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The exchange of violence

If we have entered a spiral of anger, repression and despair, our only hope is moral honesty.

July 20, 2005|Hanif Kureishi

Most of us no longer know what it is to be religious, and haven't for a while. Over the last 200 years, sensible people in the West have contested our religions until they lack significant content and force. These religions now ask little of anyone and, quite rightly, play little part in our politics.

The truly religious, following the logic of submission to political and moral ideals, and to the arbitrary will of God, are terrifying to us and almost incomprehensible. To us, "belief" is dangerous and we don't like to think we have much of it.

Confronted by this, it takes a while for our liberalism to organize itself into opposition and for us to consider the price we might have to pay for it. We also have little idea of what it is to burn with a sense of injustice and oppression, and what it is to commit authentic acts out of that sense, to give our lives for a cause. We think of these acts as being mad, random and criminal, rather than being part of a recognizable exchange of violence.

The injustice that many young people feel as they enter the adult world of double standards and dishonesty shocks those of us who are more knowing and cynical. We find this commendable in young people but also embarrassing. Consumer society has already traded its moral ideals for other satisfactions. One of the things we wish to export, masquerading as "freedom and democracy," is consumerism, though we keep silent about the consequences -- addiction, alienation, fragmentation -- of pursuing it.

We like to believe that we are free to speak about everything, but we are reluctant to consider our own deaths, as well as the meaning of murder. Terrible acts of violence in our own neighborhoods -- not unlike terrible acts of violence that are outsourced to the poorest parts of the Third World -- disrupt the exquisitely smooth idea of "virtual" war that we have adopted to conquer the consideration of death.

Virtual wars are conflicts in which one can kill others without either witnessing their deaths or having to take moral responsibility for them. The Iraq war, we were told, would be quick and few people would die. It is as though we believed that by pressing a button and eliminating others far away we would not experience any guilt or suffering -- on our side.

By bullying and cajoling the media, governments can conceal this part of any war, but only for a while. We think of children being corrupted by video games -- imitation violence making them immune to the reality of actual violence -- but this is something that has happened to our politicians. Modern Western politicians believe that we can murder others in faraway places without the same thing happening to us, and without any physical or moral suffering on our part.

This is a dangerous idea. The only way out is to condemn all violence or to recognize that violence is a useful and important moral option in the world. Despite our self-deception, we are quite aware of how necessary it is, at times, to kill others to achieve our own ends and to protect ourselves. If we take this position, we cannot pretend it is morally easy and seek to evade the consequences.

We were dragged into this illegal and depressing war by many lies and much dissembling. A substantial proportion of us were opposed to it. During wars ordinary citizens feel they lack information and moral orientation while governments act decisively and with brutality.

Governments may be representative, but they and the people are not the same. In our disillusionment, it is crucial that we remind ourselves of this. Governments encourage and persuade individuals to behave in ways that individuals know are morally wrong. Therefore, governments do not speak for us.

If communities are not to be corrupted by the government, the only patriotism possible is one that refuses the banality of taking either side, and continues the arduous conversation. That is why we have literature, the theater, newspapers -- a culture, in other words.

War debases our intelligence and derides what we call "civilization" and "culture" and "freedom." If it is true that we have entered a spiral of violence, repression and despair that will take years to unravel, our only hope is moral honesty about what we have brought about.

And not only us. If "civilization" is to retain its own critical position toward violence, religious groups have to purge themselves of their own intolerant and deeply authoritarian aspects.

The body hatred and terror of sexuality that characterize most religions can lead people not only to cover their bodies in shame but to think of themselves as human bombs. This criticism on both sides is the only way to temper an inevitable legacy of bitterness, hatred and conflict.

Hanif Kureishi wrote the screenplay "My Beautiful Laundrette" and the novel "The Buddha of Suburbia."

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