if not actually encouraged, is still not generally abhorred.

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