You might have heard whining recently over the inhuman character of this or that mass murderer. What you never hear is any suggestion that the murderer’s violence may not be an aberration but an integral part of the human condition.
We like to think we lapse into violence, overcoming innate inhibitions that are as natural to us humans as our opposable thumb. A hundred thousand years of history and prehistory suggest that it’s the other way around: the innate drive in homo sapiens is to violence. It’s hard-wired in us. We wouldn’t be here otherwise.
Note that a hundred thousand years ago, there were at least three varieties of intelligent, tool-making primates wandering around. We think of the others as having disappeared, but, given the bloody, hypercompetitive experience of the last couple of millennia, it seems more likely that they were exterminated by homo sapiens, what we call modern man.
The survivors–you and I–are the race that conquered all. We are the issue of generations of successful killers, the less violent of us operating always at a competitive disadvantage and gradually dying out. Mass murderers are us. We have discovered ways to keep from killing one another, but they are deliberate adaptations that, like all rules, standards and values, restrain expressions of our nature.
Jesus Christ certainly recognized the difficulty with which humans keep their violent streak at bay. Imagine the act of will it must have taken to turn the other cheek when struck. Too much for most of us, if reports from fact and fiction reflect reality. The innate drive to respond with violence is too strong to be overcome in most of us, Jesus’ instruction notwithstanding.
Violent entertainment may be a staple because it is in our nature to crave it. We don’t have to learn to love violence. Our predilection is the product of generation after generation of conquest by violence, directed at other humans as at other animals. We take this for granted, even pretending to believe that warfare is honorable or that a horse enjoys having a piece of steel between its jaws, 200 pounds on its back, and bootheels jammed in its ribs. On the other hand, if our ancestors hadn’t been able to subdue their neighbors and their animals so brutally, we wouldn’t be here.
On the occasion of the next mass murder or commemoration of such, we might find it profitable to stop pretending that mankind is a peaceable race. Maybe we should count up the toll of institutionalized violence, calculate the cost of warfare and entertainment and social oppression and take a lesson from it. Maybe do that on a regular basis. Maybe we should ask what it is about us, homo sapiens, that could be disinhibiting them, the inhuman mass killers that walk among us. Maybe if we conceded our predisposition to violence, we could begin to control it.