No37 October 1999.5
The Heritage of Violence
In a surgical unit, as many as twenty persons spend hours trying to save a single sick person, lavishing upon him all their knowledge and dedication. But at the same time, in the very same moment perhaps, a single man with a machine gun is mowing down twenty perfectly healthy persons.
We are all aware of these contradictions. Human persons have two hands, one for holding out to the other and one for striking him; two feet also, one for going to the other's help, one for crushing him. We have only one heart, but that too is divided, between peace and violence.
No doubt the whole society is not violent. But there is a vicious portion which engenders violence among its children.
North America aspires in principle to be a peaceful society. But it contradicts such an aspiration by the perverted message transmitted by the media. By the age of thirteen, a young person will already have witnessed on the television screen 8,000 murders and 20,000 assaults. By the time he is eighteen, an American will have seen 40,000 murders on the television or cinema screen.
We cannot deny that there are many people who find violence attractive. Watching "Action-videos" is a popular relaxation. Such productions sell well and the industry is flourishing. Everyone knows Rambo. Children brought up in this culture of violence are particularly vulnerable because they are incapable of understanding its consequences. Many studies have shown that children are naturally inclined to imitate what they see on television. They live in a climate in which inhibitions have vanished.
We might think of the funeral of Pearl Rushford-Lamarre, killed by five youths from Chambly (Quebec) last September. The parish priest, Gilles Menard, blamed videos and Nintendo games.
Then there are the scenes of horror daily portrayed on American television in which young people assault and kill apparently without scruple. The tragedy in Littleton, Colorado, last April, in which twenty-five people lost their lives in a senseless massacre, was a typical example. It pushed President Clinton into mounting a campaign to ban firearms, but he was frustrated by the arms lobby. A kind of trench warfare is now being fought, although a poll conducted by Newsweek showed that 74% of those questioned were in favour of the registration of firearms.
Abuse in the sale of firearms is a world problem and certainly not confined to North America. The countries of the Third World are flooded with weapons, each new generation more murderous than its predecessor. The arms trade is a flourishing department of commerce and a major support of the economies of Western countries.
In his encyclical Ecclesia in Africa Pope John-Paul II wrote: "Those who encourage wars in Africa by the sale of arms are accomplices in abominable crimes against humanity. These sales are a scandal for they sow the seeds of war." All the modern conflicts, in Liberia and Rwanda, in Cambodia and Guatemala, in Kashmir and East Timor, are envenomed by these man-killing instruments, produced by impersonal and heartless multi-national companies to give rebels and tyrants the means of crucifying innocent people.
Unfortunately these massacres are too often perpetrated by young people who lack either activities or challenges. Destabilised by the contemporary pseudo-liberalism, spending their time surfing the internet, such persons are ripe for hire by anyone willing to offer attractive terms. Having lost faith and idealism, they now shed their illusions. Some governments even encourage the young in this work of self-destruction by putting arms into the hands of thousands of child-soldiers. The United Nations estimates that about 300,000 children under the age of eighteen are recruited and exploited by the armed forces in more than thirty conflicts in Africa, Asia and Latin America. In addition twenty million children have been displaced by war. Since 1987, two million children have died in situations of armed conflict and six million have been seriously injured. Society has robbed them of their youth and only too often of their life as well.
Kofi Annan, Secretary General of the United Nations, wrote recently: "If Africans received the same support as the inhabitants of Kosovo, Africa would have a real chance of emerging from its violence. Its child-soldiers could become useful members of society if they had schools to go to and the possibility of work later on. If the hopes for peace were translated into reality, so many things in Africa could be quickly constructed or reconstructed."
Canada contributed towards the formation of a coalition, established in June 1998, dedicated to working for a world-wide ban on child-soldiers. A Panafrican Conference on the demobilisation of children will shortly take place in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo. The Minister for Human Rights in that country, Leonard She Okitundu, has promised to encourage his government to demobilise the children enrolled in the army. He declared that he was convinced that the work of the Conference would reinforce the commitment of governments so that "young people may develop properly on every level: spiritual, psychological, physical, intellectual. To achieve this, children must have access to and belong to structures adapted to their age, like the family, the school and social groups for the young. They should not have to live in a world reserved for adults, in the army for example."
One can only encourage actions for Justice and Peace, whether these are those of women in Senegal, of the scouts in Canada, of religious leaders in Timor, of the Bishops of Salvador. They aim, like Gandhi, at an active but non-violent struggle.
There is violence among young people all over the world, but it is not so much young people themselves who are to blame as the whole of society and its adult members. In fact, in spite of the sensational and terrible stories reported in the media, violence among the young is not increasing: it is only more widely publicized, and this can be welcomed at least as a sign that society is becoming less tolerant of violence. The only kind of youthful violence which is on the increase is that of young people against themselves.
In Quebec we hold the sad record of having the greatest number of youthful suicides in the world.
What is needed is concerted action on the part of teachers and parents to invent, in collaboration with the leaders of their communities, genuinely human and spiritual projects. Society must certainly put some questions to itself concerning these manifestations of violence. It may be going through a crisis of values, but this does not mean that it can abdicate its responsibility for its young. The older generation must have confidence in young people and in their potential. There must be faith that they will succeed in meeting all the challenges presented to them, provided these are authentic and constructive. Young people in the West, including North America and Quebec, are enterprising persons and probably less materialistic than their elders. We should cultivate hope and not demoralize our young with endless complaints. Nor should we condemn them in advance by proposing repressive laws. They do not need extinguishers but rather signposts to show them the way to follow when times are stormy.
In so far as we are guides, we should present ourselves as agents of peace, even, and indeed especially, in situations of conflict. The only way of halting evil is by disarming. Only thus can we become for our young people witnesses to a better world.
Michel Fortin, M.Afr.