The recent right wing terrorist attacks on American soil are evidence of a seething rage that simmers beneath the surface of society. These random, unprovoked acts of unthinkable savagery are almost always committed by men, usually white, and usually unremarkable in every way thinkable. They have failed in life and commit gruesome acts of destruction to give themselves some sense of accomplishment — a desperate cry for attention to make meaning of their meaningless existence.
There is little I have in common with Cesar Sayoc, the man allegedly responsible for sending bombs to CNN and other prominent Democrats, or Robert Bowers, the terrorist who murdered 11 elderly Jews at the Synagogue of Life in Pittsburgh. But they are men who once had hopes, dreams and aspirations just like myself. And just as they had violent, angry impulses that manifested themselves in terrifying ways, I too struggle with the same instincts that most men are born with. So I can, if I put my mind to it, attempt to understand where these men and their hate is coming from
Recognizing the rage
Yesterday, while training Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, I lost my temper with a new member of the club. I have been training Jiu Jitsu on an off for years so have a good amount of experience and know how to spar safely with others. When young, inexperienced men start training, they often treat each sparring session as a fight and actively try to hurt their training partner. This is quickly beaten out of them as they get controlled and mauled at will by more experienced practitioners. Those who can swallow their pride and continue training after being humiliated by smaller, weaker men (and women) can progress in the art. Those who cannot leave, and are rarely seen again.
The man I trained with yesterday thought he was in a fight. He had a little experience, and was strong, and very aggressive. I submitted him quickly a couple of times as he made several basic mistakes, but I realized he wasn’t trying to learn anything from me. The more we rolled, the more aggressive he became and he began actively trying to hurt me by attempting to grab my throat, and break my arm while in a defensive position (to achieve a joint lock or choke, you must always be in a position of control, so the art is based around figuring out how to get to that position). In a neutral position, he grabbed hand and tried to break it by bending it backwards. This is not good Jiu Jitsu etiquette, so I broke free and looked at him to say “not cool”. He paid no attention and continued trying to attack. I thought I might have been mistaken, so put my hand back in the same position. He went for it again, and this time started trying to break my fingers — a very serious Jiu Jitsu infraction that angered me greatly. I flipped him over aggressively and gained top position, then dropped my weight on his stomach very heavily through my knee. He was tired so I knew he would not be tensing and the effect was immediate. He groaned out loudly in pain and quit immediately. He refused to continue sparring and could not look me in the eye — the trademark move of a bully and man who does not understand very much about himself.
On my part, I began to feel guilty almost immediately. I asked my wife, who hates fighting, whether I had overreacted when I got home. She assured me that I did nothing wrong. “That’s what you get for being a dick” she said uncharacteristically. “He deserved that.”
Still, I was still somewhat shocked at how fast my anger arose, and how quickly I was able to block feelings of empathy and hurt another human. It was as if a completely different person had overtaken my body for 30 seconds, then left as soon as the threat was over. This has happened to me on a number of occasions, and thankfully after years of training, it only occurs under extreme circumstances. The whole episode got me thinking about violence, and how innate it is to the human species — and particularly men. The man I had sparred with did not understand himself or the violent rage that existed within him and it had manifested itself in an extremely negative way. And while I understood this rage better and was able to control it until he tried to break my fingers, it had still emerged. Hopefully, the man I sparred with will return to Jiu Jitsu and learn to control his rage. I plan on doing the same.
It occurred to me that the middle aged men responsible for the terrorist attacks this past week (Sayoc was 56 and Bowers 46) had lived their entire lives without ever confronting or coming to terms with the violence and rage that lay within them. Left unchecked for decades with no effective outlet, both men let their monsters grow, and grow, and grow, until they became uncontrollable. Their irrational hatred of Democrats, Jews and other minorities was a reflection of the way they felt about themselves, and their final acts of depravity symbolized their submission to the monster. It is much easier to give way to hate, and Sayoc and Bowers submitted to it like the cowards they were.
The manipulators of hate
One of the reasons I saw Trump as being an extreme threat to American society was the potential number of men like Cesar Sayoc and Robert Bowers who would take his divisive rhetoric seriously. America has been ripe for a fascist takeover for many years now, with Fox News and Right Wing Talk Radio conditioning white men to blame everyone but themselves for the hatred they feel. They haven’t just fomented a culture of toxic, white masculinity, they have helped create a society with bonafide terrorists who want to massacre Jews and kill liberals politicians. Trump has poured jet fuel on this awful mess, and we are in the process watching the whole thing destroy itself.
The only way out of this mess, it seems to me, is to get to the root of the problem. Trump and his political movement did not create the American crisis of masculinity — it is a product of it. It must be defeated at all costs in the coming months and years, but then the real work has to begin.
It begins with you
If my nasty Jiu Jitsu sparring session has taught me anything, it is that the monster within has to be confronted on a personal basis. It exists within us all, and no one can come to terms with it without going through a painful integration process. For me, using Ayahuasca and training Martial Arts seems to help. The monster is still there, and I think it always will be. But I am learning to live with it and use it to my benefit. I would hope that those reading this can also take up their own battle in earnest, and avoid succumbing to negative emotions that can create terrifying problems down the road.
Correction: This article previously stated that all terrorists who attacked America have been men. The San Bernardino terrorist attack in 2015 was in part committed by a woman, Tashfeen Malik.
Ben Cohen is the editor and founder of The Daily Banter. He lives in Washington DC where he does podcasts, teaches Martial Arts, and tries to be a good father. He would be extremely disturbed if you took him too seriously.