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Hey Tough Guy

Ever since Liam Neeson starred in Taken, it seems like a special kind of movie hero is having his cultural moment: the guy who’s been pushed too far, who flips the table so much it scares the villains. He’s angry, he’s warned you, and if you knew what he was capable of, you’d be afraid. Don’t push them too far; you wouldn’t like them when they’re angry, etc. That’s the idea, anyway.

It seems like a persistent idea in the self-image of the middle classes on up, that deep down, you know, they’re fierce. It’s an idea that’s been around long enough to form its own cliches, and like any cliche, it’s been around long enough to harden into something that doesn’t bear much relation to reality anymore.

It’s not that I hate this idea, really. It can be split into two parts. One – the average, acceptable part – is saying something like you should be able to defend yourself with as much force as you need to if your physical self is in danger. That’s not really under debate; everyone agrees with this, in principle. The second part, though, extends it by saying something like, it’s a hidden strength to be able to break out the heavy force, and in fact not a bad idea, either. And that’s the problematic part.

There’s a good book called God’s Middle Finger, about the people living in the Sierra Madre mountains of northern Mexico. It’s an area where the law is weak to nonexistent and the drug trade dominates everything. As a result, the bandit, as a type, finds his fullest expression there; there, you can find toughness taken to its illogical extreme. They’ve made a religion out of it. To follow it, amorality isn’t enough; you must be evil. This goes beyond retaliation for insults, or any kind of eye-for-an-eye justice which at least requires a missing eye first. Drive into the wrong town? They might kill you. Take the wrong road? They’ll kill you for that, too. Really, they’ll kill you for anything; there doesn’t need to be an excuse. If you want to raise the stakes, they’ll double them; in these kinds of competitions, there’s a never-ending upping of the ante. They’ll kill people who live in the same town as you do, just because. It is impossible to exaggerate their lack of concern for life, something so established now that dying in your teens is normal. So, how do you compete with that?

Something similar happened in Colombia. The contrast between the kidnapping in that movie and how they go down in real life is instructive. In real life, if you ever get a call about a kidnapping, they don’t grandstand, or make long speeches, or try to add to the fear they know is already there. They are fully in control, and they work that angle, intelligently. You get a casual call once every few months, reminding you that the hostage is fine and could you please send money. The next call? Could be weeks, could be a half-year or so. You don’t want to pay up? Fine; losing one hostage is a minor business cost which has already been absorbed into the model.

And ultimately, really: what are you doing to do about it? Are you going to fly down and patrol the jungles they literally maintain with a guerrilla army, and fight them? It’s not enough to be able to fire a gun, or be willing to kill with it; that’s just the ticket for entry. You have to be committed to raising your own fighting force and surviving there indefinitely, hunting around for people who’ve spent their whole lives playing these games and honing their skills against a real army, and are unconcerned if someone else wants to join the party. It’s their game; that’s what it means to take up a gun and use it to make your living. It’s their job, they’ve each put 15+ years into it, and there’s 20+ of them. They are basically professional soldiers, and they love this.

Marines Sweat It Out With Guatemalan Kaibiles

Multiply times 100.

If you’ve been exposed to a society where endemic violence is an issue, this problem is familiar. Even if people are willing to choose sides, they’ll still resent the fact that they have to choose at all. In the end, many people just leave. They may not look down on people who live like this (if we are talking about the ‘good’ side of this hypothetical conflict), but they might not want to devote a lifetime to living like this, just because of the choices other people made before they were born. And even if you fight on the good side for good reasons, you might do everything right and still die at 20, because that’s what it means to live in a violent society. And who wants that?

In a way, at the level of the society (and not the individual), *not* choosing that is what gives you a solid middle class. It’s a drain for everyone to have to halt their business for an unproductive civil war interlude, which is only possible because society generated enough wealth before the war to support it. By giving up the time it would take to teach everyone how to be a soldier, and restricting it to 5 to 10 years for the much smaller group that chooses active service, you free up the necessary time to learn other skills, whether they be electrical, in construction, mathematical, technological, or other. The middle classes’ real strength, in other words, is not that they’re tougher than everybody else (they may not be), or that they can shoot guns better (probably not), that they’re crazier (doubtful) or that they’re more willing to turn to violence in a pinch (definitely not). Their strength is intellectual; they’re better educated. That’s their base. Forgetting that is a mistake.

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