After months of burning down American cities, beating innocent business owners half to death, and terrorizing private citizens in their suburban homes, the Marxist Left is shocked to find that such behavior might generate a violent response from some people. Kyle Rittenhouse, who traveled into Kenosha from his neighboring home city when riots threatened to level the Wisconsin town, is charged with killing two rioters after one pretty clearly pulled a gun on him. No one of good will wants to see our cities devolve into mob rule and vigilante justice. But there are consequences for physical violence, and if the state won’t enforce those consequences then it’s a pretty sure bet that private citizens will start to do so.
If you brutalize people, things are going to get ugly. This should be “conflict 101” — heck, it should be “real life 101” — which tells you something about the wannabe mobsters currently parading our streets. They don’t actually have any idea what it is they’re asking for — they don’t live in the real world, where war, once it starts, has no rules.
Americans have lived so happily, so freely, so safely, for so long, that they have forgotten a few basic facts about reality. One of those basic facts is war, which is a human constant and not (as the present generation was implicitly raised to believe) a fairytale thing that happens in other less fortunate countries. In the last analysis, if you insist on breaking the social contract and threatening destruction, there aren’t actually any “authorities” to whom you can appeal to keep things neat and orderly. You can’t go crying to the police when you’re already crying to defund them.
We build societies to minimize the kind of disordered chaos that takes place in war — to resolve as many conflicts as possible without opening the lid of that Pandora’s box. That is the context which gives peace and civilization their value: we recognize them as gifts because we know that their alternatives are lawlessness, deprivation, and pain. In that sense, people who don’t understand war don’t understand any life at all.
This is actually the subject of the ancient Greece’s oldest epic poem, Homer’s Iliad from the 8th century BC. It’s a song of rage and war — the story of how Achilles, hero of the Greeks (or, as they’re called in the poem, the Achaeans), refused to fight against Troy and so “cost the Achaeans countless lives.” The whole thing is pervaded with a sense of life’s fragility, with a melancholy awareness that men pass away as quickly and as inevitably as they are born.
“Like the generation of leaves, the lives of mortal men,” says the Trojan warrior Glaucus in Book 6, “Now the wind scatters the old leaves across the earth, now the living timber bursts with the new buds and spring comes round again. And so with men: as one generation comes to life, another dies away” (translated by Robert Fagles).
What’s profound about the poem is that though its subject is the carnage of war, it demonstrates a perfect understanding of how rich and good life at peace can be. In Book 18, when Achilles at last returns to the fight, he carries a shield carved with depictions not only of battle but also of weddings, courtroom dramas, and “girls and boys, their hearts leaping in innocence, bearing away the sweet ripe fruit” from the harvest. In some sense Achilles himself, who must choose whether to live in peace or die in war, is the embodiment of this understanding: his life, like all human life, derives its meaning from the costs of war and the longing for peace.
The mewling thugs currently tearing our streets apart have no idea how any of this works. They’re just LARPing at war, acting like they can rampage through American cities without consequence because they don’t realize what real fighting, or real life, actually is. The lamentable thing — and it is indeed lamentable — is that if they persist in their present course of action long enough, they will find out.
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