Friday, March 03, 2006


In recent decades the phrase “cycle of violence” has become popular among academics and politically active celebrities. These words are typically employed when speaking about groups that blow up wedding parties and behead civilian hostages. By contrast, in these same intellectual circles the term “evil” is reserved for corporate executives and Presidents of the wrong political party—that is, for verbal targets who don’t fire back with live ammunition.

The phrase “cycle of violence” has several advantages. First, it transforms discrete acts of murder, retribution, or self-defense into an impersonal pattern. Rather than talking about particular persons who are guilty of specific crimes, this popular phrase encourages us to focus on a revolving door of mayhem in which hapless victims have been “caught up.”

(In similar fashion, individuals who promote cultural depravity are hidden behind “pendulum swings” that invisibly move public taste from the pole labeled Bing Crosby and “Leave It To Beaver” to one named “Two and a Half Men” and Eminem.)

The phrase “cycle of violence” thus excludes from one’s imagination the idea that certain groups and individuals might have greater responsibility than others for initiating or exacerbating hostilities. Messy details about what groups believe and how they talk about their opponents are shunted to the side.

Moreover, the proper solution to a “cycle of violence” is simple. Just intervene at any point in the flow of events to break the historical momentum. According to this paradigm, a tranquil equilibrium will automatically emerge once “the cycle” has been stopped. By picturing circumstances in this way one achieves a certain moral equivalence. Names disappear as attention is focused on a malevolent maelstrom that transcends human responsibility.

Several years ago a similar point of view was employed (in similar circles) when the arms race between America and the Soviet Union was discussed. If the U.S. unilaterally froze its weapon production, then the “cycle” would be broken and harmony would emerge. A more infantile version of this idea was promoted under the Sleep-In for Peace label.

In short, “cycle of violence” language excuses us from the task of distinguishing between force used to counter evil and violence employed to propagate evil. Indeed, it mindlessly places the actions of law enforcement officers and gang members in the same category. Most of all, this phrase makes it unnecessary to resist evil or even to take it seriously.

Almost half a century ago Hannah Arendt, speaking of the Nazi war criminal, Adolf Eichmann, observed that sophisticated opinion wished only to condemn trends “so general that distinctions [could] no longer be made.” I imagine that she would find today’s “cycle of violence” crowd (a group that includes “Munich” producer Steven Spielberg) as morally confused as the intellectuals she took to task.

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