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I wonder if the desire for vengeance speaks, more about human limitations than about any God.

Violence and Vengeance

Sept. 11, 2001 was a horrid day for America and for the world. It shook my sense of safety vividly. Just a week earlier I had attended a workshop on risk management with one of the women killed on the first plane to crash into the World Trade Center.

At first I imagined vengeance — any surviving terrorists involved in these awful attacks would also die fiery and miserable deaths with no more warning than the passengers on the planes or the casualties in the stricken buildings. However, the rational part of me continued to know that vengeance almost never solves anything.

Anna, my former colleague who died Sept. 11, earned her living helping a global transportation firm make more rational and productive decisions about their operations. Conflict management was a skill she modeled for her client — working to defuse violence through mutual respect, acknowledgement of differing perspectives, and making best use of all available resources — since just counterattacking with further violence is irrational and usually counter-productive.

Since the World Trade Center buildings came crashing down, I avoid tall buildings when I can. I'd rather be outside. Nature usually has the ability to soothe me. In these days when human attitudes can be so bleak, I gain reassurance from sunshine and trees. When I've seen too many replays of the twin towers collapsing in flames, I want to escape into green lawns and dappled light and shade. Unfortunately, nature is more than just a walk in the park. Some of nature is violent. Anyone who's ever been near a tornado or a hurricane can vouch for that. A human birth is no picnic, for that matter. And the sunshine and trees I crave have their own associated violence.

The interior of the sun is an immensely violent place, full of explosions, nuclear reactions, intense heat and pressure. However, it is the very violence of the sun, along with its position relative to earth, which helps to make earthly life possible. Trees and other plants perform their oxygen-giving magic with internal violence, too. Scientists continue to explore the wonders of photosynthesis, mapping its intricate chemical reactions, its steps and variations in different species, climates and seasons. It is important to note that the violence of sun and of plants is carefully balanced and contained. I hold this thought to help regain hope and to renew my commitment to a human world in which violence does not careen wildly from crisis to crisis, but is likewise more demonstrably contained and balanced.

There have been too many near misses in recent memory for comfort. My grandparents survived World War I. My parents' generation coped with fascism, World War II, the Holocaust and the dawn of the nuclear era. The Vietnam conflict ushered in my coming-of-age. The Gulf War helped form my children's generation, a generation that included Timothy McVeigh. A lesson I drew from Vietnam — and from the Cold War of which it was a hot part — was that, though protracted military rivalry may wear an enemy down, it has no real winners, only lesser losers.

The war in Vietnam left millions of Americans and Southeast Asians dead, wounded, brutalized or alienated. On both sides, the war's casualties were disproportionately members of ethnic minority and economically disadvantaged groups. Civilians were killed and injured along with the soldiers. The Vietnam war badly damaged the country's ecosystem (as have wars elsewhere before and since). Our overarching quest to defeat Communism sometimes led us to support regimes just as brutal and repressive as those we were fighting, and to provide arms and training to some of the very terrorists who now oppose us.

I struggle now to expand my perspective, to broaden and deepen my understanding of the context of terrorism. I pray a lot. It seems others do, too, in many idioms and tongues, or sometimes just in deep quiet. Among the prayers for forgiveness and healing, there are inevitably prayers and cries for vengeance. As a child, I was sometimes exposed to a harsh, vengeful God: "'Vengeance is mine,' saith the Lord. 'I will repay.'" I also was taught Jesus' central theme of forgiving our enemies. In trying to reconcile these two teachings, I wonder if the desire for vengeance speaks more about human limitations than about any God.

History suggests that we humans have difficulty dealing with long-term causes and effects. Gifted with free will, but with mixed motives and limited knowledge, we frequently misjudge our degree of control over events and our surroundings. When we attempt vengeance, we usually wind up just wreaking more mayhem and misery for everyone. God, or Allah, or Holy Wisdom, or Fate, or whatever name we choose to give him/her/it, is working out the longer-term consequences. We meddle at our own peril.

The darkest days of the northern year are upon us. We gather what light and warmth we can as the sun's rays become more oblique or disappear entirely. We mourn the loss of natural light. This new year, many of us mourn, too, the loss of loved ones. We light candles and bonfires. We decorate our homes with greenery in mute testament to the truth that without the violence in sun and plants, we could not exist.

We, too, bear violence within us — our cells and metabolism are spun through with it. When this violence goes out of balance, whether for an instant or a century, it can cause great damage. We can heal, though. We do not have to bear vengeance. Sun and plants and nature are not vengeful. The cycle of light returns. Vengeance is best left to God, while each of us works as best we know how to balance, contain and make humane use of our inborn human violence. May the blessings of this special season be shared by all.

Jinny Batterson is a free-lance writer and computer consultant who lives in Richmond.

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.

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