Jekyll and Hyde in the daily news

   (The Charleston Gazette, Feb. 24, 2004)

   (distributed by Knight-Ridder-Tribune syndicate)


By James A. Haught

REMEMBER that great old whimsical movie, "The Russians are Coming, the Russians are Coming"? At the worst of the Cold War, goes the story, a stranded Soviet submarine wound up in a New England fishing village. The villagers and the U-boat crew got into an armed standoff, poised to kill each other -- until a child half-fell from a church belfry. The Reds and Yanks dropped their hostilities, ran to the church, and helped each other save the dangling kid.

Without saying it overtly, the film spotlighted a baffling contradiction: the paranoid instinct of people to hate and kill each other, contrasted by the gregarious instinct of people to like and help each other.

We humans have both urges inside us, all the time. It's a driving force of life. It shows up constantly in the daily news. Read the newspaper, or look back through history, and you'll see endless examples of each.

Personally, I think our survival depends on fostering the cooperative urge and suppressing the deadly one. But many others believe in survival by firepower. Under President Bush, America spends $400 billion a year on lethal weaponry -- more than the next 25 nations combined -- while the United Nations tries to prevent those killing instruments from being used.

The paranoid tendency produces other results besides nationalistic arms buildups. Father Sadie of Sacred Heart Co-Cathedral gave me a superb book written by a Catholic priest-professor. It's <I>Violence in God's Name<P> by the Rev. Oliver McTernan.

It describes multitudes of faith-tinged conflicts: Christians and Muslims killing each other in Nigeria, Sudan, Indonesia, Armenia, Philippines, East Timor, etc. Catholics and Protestants killing each other in Ulster. Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs killing each other in India. Jews and Muslims killing each other in Israel. Buddhists and Hindus killing each other in Sri Lanka. And Muslims killing Americans in the 9/11 tragedy.

Actually, it's impossible to determine whether religion is a major factor in these ethnic horrors, or whether it merely provides labels for groups locked in political, economic, social and cultural strife.

My own theory goes like this: Anything that divides people -- whether it's skin color, language, geographical territory, economic class, politics, sexual orientation, family clan, ancestral tribe, cultural customs, etc. -- puts them into camps alien to each other.  Suspicion and resentment can grow, turning deadly. It's a shame that religion is one of the dividers separating people into rival groups.

As for the lethal urge in humanity, maybe it never can be eradicated. It seems ingrained in primate genes. Chimpanzees are affectionate, curious, fun-loving creatures -- but gangs of young male chimps also stage murderous raids on nearby colonies, beating fellow chimps to death. Sounds human, doesn't it?

Male testosterone apparently is the culprit. Retired Charleston physician Ray Haning points out that female cows are placid creatures you can walk among safely -- but a testosterone-laced bull may kill you if you turn your back.

Since testosterone is a permanent part of our biology, is the built-in contradiction locked into humanity forever? For the next million years, must people suffer recurring binges of slaughter -- as has occurred in all human history so far -- after which they pick up the pieces and resume trying to build orderly, cooperative lives?

I wish Dr. Jekyll could suppress Mr. Hyde. I wish the kindness instinct would prevail -- as in the make-believe movie in which Russian submariners and New England villagers changed from enemies to friends. Currently, Canada and most of Western Europe seem to be moving away from militarism. Keep your fingers crossed. But the rest of the daily news, month after month, year after year, doesn't offer much hope yet.

<I>Haught is the Gazette's editor.<P>