Browse Content by Topic:
Perspective: Rage, Hatred & Human Violence: By Another Road
Author: John Christopher Fine
Copyright: 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content
In the aftermath of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, 9-1-1 Magazine columnist and former Senior District Attorney John C. Fine shares his perspective on the nature of modern violence and the dark road that leads toward these kinds of tragedies.
Judge James M. Yeargin was a tall, lean man. He spent his career, after law school, as an Assistant District Attorney first in the fabled office of District Attorney Thomas E. Dewey then under Frank S. Hogan. Jim Yeargin was appointed to the Criminal Court bench where he presided over thousands of trials. We would work night court together every so often when our shifts coincided. Nights in the Criminal Courts of New York County reveal everything about society. Tragedy, evil, and sadness mixed with the human comedy and the ironic interludes when some almost innocent dilemma gets thrown into the mix of danger.
On those nights in Criminal Court, recess was a welcome break from the long shift, during which a stream of humanity, victims and creators of violence, came before us. I, there to represent the interests of the People of the State of New York; Judge Yeargin there to arraign the accused. During recess, we would have coffee in the austere little room behind the court that served as the Judge’s chambers.
Judge Yeargin would treat court officers, clerks, Assistant DAs, and legal aid lawyers to coffee and pastries from the nearby twenty-four hour deli. I will always remember one of our conversations of long ago. “I think all of this violence on television and in the movies is the cause of so much wrong that we see in young people today,” Judge Yeargin said.
I sipped my coffee from a paper cup and recalled the yearning I had watching cowboy shows on television. Sure there were shoot-‘em-ups and plenty of violence, but there was also justice.
“I watched plenty of cowboy movies,” I told the judge. He nodded wisely then returned to a theme that was on his mind, something that seemed to haunt him. It wasn’t a philosophical discussion. Judge Yeargin had seen it all, both as an Assistant DA where he served 20 years in the Homicide Bureau and as a Criminal Court Judge. He was a black man, grandson of a North Carolina slave, brought up in an era of prejudice, even on the ‘liberal’ streets of New York.
The recurring violence he had to deal with, sit in judgment of, and sort out every day had this night put Judge Yeargin in a mood that spilled over into my thinking. As a kid I had my little holster and cap pistol, cowboy hat and toy horse. My love of horses began at my earliest recollection even before I watched cowboy shows on TV. How could anyone not be able to discriminate between what came onto a movie or television screen and the hurt caused in real life when violence is actually caused to another person, I thought.
Another friend had a similar disturbing comment. It came years later, after a space in time between my days sitting in Judge Yeargin’s chambers and John Constandy’s prediction of violence to come. John Constandy left the New York County DA’s office to become Chief Counsel to the Senate Permanent Sub-Committee on Investigations. We served together in the U.S. State Department. He loved movies. He could go to the movies every night. The night before his comment he went to a black theater in Washington, DC. The movie was geared to black teens.
“You can’t imagine the violence on the screen and the hatred the movie espoused. It described killing whites, killing cops…” His description of the film was vivid. He, as a white man, sat in the back of the balcony. Not only did he describe the violence portrayed in the film, he described audience reaction every time violence was portrayed and a victim was killed.
“They cheered. The whole audience of young men cheered this abject violence. Every time a person was murdered they cheered and jumped up and down in their seats,” John Constandy related.
Neither man had ever seen computer games nor the advent of young children transfixed, clicking hand-held devices that kill on demand. Even cartoons depict violence. From an earliest age children are exposed to, and likely numbed by, violence. Automatic weapons destroy opponents. Games, surely, yet preludes to desensitization in a world beset by real violence.
As we look around our world we see many examples of abject violence and hatred. Societal violence is prevalent now at a time when technology, science and medicine are at their zenith. With the ability to achieve the most amazing progress with matter, why do little Israeli children suffer wounds from exploding rockets sent into the air by Palestinian children who see the act as anonymous hatred against someone they do not even know. How could Soviet forces release bombs on innocent Afghani villages killing little children whose lives were just beginning. In a modern world, how has the turmoil in Congo continued so that infants are murdered savagely by child soldiers, themselves only teenagers taught to hate and taught to kill. How could a world stand by while Khmer Rouge killer squads, made up of children, murdered two million people in Cambodia.
Do child soldiers recognize the violence they perpetrate? Hacking off limbs, shooting women and children? Why do children believe they will attain the kingdom of heaven as martyrs by carrying bombs into market places where other children tag along with their mothers buying what their families need to live that day? Can Irish Catholics and Irish Protestants continue to hate while they pray to the same God for forgiveness?
It is the paradox of societal living that humans love as well as hate. A member of the National Guard was taken from his family to serve in Iraq. “He has come home hating Arabs. That is so unlike him. He has never hated anyone…” the soldier’s wife told me.
What is it in the human make up that enables organized violence? Ellie Wiezel pondered that question when he spoke about Germany as the most advanced nation on Earth at the time of a Holocaust that saw 6 million Jews exterminated by the Nazis. This included innocent children whose lives had not even blossomed, torn from their mothers and murdered.
Today’s movies and television have increased violence. Special effects bring massive explosions and blood into people’s homes and lives with advanced technology hardly reminiscent of the Shootout at the OK Corral. The six-shooter has been replaced by high-tech weapons.
Crimes of passion and individual acts of violence will always plague society. That has been the case from the description of Cain and Able. What has changed is societal acceptance of violence as a way of life. Houses of worship teach peace but churches in the name of religion urge war and create an atmosphere that encourages violent hatred. If it were Hindu-Muslim violence in India or Communist-Tibetan strife in the Himalayas or power struggles in Africa, the escalation of violence has created a world at war.
I have been in the midst of many wars. It is the children that have suffered most. So innocent and vulnerable; some so hungry that their little bodies were wracked with disease and suffering. This month, young children in a Connecticut hamlet, with all the privilege of life and love around them, were deprived of their future. Lives eradicated by a person who was little more than a child himself. Parents are bereaved with grief at the loss of these innocents. Politicians mouth words of sympathy; posturing pundits seek to blame.
There was violence and prejudice and fear so long ago when wise men were sent out by a king to find a child ordained to become a savior. Guided by a star they ventured forth with gifts. Somehow they knew the king intended not homage but death for the child. Because they were wise men, they left by another road. To reveal the child’s whereabouts would have meant his death.
Does anything explain violence or hatred? I have spoken to child soldiers as I treated their wounds. I have spoken to terrorist bombers after they were apprehended by our investigations. I have spoken to criminals who have committed murder. In the quiet of the aftermath they are not raving lunatics. They were not, after the fact, violent people that would harm me if they could. They were quite ordinary. The thing that propelled their violence was extraordinary. Whatever means they used at the time, had one instrument of death been deprived them, they would have found another.
Bombs are easy to make (indeed a kitchen cook book was produced giving anarchists instructions). Millions of firearms of every description are available for a price, legal and not. No government will ever eliminate illicit traffic in arms. After the U.S. defeat in Vietnam, the third largest air force in the world was left behind and U.S.-made mines and explosives were everywhere. With the defeat of Communism in totalitarian Soviet society, weapons came up for sale to anyone that had money.
Perhaps Judge Yeargin may have been right. Violence on television, computer games and in movies may instill a mindset among young people. That is unless love, respect, and tolerance are taught instead.
John Christopher Fine served as Senior Assistant District Attorney in New York County. He was the Assistant Attorney General In Charge, Organized Crime Task Force and served various state and federal law enforcement and investigative agencies. He is the author of 24 books and remains a consultant to law enforcement on national security issues and organized crime, and a frequent contributor to 9-1-1 Magazine.