A while ago I was reading Ken Follet’s The Pillars of the Earth. Set amidst the brutality of the English middle ages, it’s interesting to see how all Follet’s characters experience fear, and more interesting how they respond to it and how, oftentimes, they are controlled by it, particularly the most violent of them, and how weak it ultimately makes those who wish to appear strong. The strongest of his characters? Fear — overcoming their fear — makes them stronger.
One morning, while reading Pillars, a friend posted this Peter Gabriel song, Mother of Violence, which deftly describes so many moments in human history, and the personal history of every one of us if we are honest with ourselves. I often refer to music as my philosophy 101 and this song came to me in the summer of ’83, even supplying the theme to a philosophy paper that year as I returned to school after a 3-year hiatus. A number of other Gabriel tunes were important influences on my thinking and worldview, both as a solo artist and from his earlier incarnation as frontman to Genesis.
Don’t make any sense to watch the way she breed.
Fear, she’s the mother of Violence,
Making me tense to watch the way she feed.
The only way you know she’s there
Is the subtle flavor in the air.
Getting hard to breathe,
Getting hard to believe in anything at all
I sing along with these stanzas and am immediately reminded how, in the weeks following 911, fear was so disengenuously used to propel much of the West into the middle-east misadventure of the second Iraq war. In the ’80s, a similar kind of fear moved US foreign policy to back the Mujahadeen in Afghanistan, which, eventually, resulted in the rise of the Taliban. Moreover, it elevated a regime of fear and violence that continues to dominate Afghanistan’s affairs.
Fear and violence. A cycle. A circle. A whirlpool. It quickly builds an inertia that seems all but unstoppable.
But it can be stopped, and it can be stopped without violence…it can only be stopped when fear and violence are outstripped by the desire for peace. Look no further than Northern Ireland, where leaders who once vowed mayhem on one another now preach for peaceful resolutions to historic differences.
We are in the midst of an Olympics. I grew up in a world where the Olympics were a proving ground for the validity of a political system. Growing up in the United States, there was always an element of fear that motivated our need as a nation to beat the “Russkies”, because to lose was to fall behind, to lose was to believe that the dominoes might fall across our own border, to lose was to invite the central fear of the Cold War era, which was never too far from my own thoughts, the fear of Armageddon.
That seems like a dream now, almost as if it never happened. The Olympics are now something they never were through my youth in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s. Yes, there is nationalism, even jingoism, but there is also a sense of friendly competition among friendly nations that I never had growning up. And so long as we can continue to overcome our fear, and not allow ourselves to be controlled by it, then we can continue to be a globe populated, largely, by nations that compete primarily for the joy and pleasure of competition, rather than the political capitol perceived to go to the victor, rather than out of a fear of failure.
And I like to think that, perhaps, this new Olympic spirit is a little more indicative of our world view. We still have a ways to go, but, perhaps Northern Ireland Secretary, Shaun Wood, said it fairly well just last year, after a militant group killed two soldiers.
Perhaps the events in Northern Ireland can be an inspiration to us who believe there is much change yet to come in the world, and we’ll understand that those who preach violence as a solution are simply criminals.