As I look back across the years and over the landscape of my childhood, one egregious figure visible on the distant field is the school bully. We all know this character well, don’t we, and have our own particularized recollections of the species. Nor do bullies pertain only to our childhoods. If only that were so. And yet there was a time in my life I had thought myself past the age at which considerations of the bully were necessary. I would soon realize I was wrong.
As a young adult, I hadn’t yet grasped that the bully was an organizing principle in my intellectual and moral development. It isn’t the case that my childhood was unpleasant — quite the contrary. I had a rich imaginative life and was materially well-off. I had a good degree of freedom, and grew up in a time when today’s multiple parenting nightmares, from food allergies to abduction, had not yet been dreamt. I would say I was happy. But I also knew a few things about bullies — what they looked like and what they looked for, how they behaved, what they were after, and what they were willing to do to get it. Not that bullies are all the same in all details. Some merely seek out an opportunity to dominate others. But some bullies of the Aaron McKinney sort seek out the pleasure of witnessing the suffering and torment of others, rendered even more delicious by the awareness that they themselves have brought it about. (If you require evidence of the furthest depths to which such bullying depravity can plumb, consider a description here of a vicious example provided by Saddam Hussein in the form of a videotaped epidsode of his extreme sadism.) Through this poisoned root, the bully takes his nourishment.
It happens now and then that there is a public event which takes you by the throat and thereby compels you to pay attention. It’s as if everything else recedes into a fog and you are confronted by this One Inexplicable Thing. A something that you cannot digest in the guts of your mental life. For me such a list would include the February 1989 fatwa (or death threat) issued by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini against Salman Rushdie, the December 1989 École Polytechnique massacre, and the September 2001 attacks. There are many other horrible events you may feel belong in this list, among them the 1994 “Hutu Power” Rwandan and the 1995 Srebrenica genocides, the Columbine high school massacre, the Taliban takeover and terrorization of Afghanistan, and the Darfur genocide. However, this is a personal list which reflects events that I would say had the most profound effect on my inner mental and moral life.
I was a University student two days from my twenty-fourth birthday when I heard about the École Polytechnique shootings on December 6, 1989. I won’t rehearse the details of that night, which in any case may be easily acquired elsewhere. The first reflective question which occurred to me, shortly after the initial shock of the news, was What would I have done if I had been there? I thought about that question at great length (and still think about it) and came to understand it would be dishonest even to suggest I could give an answer. Perhaps the better question, at which I arrived later, is: If it comes to that, what do I hope I will do? At least this is a question which acknowledges the usual gap between what one thinks or hopes and what is.
It may have occurred to many other men to have asked that question. You’ll recall in the ensuing months after the murders of fourteen women there was some discussion of the inaction of men on that night. Why did no one “stop” Marc Lépine? René Jalbert seemed to have recognized that while something perhaps could have been done — a distraction or engagement, which presumably one of the men could have brokered — such an expectation required a rare act of heroism. Some tried to make of the general lack of male resistance an illustrative point, suggesting that masculinity itself had been exposed and found deficient. Nathalie Provost did not agree with this interpretation, and addressed the very important matter of guilt by stating in effect that nothing could have been done to prevent the killing. It’s not my present concern even to try and sort this question out. Or rather, it is to consider the matter of responsibility in a more personal way.
As he prepared for his imminent execution (for the crimes of ἀσέβεια [ungodliness] and corrupting the youth), Socrates was asked about fear of death. He suggested that he had overcome this fear by fearing something else even more, which was to have realized that he had lived his life wrongly. I first read this some years ago, and it has stayed with me ever since as a vital principle. Would I prefer to live at any cost — as a coward, a spineless person of no principle, a nebbish? Or would living become unpleasant, even hateful, knowing I had stood for nothing except my corporeal perpetuation? Of course, life may never require of us to stand as Socrates stood, on principle and at the cost thereby of one’s life. But, to repeat the question posed earlier by the Montreal Massacre, what if it so happens that it does … ?
My greatest fear is to arrive at that moment and be discovered a coward. That’s not quite overcoming fear of death, but it does give me a bit of weight with which to bias the bowl. I hope always to steer myself toward principles, the foremost among them being the principle of standing up to bullies, in whatever form I apprehend them. This is a visceral thing with me, rooted in my childhood experiences. Eventually I did apply the Socratic method of overcoming a fear and stood up to bullies. In the intervening years I’ve never had occasion to think this a mistake, although I’m mindful of the line dividing courage and recklessness. (Or to put it another way: Do you know who you’re messing with? Likely a poser, but one is never sure at the time.) And so I stand now, in my small way, against today’s adult bullies.
On this principle, and with researched and often deliberated arguments, I have supported or support the following: recognition of the Armenian genocide, the disposal of Saddam Hussein’s Ba’athist dictatorship and the establishment of the autonomous federal entity of Iraqi Kurdistan, the war in Afghanistan and the liberation of Kabul from the Taliban (and resistance and opposition generally to Islamic fascism), defence of the Bosnian Muslims against Serbian fascists, interventions in Darfur and Rwanda and East Timor and Tibet, sanctions against the current Iranian regime (including military intervention if necessary), defence of the Palestinians against the dirty ideology of Eretz Israel, and of course defence of the rights of my own group, the Haudenosaunee, whose struggles I see reflected in the struggles of oppressed and displaced peoples worldwide.
Really? you say. A life of war? Yes, quite possibly so. But note that I place the charge for endless war to the account of the bullies. It is not my choice to make wars: it is theirs. And note that they intend to bring them to your doorstep. The alternative to standing up to the bully today is to stand by and watch the slaughter, which in many cases will not prevent deaths (as the “anti-war” advocates seem to believe) but to ensure their occurrences in greater numbers. And afterward the survivors will bear the crushing fact, generation upon generation, that the “international community” witnessed the horror and saw it fit to do nothing whatsoever.
If only we had no General Ratko Mladić, no Kim Jong-il, no Osama bin Laden. But we do have them, and they will not go quietly into the night. Or if they do, it will only be because we had allowed them to superannuate, having been given a lifetime’s free hand to make certain that many others, against their will, have gone before them.
Categories: Personal Essay