12/24/2006 06:18 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Barbarians at the Gates

Violence is everywhere. We have been appalled and sickened by the
videos of beheadings by Islamic terrorists. We have reeled in disgust and
disbelief at the pictures of our own soldiers humiliating and torturing
Iraqi prisoners. And now, we have the strange, mysterious case of
Alexander Litvinenko, who was poisoned in London with a small but lethal
dose of polonium-210.

Can we say it was a more "civilized" crime than beheading? No, just
more sophisticated.

Nor can we can say that state execution by injection is more
"civilized" than death by hanging or the electric chair. The two recently
botched cases of capital punishment in California and Florida are just
different facets of the same problem: we are back in the dark ages when it
comes to respect for human life.

We have had centuries of massacres, pogroms, genocide and "ethnic
cleansing" -- ranging from the unholy Crusades and the Inquisition to the
horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The atrocities are not merely directed against the foreign "enemy",
but also the perceived "enemy" within. Even before the Inquisition, the
Catholic church was burning French Catholic Cathars and Templars for
heresy. The infamous witch hunts in the American colonies (and in Europe)
killed an estimated one million women who were drowned or burned at the
stake -- a veritable sexist holocaust.

And the Holocaust of our own past century, and the extermination of
Armenians, of Cambodians, of Kurds, of Somalis and Ugandans and countless
others..... can one say that the human race has evolved since the Stone
Age? The means of killing have changed; not the dark impulses that
provoke it.

And most shockingly, we are encouraging and furthering this trend.
Violent video games are the gift of choice this Christmas. We are turning
our children into virtual murderers. Maxwell Maltz, decades ago, wrote in
his book, "Psycho-Cybernetics", that the brain cannot distinguish between
real events and fictional events, so the more we passively watch violence
on television or film, the more passive we will be when real violence
erupts in our neighborhood or our nation. And recent studies show that
ongoing exposure to violence, real or virtual, actually alters the
synapses of the brain. And so, unblinkingly, we buy guns and run riot at
sports events and succumb to road rage.

I don't know how we change direction here, or halt the trend.
Self-monitoring of the entertainment industry doesn't work. Censorship is
considered to infringe on Freedom of Speech. Boycotts by well-meaning
consumers are sporadic and short-lived, at best.

Perhaps we are doomed to open the gates to the barbarians, and await
the Armageddon that will send us back into the Stone Age, to begin all
over again. That may be over-dramatizing, but more than ever, "Peace on
earth, goodwill to men" seems like a mockery -- a hollow prayer, a dream
forever deferred and forgotten.