Sometimes I wish I had greater familiarity and skills with the Internet. I was driving out on a quick errand yesterday, for example, and caught just a snippet of a report on our local public radio station that I would love to have heard in full. It was part of an interview with an American trainer charged with educating police in Afghanistan to do a more effective job. I heard about sixty seconds of the piece before I had to leave the car, but I would have loved to have been able to track it down later on the computer to hear the whole thing. I tried. Alas, no luck.
The part that caught my attention was where the trainer was expressing a certain frustration in his work because his Afghan trainees possessed what he saw as a kind of cultural trait of modesty and natural--or learned--"politeness" that ran against the grain of what he was trying to achieve. "These people don't know how to yell at another person," he was complaining. (My memory of his words may be somewhat less than precise.) "You have to teach them how to yell." When you're ordering someone to surrender a lethal weapon that they're threatening you with, I guess it's not hard to see what the man means. If you can't show your assailant, in your voice, that you mean business, well... you could very quickly end up dead.
The interviewer allowed us to eavesdrop on a yelling education session, and you could see what the instructor meant. Well, rather, you could hear it. The model yell--from the American--was impeccable: a full-throated, angry, assertive, emasculating bellow. And you could hear the sincere effort on the part of the student to emulate the effect. And yet... well, the poor man just couldn't reproduce his teacher's excellently-simulated rage. You could hear the apology for being rude even as he did his best to bark out the order. His voice said, Excuse me, I wouldn't want to trouble you, but...
I couldn't help but chuckle at the contrast, but it was also at a deeper level quite disturbing. Obviously, in a life-or-death situation where you're confronted by a desperate or ruthless assailant, you've got to get results--and the American instructor's voice made it clear that there was no choice in the matter. His voice commanded compliance, unambiguous and brooking no hesitation or denial. The bully voice--and with it, certainly--the bully attitude of the American was undoubtedly what was needed for success in a combative situation. And yet the cultural comparison it invited left me with a sneaking preference and affection for his reluctant student, whose disinclination to impose his will on someone else left him open to attack--but was far more appealing, far more human in my estimation.
Okay, to repeat a lesson that I cited early on in these pages: the Buddha never said you have to be a doormat, and there comes a point where it's simply foolish to fall victim to aggression from those who wish you ill. Still, it does seem to me that we, as a country, have crossed that moral line between the righteous protector/defender and the bully. It's sad enough that in the most powerful quarters of our government, aggression seems to have become an accepted modus operandi, a reaction of choice. It's even sadder that we feel obliged to teach others--even if against their better nature--to be bullies like ourselves.
I'm not a pacifist. I lived through World War II. And while the argument that violence leads only to more violence has a dreadful and undeniable logic to it, I still believe that there are times when it is necessary. I have the sick feeling that it might be necessary in Afghanistan, where a ruthless band of fanatics is still ready to kill and maim in order to achieve its goals. But the results of violent intervention are all too evident in Iraq, where our rash and foolhardy aggression has succeeded only in re-igniting a bloody history of internecine strife that is centuries old and obviously beyond our competence and control. The lesson, it seems to me, where violence is concerned, is the wisdom that is arrived at only through thoroughly self-questioning foresight and restraint.