The face of violence: between racism and banal evil

In 1998, an Israeli film appeared called “Buzz.” It was based on a true story that had rocked the country four years earlier: two teenagers murdered a taxi driver, shooting him six times in the back. In the style of some great literature, there was no motive at all, just sheer thrill for boys who had already developed a pastime of petty crime.

Nobody is making films these days about stunningly random, lethal violence. We’ve grown ritually used to it. We have a few days to nurse our horror, then we return to the struggle to close out the month financially or implore the government not to bomb Iran, until the next incomprehensibly horrible thing has happened.

Violence in Israel, at least, is an equal-opportunity employer.

A couple of weeks ago, a group of Jewish youth attacked an Arab youngster in Jerusalem, nearly killing him. The perpetrators repeated time after time, and continue in their court statements to insist that they want him dead because he is Arab; they attacked him for this reason and with this intention. In my non-legalistic mind, that’s a hate crime if I ever saw one.

This March, four Arab youngsters – the shooter was 15 at the time, according to news coverage – killed a Jewish man in Ramla, a 51-year-old father of five who had gone out at night to walk his dog. The boys approached him, they said, and he just kept trying to walk away. This week the Yedioth Ahronoth daily revealed that in interrogations, the kids denied any specific motive at all. “Stam,” said the one who pulled the trigger: slang for “no reason.”

A few weeks ago, a Palestinian family driving through the West Bank settlements of Gush Etzion was firebombed with a Molotov cocktail, injuring all six people in the car. The primary suspects are 13 years old.

In 2009, a group of young men from the Arab town of Jaljulya got into a verbal scuffle with older man, Arik Karp, 59, who was walking with his family on the promenade just north of Tel Aviv. They beat him to death.

None of these incidents were retribution for the other, or for anything else for that matter – there was no chain of revenge. That means each assailant was murderously violent, perhaps enraged, in his own right.

It’s tempting to boil this down to nationalist, ethnic and racist tensions. Today I read about a group of young athletes jogging on Friday was attacked by a tractor driver (Hebrew) who tried to run them down after they asked him to drive more carefully. The main victim was a teenage Israeli girl, just 15 years old – and black. This prompted a friend of mine to suspect racism. The details have not emerged, but I bet it’s far more banal. There is no language for resolving the large or the tiniest of conflicts; a person in the wrong cannot say “sorry, you’re right.” He can only respond with violent rage.

Here are some other highlights: this week, Yedioth reported that a business man from Beit Shean in his 30s stabbed his wife to death before their daughters’ eyes – “He butchered her,” said the woman’s mother.

Hit-and-runs continue. A few years ago just down the block from my apartment, a 27-year old woman was mowed down by drunk drivers. It happened again two years later, killing the avid athlete son of a Supreme Court justice. And again nearly a year ago – this time killing a 25-year-old woman. These “accidents” are almost always men who get drunk and barrel down city streets at a speed that would tear up a highway. Again, I take the license of not being a lawyer when I say that a man of sound mind who drinks and drives has demonstrated intention to kill.

Is any of this unique to Israel? Probably not.

Following Arik Karp’s murder in 2009, I took a poll asking people why in the world they think this is happening. Just 7 percent blamed it on sick individuals. In other words, 93 percent know on some level that this is a social problem.

The top response, chosen by 57 percent of the 500 Jewish respondents and far out-polling any other answer, was the failure to educate youth about values; the second answer chosen by just over one-quarter of the respondents was socio-economic hardship.

Only 3 percent thought such violence is related to tension flowing from the conflict.

If we know it’s a social problem, who’s taking responsibility? An Arab friend has exhorted Arabs to stop blaming the murder of women on the occupation, which apparently happens. The mother of one kid in the Jerusalem lynch said her boy was sweet like “sugar.” Erez Efrati, who dragged a woman out of her car, beat her on the bank of a river and tried to rape her, was caught by witnesses in the act; his response was to deny any involvement.

This is an exhausted rant. I’m sure it’s not terribly profound. But to sum up, I am deeply troubled by two main things:

First, there is one thing most murderers, reckless drivers, and other violent criminals have in common. It’s not race, it’s not ethnicity – sorry, all you xenophobes and haters. The overwhelming preponderance of people who kill are men. Perhaps this is so obvious that it’s become transparent and that’s why nobody is addressing the gender factor as a root cause; or because it’s not unique to Israel maybe we think it’s acceptable. It is not acceptable, and I don’t care if it’s not unique. Israel must take a deep look at what makes our boys killers and work much harder to spare them that fate.

The second thing bothers me more. I refuse to live in fear of violence, but I am terrified of the human the ability to deny. Denying is lying. In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech in 1970, Alexander Solzhenitsyn said:

Violence does not and cannot flourish by itself; it is inevitably intertwined with lying… nothing screens violence except lies, and the only way lies can hold out is by violence. Whoever has once announced violence as his method must inexorably choose lying as his principle.

I would go further. All forms of violence are connected. Whoever is violent in his home, is violent in the street. Whoever is violent in his words, is violent by his hand. Whoever is violent to his enemies will eventually be violent with his friends. We will convince ourselves that the situation demands violence; in fact, the violence that defines us demands that we create the situations.

It’s no fun to say all this. But denying it keeps the whole system going.