The Mind of Violence

I wish I could say this was a happy post. I wish I had good tidings to bear, or that perhaps I could recount the extensive traveling I’ve done in the past week, from Toronto to the Grand Canyon. I wish I could talk about anything other than what I’m going to.

But I can’t. This week there were three mass shootings in the United States: Gilroy, Dayton, and El Paso. Between them, at least thirty-two people were killed. Coincidentally, it marks the thirty-second shooting this year in which at least three people died. For all I know, by the time you read this there will have been another.

The worst part, though, is not the shootings. It’s not the deaths. The worst part – of which I’m guilty myself – is the crass, apathetic reaction of the country, the total lack of surprise, and the disaffection that accompanies these tragedies. Even as it crossed my newsfeed, I couldn’t stop my own thoughts: “Guess it happened again.”

I just kind of switched off. I didn’t want to, couldn’t, internalize yet another instance of senseless violence, of brutal slayings and now-childless parents. I couldn’t react in horror … because there was no horror left.

This kind of violence has become so frequent and commonplace that I’ve started to become completely desensitized to it. It’s just part of the background of living in the United States. Of course, many of us continue to go about our days, saying it could never happen to us, but the truth is that the odds are stacking against us, and one day it will be you under fire at a concert, or a Home Depot, or at your school.

But until that day comes, we all just continue to sit back, watch it happen, and condemn the shooters on one hand whilst continuing to silently approve the system that allows these things to happen at all.

By system, of course, I don’t only mean the ease-of-availability of firearms, or the payouts to the NRA, or the heavy-handed police brutality that leads to so many unnecessary deaths; it also includes the indoctrination that violence is a part of free speech; it includes the incessantly hypocritical reactions from politicians and leaders; it includes the simple fact that no other developed nation has anything close to the level of outright violence that has become second-nature to our country.

Violence has become something less than a tragedy; human life commoditized. It’s one thing to suggest that society is desensitized to violence through TV and popular media – realistically, I think most people are aware enough to know that TV violence is not a suggestion that such things are okay. It’s the frequency of real-world violence that desensitizes the masses to just how horrific such things actually are. And when we look at the culprits of the most recent mass shootings, none of them were ‘foreigners’, or ‘immigrants’ (I use these terms loosely, as we are all immigrants at some point or another) – there were young, disaffected white men who somehow came to believe that it was within their right to end the lives of other people.

It’s difficult to learn why these people do such things, as they are often killed themselves during their rampages. We talk to their families, interview their friends, and learn that they were ‘good people’, and that ‘no one suspected a thing’.

I call bullshit.

There are a lot of angry people in the world, and a lot of reasons to be angry. I get it. I’ve been filled with fury, with anger and with hate at times in my life. I’ve sought to place blame on everyone other than myself. I’ll readily admit that I’m far from a perfect member of society, even if I can’t imagine hating so much that I’d want to actually kill other people. The mind of violence is hard to understand.

But the biggest problem is that these people – disgruntled, prone-to-violence, hate-filled people – are allowed to purchase weapons whose sole purpose is to kill other humans. A lot of people argue that guns don’t kill people, people kill people – but people without guns kill far fewer people than those armed with them. Perhaps we can’t change how or why these people think the way they do, but there’s absolutely no reason we can’t stop them from accessing devices intended to end life.

Weapons of any kind are a holdover from a medieval culture where feudality and territorialism were the law; when if you didn’t have a sword or an axe, your neighbor might steal your sheep and murder your family.

Aren’t we past those days?

Aren’t we supposed to be living in an enlightened society, one where understanding and tolerance are meant to be the gold standard to which we aspire? If so, then what purpose do weapons serve at all? I can understand the desire to hunt, the desire to kill food for yourself – there’s a deep-rooted instinct in some of us to see and taste the blood of a fresh kill. But there is no reason in the world to need to kill another human being – even under threat, if that person has no weapon to threaten you with, you have no reason to kill them in self-defense.

The worst of it is the people marauding around proclaiming weapons as a part of free speech – that taking away their weapons takes away their freedom.

Again – I call bullshit.

We live in a society with tens of thousands of rules – laws, as they’re called – imposed upon us. These laws are entirely arbitrary, save for the concept that by enforcing these laws, we create for ourselves a safer, more tolerant and livable society. I’m not allowed to drive faster than 65mph on the highway – if I do, I get punished. I’m not allowed to steal from my neighbor’s house – again, I would be punished.

So then why do we continue to provide access to things that allow us to break the laws imposed upon us by our society? Why do we make cars that can drive at 130mph? Why do we sell lock-picking kits, when any conceivable use for them is illegal? And why on earth do we sell handguns and automatic rifles when anything you could do with them is against the law?

Free speech can only extend so far. It cannot be allowed to extend to hate speech; it cannot be allowed to extend to discrimination and bigotry. And it cannot be used as an excuse to provide access to dangerous, violent weapons. It isn’t a violation of your freedom to take away your guns; it’s a violation of our human rights to allow you to keep them.

Tell me I’m wrong.

Thought of the Week: The Role of the Fantasy Sword

When I first began delving into the world of fantasy, a quest that would eventually lead to the world of Erâth, Brandyé Dui-Erâth and his journey into darkness, I came across a number of articles outlining common themes throughout fantasy literature. At first, of course, I thought I had to adhere to these commandments, laid down by the god of fantasy, J.R.R. Tolkien. As time, and the novel, progressed, however, I began to realize the value of originality, and discovered certain aspects that deviated from the tried and true classical form of fantasy. One key element was that I came to realize there were no true ‘heroes’ in my story. The protagonist, Brandyé, is weak, both physically and emotionally, preyed upon by both beasts and darkness. There are no master figures, no Aragorns or Gandalfs to save the day. There are people with kind hearts that nonetheless do cruel things.

The metaphor is (I hope) different as well. Whereas Tolkien’s darkness was (in my mind) a metaphor for the dismal horrors of war, for me it holds a much more personal facet: it is the great, all-consuming and unsurmountable darkness of depression and despair. The world is already covered in darkness; the forces of good have already lost. Our hero has no conviction, and despairs that he can ever do good in his life.

However, there are still many elements that fit neatly the stereotype of high fantasy, such as a dark lord, fictional worlds and languages, a quest to defeat said dark lord, kingdoms great and small, etc. And one of the elements preserved, though I didn’t know it at the time, was the fantasy sword.


The Shards of Narsil

Nearly every high fantasy story I can think of (though I’m not as widely read as I should be) has swords, which is natural for a genre that tends to romanticize the middle ages. But more than that, there is usually at least one sword, if not several, that has a merit beyond its ability to kill. These swords have a history, their forging is legendary, their uses are magical, and in the right hands they are undefeatable. The Lord of the Rings has NarsilElric has StormbringerHarry Potter has the Sword of Griffindor, although I would argue that the wands represent the same functional place as these others. The Redemption of Erâth has Namrâth.

It’s hard to deny that these swords are an integral part of such fantasy, but it became curious to me that it should be so. Certainly swords are necessary if the story is to contain fighting of any kind, and it would be poor fantasy indeed if there were not epic battles involved. But the question remains precisely why it is so important that there be at least one sword with mystical origins and powers.

I have one or two thoughts on the matter, which may or may not be way off the mark. Wikipedia has a fantastic list of famous fantasy swords, and one of the first things I noticed is that, with the exception of J.K. Rowling, every author who has invented such a sword (including myself) is a man. Cue the obvious sexual innuendos. High fantasy rarely has sexual content of any kind, and even romance is often sidelined (the relationship between Aragorn and Arwen in The Lord of the Rings is hardly touched upon in the book, as opposed to Peter Jackson’s film versions). And it’s easy to see how a great, whopping sword could be seen as a phallic symbol. (Interesting, then, that Rowling’s wands are so small!) These swords are themselves almost invariably wielded by men, and represent their great strength and prowess. It’s certainly possible that, consciously or unconsciously, these magical swords represent the manliness of their bearers.

A magical mace?

A magical mace?

Another, more mundane explanation could be that there have to be mystical swords. After all, what fun would it be if the great demon lord was defeated by any old blade kicking around on the battlefield? Great, magical beings require great, magical weapons, and the sword is the natural weapon of choice. (Brandyé, in The Redemption of Erâth, actually carries a crossbow for the majority of the first book.) But why not magical maces, or whips (Indiana Jones, I suppose), or daggers? Perhaps because there is something clean about a sword, that it can effortlessly stab, slice and decapitate with little or no mess. A great spiked mace is a pretty messy weapon, it has to be said, and high fantasy is, along with being romance-less, usually pretty bloodless.

Finally, the thought that comes to me is that the magical sword represents power greater than the wielder can manage; the metaphor of runaway technology leading to the wars in which they are actually used. Elric’s Stormbringer, sucking the souls of any it touches, is exemplary of this: the sword is a curse to its wielder, who becomes ever more bound to it the more he uses it.

Perhaps there is another, socio-psychological answer to this pondering question; if so, I am too blind to see it. Perhaps the fantasy sword just is, no questions asked. But I’d like to turn this over to you: what do you think the purpose of these fantastical swords is?

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