Coming to terms with my own violence

April 20, 1994|By H.B. Johnson Jr.

I'VE committed some terribly violent acts, and people want to know why. What is there in a man, they want to know, that leads him to try to kill another man?

On Aug. 28, 1982, I almost killed a man in a robbery. The shooting was an accident, but my attempt to take something that did not belong to me was not. I fully intended to take that man's money. Not only that -- and this, upon reflection, is the most shocking -- I committed that crime not more than three months after being released from a prison, paroled after serving six years for another violent crime, another armed robbery.

Why did I do those things? Drugs? Lunacy? Some sort of subliminal sexual satisfaction?

I found the answer while I was in the Maryland State Penitentiary. The irony of it all is that the prison itself had nothing to do with my discovery.

I found the answer from people who were trying to help me, and from a girl named Azalea, my daughter. These people, through their interest in my life, through their genuine human concerns, helped me to see and understand several important things.

I learned something about violence. It stems from alienation and fear, and there's potential for violence in all of us as we confront our fears. "It's a UFO! Let's shoot it down!" . . . "It's a Martian! Let's kill it before it eats us or gives us an incurable disease!"

"It's a Christian, a Jew, a Muslim! A Buddhist! A Hutu! A Tutsi! Let's destroy them before they fill our souls with germs!" "It's uh niggah! Jail him 'fo' my young'un turns black! . . . It's uh crackuh! Hate him 'fo' my children turn white!"

All of these things, all of these features of alienation, are facts of our daily existence. There is a terrible fire in alienation. Like the blistering heat of a summer's day, this fire is invisible.

But unlike that heat, the fire of alienation is, like odor, constantly sensed but never felt. It's simply a powerful discomfort that seems forever there.

The people who came to rescue me from the fire of alienation did so by putting me in touch with the reality of the fire. I just happened to be in the penitentiary when they arrived with that help -- when they arrived with buckets of love, concern and care. I just happened to be in prison when these people doused the flames of alienation burning deep within me. These people told me it was all right. It was all right to have AIDS. It was all right to make a mistake. It was all right to join the human race.

I learned that violence is a waste because it counters the goodness in all of us and because it is so hurtful. The doctor at shock trauma put it best when he said, with a tear in his eye after treating a gunshot victim: "People are alone and they are hurting."

H. B. Johnson Jr. writes from Baltimore. His play, "Smooth Disappointment," won the 1993 WMAR-TV drama competition.

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