Violence and power need blood. They feed on it, just as cars feed on gasoline.
When we want to hurt people, entertain ourselves at their expense, or capitulate to our most base instincts, we lust for blood.
Bloodshed usually shocks people. To be made socially acceptable, it must be marked by ritual.
Creating rules about bloodshed lets us quench our thirst for violence without self-castigation or concern that we are giving in to our most base instincts.
With respect to causing bloodshed, ritual forms the dividing line between criminal and honourable behaviour. In the world of entertainment, for example, rituals govern the spilling of blood for the pleasure of those watching sports.
You can hit a weaker boxer over and over to draw out the punishment. This brings to mind Muhammad Ali, calling out, “What’s my name?” as he spent fifteen rounds beating the stuffing out of Ernie Terrell in 1967, to avenge Terrell’s insistence on calling him Cassius Clay — the name he had before becoming a Muslim.
You can coax the blood to flow and you can beat your opponent so badly that he is thoroughly humiliated as a form of public entertainment, but you cannot hit a boxer when he is down. That’s outside the rules. Not permitted by ritual.
I can think of no other professional team sport so obsessed with violence, and in which violence has such an overtly sanctioned role, as professional hockey.
Fighting in hockey is highly ritualistic. Informal but very real rules are followed: each combatant should agree to fight, face the other directly, and drop his gloves; and it should end when the first fighter tumbles to the ice.
I cannot for the life of me understand why we allow men to brutalize each other like this in sport, and I do not believe for a moment that it is good for these combatants — in the moment, or later, when coping with head trauma and emotional stress.
Certain forms of bloodshed are not permitted, and warrant the maximum penalty imaginable. If you shoot and kill someone in a state where capital punishment is allowed — in Texas, for example — you stand a chance of being executed.
We are back to Biblical references — many people these days rely on the dictum ”an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.“
Bloodshed is permitted only in highly controlled rituals of publicly sanctioned violence. In such moments, we drink it up.
For a country where bloodshed was wantonly and publicly celebrated as part of capital punishment, though, one must look to France and its use of the guillotine.
During the French Revolution, a violent movement during the last decade of the eighteenth century to overthrow the monarchy and institute Republican government, the use of the guillotine rose as part of the so-called Reign of Terror. In less than one year (1793–94), it is estimated that more than sixteen thousand enemies of the revolution were guillotined in France. That works out to forty-three beheadings a day.
In revolutionary France, and in so many other homicidal regimes, leaders used the spectacle of blood to exert power and to exact conformity.
In the last fifteen years, we have witnessed the publication of two series of books with unprecedented sales. Both series were aimed at children or young adults. And both dealt with blood. Blood didn’t merely spill in the books.
These books — which, combined, have sold well over half a billion copies and have been devoured by children (and many adults) worldwide — turn on the very concept of blood purity.
In Twilight, Bella Swan is a “good girl” who falls in love with the vampire Edward Cullen, who, in turn, protects and falls in love with her.
The one recent children’s literary phenomenon even more famous than Twilight is J. K. Rowling’s seven-part series about wizards, named after protagonist Harry Potter.
Voldemort, the antagonist who pursues Harry to the very end of the series, is obsessed by notions of blood purity.
Even though almost nobody in the world of Harry Potter is a pure-blooded wizard, Voldemort (also of mixed background) and his followers are on a vendetta to exterminate wizards with any so-called blood impurities, who are known as “mudbloods” or “half-bloods.” J. K. Rowling has noted that in writing the Harry Potter series, she had in mind the obsessions with racial purity held by Nazis and other white supremacists.
The obsession with blood purity is imaginary in the Harry Potter series, but it underpins murderous tendencies and genocidal behaviour that have repeated themselves all too many times in real life. Over and over, in the course of history, humans have invoked notions of blood purity to justify atrocities.
Perpetrators of genocide — who massacred indigenous peoples in the Americas, the Armenians in the Ottoman Empire (now Turkey), the Jews during the Holocaust, ethnic minorities in Cambodia, the Tutsi in Rwanda, the people of Darfur, the people of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and so many others — all demonized their victims by alluding, directly or indirectly, to the impurity of their blood.
In the case of the Rwandan genocide, which took the lives of an estimated eight hundred thousand Tutsis and moderate Hutus in 1994, radio broadcasts and newspaper reports repeatedly referred to the Tutsis as “cockroaches” and urged listeners to kill them.
To identify and shed subconscious beliefs that should be relegated to the Dark Ages, we must agree that blood is no determinant of human difference. In our bodies, and in the red stuff that courses through our veins and arteries, we are one and the same.