"Violence is a failure of the imagination, said the late American poet William Stafford, who would not fight in the Second World War, and spent twelve hours a day for three years cutting timber in remote forests as punishment for his refusal to shoot other men in the belly...."

violence is a failure of the imagination
essay by brian doyle


The words swirl and batter and hammer the bruised air: disarm, force, confrontation, consequences, dictator, resolution, security. Muscular words. True words, beneath their masks.

But I hear the thin ragged unforgettable unforgivable screams of children.

Diplomacy, appeasement, containment, policy, the words are bitter and whirling and relentless hawks after prey.

But I hear screaming children torn from their mothers, children blown to pieces, children blown into pink mist that settles silently into the Tigris and Euphrates rivers and fouls them for ever and ever.

Is Hussein a murderer? Yes. Is his administration a cruel seething bloody hell? Yes. Is he Hitler’s spawn? Yes. Is he with cold genius hatching unimaginable weaponry? Yes. Is he bankrolling the dead-eyed unloved boys who murder children in cafes and buses and murdered my friend Tommy Crotty on the 102nd floor of the towers and left his wife weeping alone in their bed and his daughters unfathered and his grinning face a swirl of acrid dust on Liberty Street?

Yes.

So because all these things are true we should murder children?

Yes?

You who read these words: we are party to murder, you and me, citizens. We have come to this, the men we elected have brought us to this, and they are right, resolutions must be enforced, dictators contained, words do matter, the dance of diplomacy is so often a mincing meaningless minuet, and sometimes you just have to stand up and…

What?

Here are some other words that matter.

Thou shalt not kill, spake a burning voice from that very desert, echoing down to us through many centuries.

And love defeats murder, insisted the young gaunt dusty Jewish preacher whose impossible message still rivets the world thousands of years after his insolence got him murdered by the cold empire of his day.

And violence is a failure of the imagination, said the late American poet William Stafford, who would not fight in the Second World War, and spent twelve hours a day for three years cutting timber in remote forests as punishment for his refusal to shoot other men in the belly.

So what are we to do, here at the lip of hell?

Pray. Pray without ceasing. Touch the faces of those you love. Your fingers are relentless prayers. Heal what you can: your particular and peculiar medicine is unlike any that ever was or will be. Love with all your might: there are infinite forms of love, as you know very well. Speak your mind. Words matter. Share your thoughts. Write. Sing. Pray. We crave each other, we crave contact and conversation and clan, and if each reaches for each it may be that we will heal these murders. Pray. Pray without ceasing.

Here are more words, these from a grinning rugby-shouldered man who lost his family and his country and his past but never yet have I seen his smile fail or his energy quail:

"If we want the beauty of the world for our children and our children’s children, we must be spiritual activists, right here, right now. We must choose to matter. The challenge before us daily is this: What can I do to preserve the wonder of the world, to eliminate anger and disparity and hate in the part of the world I touch?"

The part of the world you touch.

So said the man once known as Lhamo Dhondup, from the little town of Roaring Tiger in Tibet, better known now as His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama.

I believe him. I believe the gaunt relentless Christ. I believe the ancient thorny voice that spake from the bush. All we have to offer against murder, against the ragged endless screams of children, is love in every form we can muster; and my deepest faith is in us, in what we are at our best, which is holier than any god we have ever invented yet.


Brian Doyle is the author of six books, most recently THE WET ENGINE, about hearts and all. It's not bad. Among his awards and such are (a) a woman married him, (b) the Coherent Mercy granted them three children, and (c) he was named to the 1983 all-star team in the Newton Massachusetts Men's League, which was a really tough league, you drove to the hole in that league you lost fingers, one time a guy drove the lane and got hit so hard his arm came off, but he was lefty anyway and hit both free throws. Supposedly he then left his arm in a toll booth basket on the Mass Pike but that might be apocryphal. More from Brian Doyle can be found in the Smokebox Archives.

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©2004 Brian Doyle
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