The Limits of Violence


A viral YouTube post from yesterday shows Toya Graham, a very intense single mom of 6, yelling at her son. They are standing on an urban Baltimore street, surrounded by lots of adolescents and adults. Her son, dressed in black and wearing a hoodie and a mask, appears ready, along with some others, to begin throwing stones at the police. His mother does not approve. She begins to scream at him and he struggles to get away from her. Ms Graham does not back off.  She pursues her son and strikes him – hard – 3 times in the face. Again he tries to get away. His mom does not relent, striking him twice on the back and shoulders. Throughout this 45 second video clip Ms Graham is shrieking and swearing at her son.

What a fearsome experience to be in Toya Graham’s position. To see your child poised to do something that might have dire, even life threatening consequences. What can you do? What must you do?

Over 6.5 million views later, not a few have deemed Toya Graham to be “mom of the year.” They find her mother bear ferocity praiseworthy.  They find her unequivocal condemnation of her son a statement that more such kids need to experience. They find her moral courage to go grab her son to keep him out of harm’s way a true act of affirmation. Ms Graham’s son, they suggest, was getting what he deserved: a beating for a wayward son from a loving mother.

The notion that physical violence and public humiliation are a tried and true part of the armamentarium of parenthood is a commonly held belief. How many generations of children have been beaten because they needed to be punished? What are the ways children have been mortified, called ‘Stupid’ or ‘Fat’, or ‘Disrespectful’ by a parent because they had to be put in their place?

While one can empathize with Ms Graham’s situation and her fear, it is utterly unconscionable to treat another human being – particularly one’s own child! -like she treated her son. There is never justification to hit a child. Indeed, the moment that boundary is crossed, when a person of superior size or strength or age or status uses force, violence becomes a symptom of that person’s loss of control. This is true between parent and child. Ultimately it is also true of an armed policeman and an unarmed victim.

Perhaps this same principle extends to the death penalty. The state is in a superior power position to the prisoner. The state can potentially do anything, imprison you or beat you in the back of a police van. It can The state has the power to invoke the death penalty.

Isn’t the truest measure of mercy and compassion to be found not in the exercise of violence, but rather in restraint? Isn’t resorting to violence, not for self-defense but rather out of anger or racism, an abuse of power? To use violence indiscriminately is to be no different than the perpetrator of the crime itself. To choose to execute another human being is to emulate the murderer. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev may deserve to die. That’s not the point. The point is that we don’t have the right to kill him. A life sentence without possibility of parole yes.  

Homo sapiens is a violent species. We have learned to kill efficiently. And yet the hope is that whatever sacred and/or biological imperative keeps us evolving is moving us towards the ability to make peace and not to make war. The hope is that one day Toya Graham could say or do something to her son besides shame him and hurt him publicly or privately. This is not a lion laying down with the lamb kind of thing. This has to be more than some sort of Messianic wish. More than ever this is what we need. This is something we must do.


Shabbat Shalom


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