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Some Thoughts on Violence as an Intrinsic Part of Ourselves
It has been a long time since I was part of that world, but the further you draw away from such things, the harder they pull back at you. This is just getting old, I guess. You understand your roadmap a little better, how you got from then to now, there to here.
I first met Brian Cox in York in 2002 or 2003. He was working on the door of the pub I worked in. He was a little older than myself, about the same height but bigger. He spoke in the halting, almost hyperactive way that someone does when their system is always primed.
I was young and easily impressionable, catnip for a guy like Brian, who always seemed to be looking for approval. A sure way to find it is to impress younger men, themselves looking for manhood, is by making yourself out to be a superhero.
He called himself, without irony, “Dangerous Brian,” and insisted that he was known this way around town. The impression he left was that he was a blowhard and a legend in his own mind. Brian was just a chump.
I stayed in that world for a number of years, and in that small city, we lived in our own little community of bars and bouncers and brawls and doors, and everyone in that world knew each other, and we all knew of the loon who told everyone that his name was “Dangerous Brian.”
The thing was that it was a joke. The name sounded like a joke, like a character in a comedy sketch, a suburban Rambo convinced that his small town was a warzone. And that “Dangerous Brian” was a joke meant that he was also a joke. Nothing more than a braggart and a danger only to himself.
And yet I liked him. I worked in security at one point, and we worked together at a third-rate holiday park about an hour’s drive from York. One night, deep into the summer of 2003, we were by one of the playgrounds, and we saw that the kids were playing a little rough. The ground was covered with scattered wood chips, there to cushion any falls, and the kids began to pick up and throw them at each other. The problem is that they were only little kids, themselves barely more than babies, and we knew that soon there would be tears and fights.
Brian left my side and went over to the kids. He waved them all in so they stood in front of him and he knelt and explained in the most gentle and constructive of ways that they should not throw the chips because they were good and they did not want anyone to be hurt. And the kids nodded and agreed, and they went back to playing, but this time without throwing the wooden chips and they were happy and having fun and there were no tears or fights.
Afterwards, Brian bounded over to me, as if nothing that had happened had been out of the ordinary. He shrugged his shoulders, and his giddy, almost hyperactive speech began to return. “Yeah, I’m good with them. It’s because I had such a shitty childhood.”
I believed him on those two things, and they were the only things he ever said that I believed. I had seen he was good with the kids, and I have no doubt that his childhood had been a shitty one. Those stories are common, and it is why he was the way that he was.
He was still a joke, though, and I did not think much about him for years afterwards until I read one day that he had murdered a man, and then he was not a joke anymore. But then none of it was a joke, really – it was just sad and squalid.
Brian killed a man by the name of Mark Webb in York in 2011, probably seven years after I last saw him. It was the story of two violent men that ended badly. Both had come out of long-term relationships – Brian had been with his partner for ten years, Webb had been married. Brian’s partner had taken out a non-molestation order against him; Webb had been accused by his former wife of domestic abuse.
At some point near the end of 2010, less than half a year before Brian would murder Mark Webb, the former would take up with the latter’s estranged wife. Webb did not like this. In February, the month before the murder, Brian would also restart the relationship with his former partner, telling her that his current relationship was “one sided” and that he wanted out.
Violent, threatening text messages pinged back and forth during the day of the murder. An hour before he began to die, Susan Webb sent her former husband a message that said: Why don’t you just do us all a favour and go die?
He replied: I do warn you that if I have to lose my kids then you will to, you don’t scare me no more. He told her that he was “ready to die,” to which she replied that Brian was a “better father” than him. Brian, on hearing about the messages, said to Susan Webb of her husband, “He’s dead.”
Mark Webb went to someone’s house, knowing that Susan Webb would be there with their children. He had been drinking and wanted to see them. He met Brian at the door and they talked. Susan Webb shouted at her former husband to fuck off, and he tried to answer, pushing past Brian. They wrestled into an alleyway where Brian took a knife and slashed at Mark Webb three times, one of them the 19 cm wound to his neck that would kill him.
Testifying in court, witness Rebecca Lucas said, “[Mark Webb] stumbled for a second and then he walked towards Middleton Road, back where he had come from. He had his hand across his body. It was holding his neck. Just before he moved out of my sight, he moved his hand away – I saw it was covered in blood – and he vanished.”
Brian ran, and Webb went to his former marital home sixty-one metres away where he lay down on the floor and died. His former wife then went outside and, using bleach and hot water, cleared the alleyway of blood.
It was over an hour after the incident when police arrived and found Mark Webb, and it would be revealed later that he could have survived if someone had cared enough to try to save him.
Brian went on trial later that year and he claimed that it had been an accident, that the cut had happened accidentally. He said, “As soon as he turned and looked at me and took a step back, I saw the blood. I told him, ‘Calm down, let me help you, you’ve got a bad cut.’ He said, ‘You’ve slashed me, haven’t you?’ And I said, ‘I didn’t mean to, mate, you’ve got a bad cut, we need to stop the bleeding.’” He said that he had used restraint techniques he had picked up while working in security, that he had feared a “bloodbath” if Webb had gotten into the home.
Nobody was convinced, and Brian was found guilty and sentenced to life. He would say to the family, “I would like Mr. Webb’s family to know I am very, very sorry. I understand they hate me. I can truly, truly understand that. I am deeply, deeply, deeply sorry for what I have done. When I go to sleep at night, I see and feel pain. That is going to be with me for the rest of my life. I am deeply, deeply sorry.”
The only way that Brian Cox and Mark Webb were able to communicate with each other was through violence. Their altercation, the murder of Webb by Cox, was both avoidable and inevitable. At some point, there was no longer any forks in their roads.
But to understand their being drawn to, and their reduction to, violence, we need a definition for it. To write about it is easier than making coherent arguments for and against it. It is important to understand, from the beginning, what it is that we are talking about.
Violence is the resolution of conflict through physical force. Some say that the mere threat of violence is itself violence or will point out that it often manifests in sexualised or gendered forms. And these are variant manifestations of violence. But this is a broad and general way to look at violence. In this context, in all contexts, it is about the physical power, or its potential, to resolve conflict.
Look at something like this squalid murder, and you see nothing. There is only a void because so much has been taken from so many, and the holes that are left can never be filled.
I never knew Brian well enough to know what he was thinking when he set out to kill Mark Webb, or what went through his mind in the years and months afterwards, or whether he truly was remorseful for what he did. His son was six years old at the time and Brian called him, before anyone else was called, to say that he loved him. So if there was love in there, then there must also have been some good.
The story is that there were two men whose shared language was violence. Both were trying to impose order on their chaotic worlds, similar in age, socioeconomic status, likely education, skin colour, religious bent, and relationship status. They even had a woman in common. Brian came through a traumatic childhood, and it clung to him long after he thought he had left it, still open. A scar forms from the healing of a wound, and that never happened for him. The odds are fairly good that you would not have had to scratch deep on Mark Webb to find the same.
In writing this, I wanted to reach out to Brian and ask him questions. I was going to write a letter and ask if he remembered me and remembered the children and the wood chips that night. And of how he knelt and spoke so gently, and with such great and soft power because he remembered the part of himself that had once been a child.
I did not write, though, because I did not want to end up producing something that would lighten what he did. I read enough of the trial. Brian is where he needs to be.
I shared a house with someone not long after I saw Brian for the last time and the second week my housemate was there, he spat in the face of his girlfriend during a row. I then had to pull him off of her when he put his hands around her neck and began to squeeze. The police were called, and he sat there and told the officers, an iron bar hidden by his side, that it would take five of them to put him in the back of the van. And then they left and his mother arrived and he cried into her arms, and that was just one story in the time I spent six weeks living with another man of violence.
His name was Robin, and I have no doubt that he will not die from natural causes. If someone does not kill him, he will kill himself or someone else.
I met him because we both needed a place to live, and someone to live with. Robin’s other reasons for being there were murkier. He told me at first that he had wanted to change things, had gotten bored where he lived in another town in northern England, as if that had been reason enough to give up the house he owned in order to move somewhere where he knew nobody and would share a house with a near stranger.
On the day we moved in, Robin pulled apart some of the furniture that the landlord had put into the house, sawed it into pieces, and tried to burn it all in our fireplace. It was another seven days before he beat his girlfriend. In between, he got into his car one day and tore through the local streets, hunting for some teenagers whom he thought had done something.
He spent the day stoned. Our electricity was on a meter key and when it ran out, he used the emergency amount. When that ran out, he just left the house.
Robin gave very few facts of his life. Or, at least, there was very little I heard that I believed. His father, whom he had never met, had been black and his mother was white. He had been bullied as a child for this and brutalised by his mother’s boyfriends who had beaten her while he watched. He had been into cocaine, he told me once, but it had made him aggressive. He said that he was more at peace.
At the end of the first month, he stiffed the landlord on his share of the rent and threatened her when she called him about it. She called me afterwards and demanded that he go. He began to steal from me.
He began sleeping with someone barely out of her teens and when she broke it off after a fortnight, he threatened her and her friend, then lied and said that he had been the one to finish it. I found out about it a week later after he had moved out suddenly.
One of the last things he told me before he left was that he was applying to be a policeman, although the list of offenses he had been convicted of seemed to make it just a pipedream. “The worst thing they had ever gotten me for was murder,” he said. “The only problem was that they couldn’t prove I did it.”
Robin had been a child, too, once and that is a litany of tragedies of young boys who are brutalised so thoroughly that they carry it with them into adulthood. Of everything Robin ever told me, the only part of it I believed was that he was beaten by men when he was a boy.
His story is more common than we would hope. There were two brothers in my primary school who were so close in age and resembled each other so closely that they might have been twins. They were friends with you if they did not bully you and were the kids that your parents did not want you to play with. They grew up and got into martial arts, and by the time they were adults, they were fighting in lower-league MMA events. A few years ago, they were tried and convicted for attacking two Latvian men without provocation, during which they slashed one across the face with a key.
I saw one of our teachers and they told me this story, then nodded in the way that people do when a prediction of theirs has been proven right. Yes, they said, there was a lot of violence in that house and those boys were beaten.
That these boys would become men of violence is more than nature, and more than choice. They were to despise weakness, and their capacities to love and be loved constructively were cauterised. They were turned to violence by violence. How can anything else be expected of them when the only emotions they were ever taught were okay to express were rage and anger?
I do not know what became of Robin, and the truth is that I do not care. But I would hope that he has managed to find peace of some sort, just for the safety of those around him.
The chances, though, are that he will continue to push his odds until, one day, there will be no more Robin. He will be dead by murder or suicide. An accident, possibly self-defence. Violence as a child lessens your chances of growing old.
Men are violent because they can be and women are violent when they have to be. There are exceptions to this rule, but they tend to be the thin end of the wedge. Both sexes have the same predilection for violence, but women are conditioned throughout their lives to resist it. This is because women are generally physically weaker than men. The largest deciding factors are science and biology and while there are obviously also exceptions to this rule, they also tend to be the thin end of the wedge. Both sexes, when the opportunity for violence arises, make a quick assessment. Men start fights that they think they can win.
When women do fight, it is mostly when they think the consequences of not doing so – rape, murder, harm to a beloved one – are worse than a beating. But when you take away that fear, women turning to violence are just as aggressive as men. I have some evidence for this. Some years ago, I ran boxing classes in Berlin, Germany, in a rough part of the city. We ran it two nights a week with twenty students in each session. The split was roughly equal between men and women. My students were nice people, usually well educated, and the type to be caught in a bar brawl.
The same sort of metamorphosis happened to our students over their first few weeks. It would apply to most of the men and all of the women. They would come to their first class and nervously would tell me or the other coach that they wanted to skip, hit bags or mitts, and exercise, but not spar because they did not want to hit or be hit. They were afraid of violence and of violent men with physical, biological advantages that could hurt them.
But then a few weeks would go by, and the new student would see the sparring and how disciplined and controlled it was and of how respectful everyone was to each another, and then they would tell us that they wanted to fight. So we would put them in against someone who knew what they were doing and would not take liberties. And that woman, choosing to fight and without the fear of an uncontrolled beating, would proceed to joyously attempt to beat the shit out of whoever they were in with.
The other time that women turn to violence is when they are so enraged that all risk assessment leaves the room. These fights are vicious and without limit, and their theme is by any means necessary. An enraged woman, much like an enraged man, will use anything within arms’ reach – a bottle, keys, chairs, pieces of metal – in order to prevail, and they will do so against men or other women. These are not conflicts bound by international law or treaty. And, like a juggernaut, they are near impossible to stop once they have started.
There is an interesting dichotomy here between violence that is civilised and the kind that is not.
Civilised violence is when we take violence and apply rules, grades, and limits in order to turn it into sport. There are boundaries that participants are not allowed to cross without penalty. All of it still plays into our civilised veneer, but really we are feeding that animal and instinctive part of ourselves.
The latter, on the other hand, is when the blood rises so quickly in a fever that something beyond acceptable is committed. In France, there is a reason why le crime passionnel was a valid defence. Uncivilised violence knows no limits, nor reason, and ends only with further violence or when the rage that has induced it has run its course.
There are two guys I know who met as boys and grew up together. They stayed in their hometown and married their girlfriends and had children, but then one of them divorced and the other one’s marriage became strained. The one who divorced did so after he discovered the mother of his two children cheating on him. He beat up the other man, and even though that is not the story, it is important. The other, the one whose marriage became strained, is a good man, a decent man, and he loves his wife and his two children. This, too, is important.
And things start to happen when the second man’s wife goes out each week to visit friends and the first, in his taxi, picks her up on those nights and drives her back to the marital home. And, gradually, they grow closer until one night they sleep together. And it happens again and again and again, and the only reason that the first man does it again and again and again is because he can.
There is then this one night when the facts are not clear, not all of them, but enough comes out later so that we can get a better handle on what happened. It is one of those nights when they are together on the back seat and that is not really that special until something happens and it becomes a story.
They are on the back seat, and the husband drives up and sees. And his friend, on the back seat of the car, sees the husband and gets out to face him. And he stands and waits to be punched, but then the husband does not get out of the car but sends it careering towards his friend, who jumps out of the way, and crashes into his own vehicle. And the husband, shaken by the thought that he has nearly killed a man, and nearly done so deliberately, drives off into the night.
And later that night, they will see each other and the husband will apologise for what he did – and nearly did – and they will shake hands, and the husband will pay for the damage to the car, and life will go on. But the truth is that they know that one would have killed the other in that moment, and rather than acknowledge it, they quietly move on, never speak again, and try not to think of it.
Have you ever been to a fight? Have you ever been in one, either civilised or uncivilised? The thing that no one tells you about fighting, about doing it in a civilised way, is that it is fun. In fact, it is damn fun. This is not hyperbole or braggadocio. Fighting is genuinely, genuinely fun, especially when you are young and still feel invulnerable. There is a great pleasure in countering someone’s punch with a better one and seeing their head jolted back, or to hear the pained gasp when a punch lands meatily against the body. If you want to forget everything and live truly in the moment, get into a boxing ring, let the bell go, and war with somebody. It will hurt and parts of you may crack, but I promise that you will think of nothing else for those three minutes. And when it is over, wait a minute, and then go again, and after that, if you can, do it again. Do it again and again and again until you can do it no longer. Your heart will be pounding at the end, your eyes will sting with sweat, your focus will be like a laser. And it will feel good, especially in those moments when the world falls away from you and all there is, all you can see about you, is the hitting and being hit. This is being stripped to the essential.
And people enjoy watching fights, especially if they seem evenly matched. If there is a ball game on one side of the street and a fight breaks out on the other, it is the latter that draws a crowd. There is no great reason why, except that the stakes in a street fight are much, much higher because of the absence of formal rules. Punching, kicking, pinching, gouging, wrestling, elbowing, kneeing, and fishhooking are all on the table. People seem to draw a line, though, at headbutts, and most crowds will be repulsed and quick to move in and stop a fight if it continues long after it is over. And if the fight is instigated by someone much more capable than their opposite, a crowd will also find this repugnant. But often it comes down to who started it and why – there is a comfort in a skirmish if it is a morality play in its own way. Everyone cheers, inside or outside, when the jackass who pinches a girl’s ass in a bar gets his own kicked in return.
We have been a violent species for millennia, and it has been hardwired into us. We create art, and gods, and clothes, but there is little else that separates us from animals. Our needs, before civilisation, were entirely short term – food for the day, shelter from rain and cold, water. Even the long-term survival of our species, to procreate, is wired into quests for immediate and short-term sexual gratification. It is obvious that mother nature knows us better than we know ourselves, and has designed for it accordingly.
Our ancestors knew instinctively, because it was in us from when we were protozoa that we would perish if we did not prevail. A few thousand years of civilisation is not going to expel that overnight. The first thing a newborn baby does, after all, is make a fist.
The language we speak is pregnant with, and formed from, violence. We say, I’d kill for a drink. We say, I’d murder a sandwich. We beat the exam. We crush our rivals, whip them. We do not mean these things literally, but they still lie in the language that we reach for that has been handed down to us over generations.
The chief objective of any organism is to ensure its own survival and, as a result, that of its species. This has only been made possible by the application of violence. It even comes down to the most elemental of biology. Our immune system operates on the basis of killing an infection, then expelling it from the body.
This need for survival is even apparent when we choose to procreate. Mates often choose their reproductive partner by instinctively gravitating towards those that would provide the genetics – athletic ability, all-around good health, facial symmetry, good teeth, height – to give their offspring the best chance at survival.
As a species, we will use any means to survive. Simply, our brains and nervous systems are still operating with the parameters set for us by our ancestors through history. No matter how much of a polish we attempt to add, we are always working from a base of pure survival instinct.
There was this one moment, not long ago, when I would have committed murder. This is not hyperbole, or the puffing-up of a chest, or braggadocio. I would, in those moments, have committed murder. If it had happened, I may have felt badly about it, and there would have been shame over the circumstances in which it would have occurred. I certainly would have had to live with the legal and moral consequences that come from taking a life. But actual guilt over taking the life of the person whose face I did not see?
And yet I doubt I would kill them today if they appeared at my door. I know, for a fact, that I would not.
This person, whoever it was, did not know me, either, when they deliberately drove a tram at myself and my children. We were something in the way, an annoyance. We were crossing a street in Berlin and, as we stepped out, the pedestrian light flicked to red. I had one child by the hand and the other was in a pushchair. It was too late to return or change course, so I tried to hurry with them the couple of steps to the other side.
As we were one step away, the tram driver drove at us, blaring the horn as loud as they could. I leapt with both children, the draft from the tram at our backs. Both of them began to cry. I got that acidic, aluminium-like taste in my mouth. My hands shook. I am certain that with a stumble on that last step we would all have been killed.
I would, in those seconds, have killed that driver. I would have beaten him to the ground and wrapped my inner arm around his neck, and squeezed. Or, if he was on his back, I would have straddled him, crossed my hands over and taken hold of his collar, and pushed my forearms into the soft part of the throat. Different method, same result.
I know what I would have done would come from an instinctive reaction. It would not have been rational, or intelligent, or smart to have done so, but it would have been the only correct thing in the universe at that time. I was, in that moment, the animal seeking to protect its young, to guarantee the survival of its bloodline. The only thing that stopped me was that the tram was receding into the distance.
It was after writing this essay that I heard another story, this one about a boy I went to primary school with. He was younger than I was and generally thought of to be a little soft. And I left school and went on with my life and twenty or so years later I heard about him and of how he had killed a child, beaten it to death for no good reason other than he could. And then he went to prison for too short a time, too short because there is no sentence long enough for such an act. And he went back to our hometown and someone who knew who he was, someone who was unrelated to that child, came to his house and swung at him with a golf club because of all that. And the only thing I could think of when I was told this was, “Fucking idiot—a cricket bat with a nail in it would have worked much better.” And the reason I thought that was because he had killed a child and most people, not matter how peaceful or averse to violence they are, probably feel the same way about such things.
There is no real end to this essay. It is hard to find a terminus when these things are permanent and repeating. Even the beginning was slightly disingenuous. Dangerous Brian was not the first man of violence I ever knew, or the first violence in and of itself. He was just the biggest outlier, the one I know that took it to the limit, and beyond.
I have no real lesson to teach, either. I have no great insight.
There is a cost to violence. It makes you less of whoever you are. Beat someone, and they become less, too. There is nothing uglier than someone broken and defeated. The damage, physical and mental, lingers. There was a man I knew years ago called Andy who would often tell me, sadly, when he was drunk that he had been beaten as a young man, kicked repeatedly in the head, and, consequently, “I’ve never been the same again.” It was never clear when he spoke by which measure he was no longer the same. Another friend, a mere waif of a thing, was beaten into unconsciousness without provocation by another woman at a party and suffered headaches and migraines for more than six months afterwards. She then took up karate. Unlike Hollywood, these things do not end with the beginning of the next scene.
There must be a place for violence, though, because the more we repress it, the bigger the recoil. The further you draw away from such things, the harder they pull back at you. Engaging in violence regularly, and with limits and controls, is not only healthy but vital.
Fighting gyms are healthy and constructive places, supportive and loving. As Joyce Carol Oates once wrote, “Boxing is for men, and is about men, and is men. A celebration of the lost art of masculinity all the more trenchant for being lost.” She was mostly right. Women benefit, too, from engaging in violent conduct. There are few people in this world who are kinder and gentler than fighters, and I have a theory as to why this is. Our natural instinct, our need for survival, is to turn and move away from pain. If you train regularly and invite that pain into your life, you will naturally turn away from it and towards comfort. You move to the things that will not hurt you. You invite them in. You become gentle.
Would Brian, Mark, Robin, the two brothers from my school, or any of the myriad of people I have known attuned to violence benefit from practising it only in a controlled setting? The honest answer is no. Most of them tried. Robin, for sure, was a black belt in karate (or so he said). The two brothers fight in MMA. I suspect that their reason for fighting is simply to fight. There have no greater cause to which they have set their compass.
But there are benefits to it. I have been in this/that world for nearly twenty years, and it has brought many good things into my own life. I still think, in times of stress and conflict, like a fighter. I made a joke once that I thought of everything in my life this way. Much of my life, I wrote, has been a series of incidences in which I’ve been lying on my back, staring at the ceiling, and wondering what the hell just happened. The truth is that this world and way of life have taught me never to worry about getting knocked down, only about getting on my feet again. Somewhere from then to now, I learned how to get back up.
Fighters fight for many reasons, but most fight for their families. To fight in a civilised manner imbues people with the values of respect and honour. It gives them a greater purpose and a self-sacrificing responsibility for others. It is through this embrace of our inner animal that we find a route to reaffirm our humanity.