Is Violence a Spectator Sport?

By July 25, 2011 no comments Permalink


Andrew Cotto believes we do not need violence to be entertained or educated, nor as part of our political discourse or behavior.


I was coming home one day, not long ago, a lovely spring afternoon with flower seeds in the air and sunshine bouncing off every surface of Brownstone Brooklyn. I walked past the cozy cityscape of boutiques and eateries and bars. I’d called it quits early that Friday at school, put down my papers to pick up my son who was waiting for me outside his preschool class. As I came upon the schoolyard, a crowd had gathered across the street, in front of the “Superette” with the busted sign, an Italian grocery famous for its rice balls Outside the storefront, the herd of heads and shoulders was large, spilling into the street. Cops were taping off the adjacent blocks and an ambulance screamed its way toward the crowd. Something was wrong. Very wrong. Someone had to be hurt. Bad. Crowds like this only gather for one reason: violence.

Turns out, two guys had a fight at the superette. Turns out, they both had knives. Turns out, both got cut pretty bad. Both men were from the neighborhood: one of them out on parole; the other the owner of a popular pizza joint. They knew each other growing up. They had a fight in the rice ball shop and knives were drawn. Holy shit. Story of the week in New York City, and story of the year in the neighborhood: blood on the streets in gentrifying Brooklyn. I’m sure the writers at Law & Order have already ripped this story from the headlines (look for the episode sometime next year).

In the aftermath, neighborhood adults from both “schools” – old and new – talked about the superette knife fight non-stop. Rumors floated. Theories abound. The children, including my own, at the grammar school across from the carnage, couldn’t be kept from the truth. Part of their innocence was sacrificed that day: within view of their school, two grown men fought with knives and blood had been spilled on their sidewalks.

And it made me wonder: what is it about violence that creates such fascination? And, more importantly, when does this fascination lead to participation? No one is born with an instinct for violence. It is acquired. And it is common.


I think about those who grow up way too fast, angry and instinctively prone to violence. Those who carry guns because fists can’t settle the depth of their scores. The women who take the knuckles of men. The children who take the shame of adults. And what about the zealots who take their violence to the innocent masses, like Timothy McVeigh or the 9/11 jihads or the villains of Mumbai or Columbine? And what about this man from Norway? What could lead someone to take up arms against summer campers?

Maybe we could keep as much of the violence as possible off our sidewalks and away from the eyes and lives of our children if we could somehow appreciate what is wrought from the clashing of human beings and the premium we put on it as shielded and fascinated spectators? For it is here, as spectators, where our instincts begin to erode. We do not need violence to be entertained or educated. We do not need it as part of our political discourse or behavior. What if violence is viewed as abhorrent upon others as it would be upon ourselves? What if, in our national holidays, we didn’t only honor only our fallen but also those who fell for our enemies; if we didn’t collectively mourn our lost innocents but the entirety of the innocent who are lost to violence everywhere. What if we put equal premium on every life directly affected by violence: the victims and perpetrators and the respective extensions of each.

Thankfully, the whole knife-fight-at-the-superette story has gone away. Both men refused to testify against the other. Call it what you want: old-world honor or criminal self-preservation. The fact is that the rags of NY don’t have a go-to cover story to report during the trial, stories that our children would see on the way to school and the adults would gossip about over coffee.

I’m sure both men wish that the violence between them had never happened on that perfect spring afternoon they can never have back.

Me, too.

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