I think a lot about violence. This will come as no surprise to those who know me. For more years that I would like to admit I have been involved, as a practitioner, in amateur boxing. These days I still spar regularly. Now I am mostly fighting middle age. I know what it’s like to be hit. And what it’s to hit another person. Power is the ability to make someone do what I want him to do and violence is a form of power. Each boxer seeks to impose his will on the other.

Power comes in many different shapes and forms. It is often subtle. Sometimes it is the power of peer expectations. This power is obvious to me in living with students in New South and working with second year students in the College Dean’s office. The power of peer or family expectations can shape how we live, what we study or what we aspire to become. Power also comes in the form of the power of the majority – which can be tyrannical. We pass a law to make people do what we think they ought to do. In its crudest form, power is violent. I make someone bend to my will because I am bigger, stronger or smarter in the use of force, than he or she is.

Now there are many people who have thought about the use of violence. A problem with power is that as soon as someone comes along with more power, I lose. There are some who would argue for a position of pacifism. There are others who have argued that there are certain circumstances when violence can be morally appropriate. This is a view that I would share. When someone threatens the life of another, person to person or nation to nation, we should act to protect the innocent. In those circumstances, violence ought to be the last resort. A person or a nation should have exhausted all measures before turning to the use of violence. All too often, on the personal level or in the international arena, it seems that violence is the first resort, not the last. This is all too often the case on our own campus.

One of the important developments in contemporary warfare is that we have very sophisticated technology to wage our wars and do violence. Much of our warfare is done with weapons of destruction that keep us at a safe distance. We don’t see the destruction these weapons do. War then becomes like a video game or a television show. And now, with a volunteer army, we don’t have to worry about the personal cost of violence. So, in many ways, we have made the violence of warfare safe, clean and distant from our personal experience. It costs us nothing to be in favor of a war.

I once had an acquaintance who would often get in trouble with his peers. He usually did so when he had consumed too much alcohol. His bravery did not come only from the alcohol, since he would only act this way when I was around and could fight his battles for him. He was reckless. Starting arguments and fights didn’t cost him anything. That was an acquaintanceship in my life that was short lived.

The distance and safety given to us by technology and the professional armed forces can make us morally reckless. Few of us have the experience of serving in the armed forces or witnessing violence and destruction first hand, let alone or seeing someone die. Seeing someone die violently, in front of you, changes you forever. I know. In contemporary America all of the details of war and violence are done by others and at a safe distance. There is no cost for most of us. And, I think this distance makes us less thoughtful, morally, about war and violence.

When violence is used without sufficient justification, the one who wields the power becomes like the bully on the playground. The bully will be feared until another comes along who is bigger, stronger, and able to dominate the bully. The bully who uses violence is very different than the kid, who will lead, not command, the other kids on the playground.

Today many people in the world, including our friends, think that America is more like the bully on the playground than the leader. Many people think that the issue is not about security but about oil. What to do? One American leader, I think, got it right when he said: “It really depends on how our nation conducts itself in foreign policy. If we’re an arrogant nation, they’ll resent us. If we’re a humble nation, but strong, they’ll welcome us.” These are the words of President George W. Bush in the second presidential debate of 2000. They might be a moral compass for all of us now.

Fr. Kevin Wildes, S.J. is an associate dean in the College. As This Jesuit Sees It… appears on Fridays.

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