(The scene: A newsroom the morning after a riot where police beat and tear-gassed protestors, vacationers and civilians, causing severe injuries to many. The chief characters are photographers and staff. The speaker is Phil Hammond, in his late fifties who has reported on Chicago for decades. The listeners are worn out, depleted, almost inert from fatigue. I wrote this yesterday.)
“No, no, no, no, no,” said Hammond.
“Phil…” Edie said, keeping herself under control.
“No, no, no, no, no, absolutely not. Do you really think it’s that simple? Shit, you’re a reporter, for God’s sake.”
“For God’s sake.”
“People, do you hear me? People…People are the only things that matter, the only things that count, the only things worth getting excited about. People. Their welfare, their safety, their needs, their predicaments, and their souls.” He vehemently shook his head. “No, no, no, no, no, no…”
Hammond was an oddity. He had once taught at a private school, had two years at the University of Chicago, studying theology. His chief ambition was to become a Navy chaplain. But he had a bad heart and he drank too much, and ended up as a reporter in Chicago He knew the city inside and out.
“Phil. Could I get a word in here. PHIL?”
“Come on, Phil…” said someone.
“I’m amazed,” Phil said.
“What’s so bad about that?” Macklin said.
“Because you keep saying cops. Cops; so what, cops? I mean, what does it mean, cops? Huh? Being cop, does it really mean they are all slabs of irredeemable evil? The embodiment of all that is dark and wicked in the human predicament? Is that what you’re saying?”
“Hey, Phil, Jesus, come on,” Gomel said. “No one is saying that.”
“Or is Daley? Or Johnson? Is that what you’re saying? Because that’s bullshit.”
“Because it’s just a word.”
“What’s just a word?”
“Bullshit,” injected someone.
“Cops,” Hammond corrected. “Cops is just a word. It’s just a little batch of symbols on a page that stands for what? For just so many people. That’s all. Just a bunch of people. Just like you. And like me. Or do you think they’re constructed of an entirely different and more inferior stuff than us?”
“Oh, please,” said Jennifer, rolling her eyes up in her head. She wasn’t alone. There were additional impatient groans and other rude repudiations. Hammond wasn’t fazed in the least. “Just like yourselves.” he insisted. Then he fell still and shook his head in wonderment. “I mean, that’s the whole problem. That is exactly the whole problem….”
Hammond had a cup of steaming coffee in his speckled hand. They were all indolently occupying chairs, sofas, or sitting round-shouldered on the edge of the low coffee table.
Crown gave a sudden great, gapping yawn. Crown waved his hands as if fending off flies in front of his face, defensive. “I’m tired. It wasn’t a criticism.”
Hammond grinned, holding his cup.
“Look, I wasn’t slandering them,” Edie said.
“Yeah, Phil, give us a break,” Gomel said. “What do you think? That we’re making last night up? Don’t you read the papers? Have you seen Fielding’s piece?”
“No, what’s it like?”
“I don’t know. I haven’t read it.”
“Is it any good?”
“We hear it is. I don’t know. But I do know that the word `cops’ is not a nice word these days. Even you have to admit that,” Gomel said.
But Hammond was absorbed and vexed and not listening. “I mean that really is it? That’s the whole problem with all of this. It really is?”
“What is he going on about?” asked Jennifer, nettled. She thought Hammond a dirty old man, and a drunken dirty old one at that.
“That’s what’s wrong with it,” Hammond said decisively. “That’s what the whole problem is. Yup. That’s it.”
“What’s his name?” Barbara asked someone, meaning Hammond. She thought it all fascinating.
“Phil, nothing is the whole problem,” Barbara said.
“I didn’t mean to get you all upset,” Edie said.
“Well, our problem is that we’re always in such a hurry to paste the label onto the wine before we even taste it. We don’t go out and just try and see a thing for what it is in itself, for itself, and then work to devise a name for what we saw. No, we first arm ourselves with some epithet and then we try to match what we see to what we’ve heard. Isn’t that called bigotry in most places, and bigotry is based on ignorance."
“I’m not bigoted,” Edie said hotly. “I did see things, and I didn’t put a name to them before I saw them. So don’t give me that.”
Hammond fixed her with a stare. “So good and evil are properties belonging to a certain class of people, a certain profession,” Hammond said. “All military guys are baby killers, all cops are evil. Criminals, of course, are the products of their environment or victims of their parents. But cops are evil. We journalists, of course, are good.”
They were intently listening, some becoming resentful.
With alcoholic talkativeness, he said, “See, if evil were the property of one class or group of people, wouldn’t life be more simple? It would be. Except evil isn’t simple. No one has a monopoly on it. Let me tell you, there’s enough self-will and self-centeredness right here, sitting right here in this room right now, right here, to set off World War Three. Right here in this room,” he said
“Oh, thanks.” Macklin thought this ridiculous.
“You can’t blame circumstances for everything,” Trish said. “There is personal responsibility.”
“I don’t get all this,” Jennifer said, offended.
Hammond took a drag on his cigarette. “Nothing locks human beings into insoluble deadlock more than picturing a conflict then to label one group pure and virtuous ranged against another group which is irredeemably wicked.
“You make think you get drama, but you don’t. What you get is melodrama, and you learn nothing from melodrama. Melodramas never act to produce self-examination. Self-riotousness locks you into a belief in your own moral superiority where you see your methods and aims were good and unselfish, while your opponents are creatures who are flawed and evil.
“But we are all flawed. That’s the point. We are all flawed and evil. I know what you are thinking, but the truth is that we are all flawed and imperfect.”
“I am not excepting myself at all. Conflicts are tragic because they take place between a half-right that is too proud, and a half-right that is too willful. There is nothing more useless or sterile presuming that you are righteous and your enemy isn’t. Plus thinking you are always noble can goad your opponent into more violence than if your view of them was more balanced and compassionate. In my view, there is one sin that is more egregious than the rest and that is self-righteousness. The more human being is lacking in depth, the more they are certain of their virtue the more they will lack the ability to question their own attitude and conduct. It is always the most thick-skinned that think they are more right than anyone else. Their arrogant, mistaken belief in their own goodness only produces one deadlock after the next.”
They were listening now, he saw.
“Because the self- righteous always think that just one more war, just one more victory and paradise on earth will occur. Yet the human materiel in conflicts is basically the same.”
Someone let out a sigh.
This spurred Hammond on. “After crushing Germany in World War II, a lot of Americans thought we were the instruments carrying out the judgment of God against Hitler. God favored us in the struggle against the Nazis which is why we won. But if you pursue that line of thought, you have to conclude that communism was the instrument of God, since communism came away with most of the spoils.”
“So what’s your point” someone said, sour.
“The best attitude to take in a conflict is self questioning. Even when you win, there remain things that should to be re-examined and corrected. Triumphs blind us. But the passage of time sifts and reexamines the factors that produced triumph, and many triumphs are not as good as we thought they were at first.”
“You are leaving out comparisons,” Barbara said.
“No I’m not,” Harvey protested. “I am just saying that beware of comparisons that always come out in your favor. There were always seamy elements in any human society that take time to come to light. Even American society has elements hat will turn sour with the passage of time. The Greeks, the Roman Empire, they outlived their own ideals. For a long time, their social systems had a valid claim on human loyalties. But Time detects all the little faults hidden away in the social order, and hey eat away at it, weaken, and in the end destroys it.”
“That’s nice view of life,” Macklin said.
“What view would you like me to have?”
“A better one.”
“What’s a better one? I’m trying to be honest,” Hammond said.
Their impatience had died. They were silent, thinking.
“Look,” said Hammond. “Don’t you understand? What do you think makes most people try to be good?
Crown yawned again, almost dislocating his jaw.
“What is being good, Phil?” Edie said.
“I’ll tell you,” he said. “If you can wait a minute? I’ll tell you.” Now they had actually become interested, even the hard cases.
“See,” said Hammond, “society doesn’t work without using a lot of quiet compulsions and clever inducements. We are all greedy. We are all greedy for more money, more attention, more praise, more prominence. You can make your own list. Society appeals to his greed in order to get its work done. It rewards, it promises, it promotes. But beneath any society, there lurk all kinds of ugly things just waiting to get out. Do you know why most people are respectable? Because society’s restraints and safeguards keep them from going off the rails. If you remove them, what you’ll have are people who all their lives have thought they were nice and law abiding start to behave like goddamn animals. We saw that this week.”
“I don’t agree,” Jennifer said.
This took Hammond aback – she had interrupted his train of thought.
“Why do you not agree?” Hammond asked her.
“I don’t’ know. It just doesn’t sound right.”
“No, go ahead,” Edie said to Hammond. She thought Jennifer dumb as a hammer.
“Well, see, the infirmities of human nature, the inadequacies of human nature are always with us,” Hammond said. “Any group of people who had always looked and behaved respectably can go off the rails if certain safeguards are removed.”
“You said that. Where is this going?” asked Macklin. It was a bit abstract for him. He wanted a drink.
“What I’m saying is…is that there’s a volcano that slumbers deep down in human nature…”
“A volcano?” A skeptical voice.
“A volcano. A beast. It’s always there, just waiting for chaos to let it come out.”
“You’ve got a cheery view of life,” Barbara said.
Hammond wasn’t fazed. “The more human beings are lacking in imagination, the more they are incapable of any kind of self-analysis, and then the more they think they h have no need to improve, the more chaos will take them by surprise. Nothing blinds the mind like self-righteousness. When you think of the police, what you need to ask is how you would have behaved if you had been put to the same test, spat on, attacked, derided.”
It sounded like an apology for the police. No one said anything.
“It helps to think that every quarrel, every conflict, is merely a falling out between friends, rather than a war to the death between good and evil.”
No one said anything, but they felt strangely moved by Hammond’s entreaty.
“Don’t listen to him,” Stark said loudly, coming up. “What taffy is he passing out this time?”
“He’s exposing us to his whimsicalities,” Gomel said.
“Yeah,” Edie said. “History is one big web, we’re all living atop a volcano, and like a balding man, there's a lot of falling out.”
Hammond looked slightly sheepish.
“Have you been laying shit on these guys?” Stark demanded, his eyes twinkling.
“It’s not shit. It’s history,” Hammond said.
“Yeah, sure it is,” Stark said with a wink at the rest.
“It is. It’s history,” Hammond protested.
“I think you have some interesting ideas,” Peter said.
Hammond looked touched. “Well, hell, I’m just older, I think of this stuff a lot.”
“So you ready?” Stark said.
“Where you going?” Edie asked.
They were going over to a nearby bar called Barkley’s. It was in the basement of a high-rise across the street. All were welcome to come. It was almost noon.
“I guess the saddest thing is that people rarely have a clear vision, even of the things that bring them into conflict,” Hammond said.
“I’ll vision you,” Stark warned. “Give it a rest, will you? You guys coming?” Stark asked them. “I’ll buy he first round.”
The group of staffers exchanged odd looks.
“You know Barkley’s isn’t such a bad idea,” Edie said. “We really don’t have anything until tonight,” she said to the rest.
“By tonight we’ll all be smashed,” Macklin said, gathering up his gear.
“I can imagine worse things happening,” Gomel said.
““Bye you guys,” Jennifer said.
The talking, happy group trooped noisily out the door.
“Conflicts by Richard Sale”
Much of the “US” west has grown up with the results of Nuremberg. Aggression is the greatest crime, and following orders is no excuse. There have been attempts to get around the crime of aggression. R2P, WMD ect ect.
In overturning this, there will be a breakdown.
Trying to analyse every wind gust in the storm of the US breakdown is a bit like analysing every gust of wind in a storm.
The “results” of Nuremberg? I think Nuremberg was about lessons, not results, and we have spent the last several decades frantically burying those lessons and trying to forget that they were ever learned.
Terrific piece. Much wisdom here.
My thanks for another excellent work. That beast within us all bears watching and restraint by the stout chains of shared and internalized culture. Without those cultural chains, the host must be subdued by physical chains or something more drastic. Having said that, our internal beast can serve us well in certain situations like in defense of an innocent or in close battle in a cold cellar in a Shouf village.
Your reply is very thoughtful. Thank you for it.
You’ve submitted a beautiful and, in my opinion, metaphorical piece of writing. Yesterday I purchased a book, “The German War” by Nicholas Stargardt, and the following passage struck me in relation to your “Conflict” and the dichotomy in thought and perception of reality now permeating American society.
“Whereas left-wing and liberal thinkers saw history in linear, progressive terms, many conservatives believed that it was circular and repetitive, like the life cycle.”
I wondered whether Hammond’s argument with his colleagues was not linked to that philosophic difference.
I’m a lefty, but never liked the truism that liberals are optimists about human nature and conservatives are pessimists. For one thing, I’m a Christian, so pessimism about human nature is part of the theology, but it doesn’t follow that conservatives are right on policy issues.
Truthfully, I think we are all self righteous, both liberals and conservatives, so I agree with the Hammond character. When liberals say people are basically good, they really mean themselves. When conservatives say we are all basically sinners, they really mean everyone but themselves. In theory, once you understand that, people could set aside the self righteousness and just argue about policies. But self righteousness is too much fun.
As I remember my long ago days as a history major, it came to me that whether history is circular or linear has been an ongoing discussion.
For what it is worth, I have always sided with the cirucular view of history.
Perhaps it is both circular and linear, like a sine way. A succession of swings of the pendulum, action, reaction, counterreaction….
Like an uncoiled garden hose that’s been taken from the garage in the spring?
Perhaps you are correct? I would, however, argue that whether or not we go through some linear periods is probably less important than the fact that in the end we still go in circles when you look at the longer term result.
Yes, indeed. I’m referring to the reference to an ongoing discussion over circular or linear. Also, in re-reading Richard’s story, I saw a definite nod to Thomas Hobbes in one of the paragraphs.
Please Post Again Soon Richard,
At the risk of upsetting the good Colonel, I think your calm words might well be appreciated at this time by many of the regular readers of this site.
David E Solomon
Thank you for the insult. pl
Colonel, The comment was absolutely not meant as an insult. I think your work is terrific. I just feel that everyone should calm down.
Please take the comment with a lighter tone.