In New Guinea, where the native people do battle with each other as a matter of honor — rival clans in the highlands have fought wars that last for decades, and each killing leads to a retalitory murder.
I read about this vengeful society in a recent issue of The New Yorker. Jared Diamond wrote about Daniel Wemp, whose uncle was killed in a battle against the neighboring clan; these two clans had been battling each other for 30 years because a pig owned by a member of one clan had ruined the garden belonging to a member of the other. And because the son of the slain man was only 6 years old and Daniel’s father was too aged, Daniel was expected to avenge his uncle’s death. It took three years and 29 more killings before he was able to dispatch his uncle’s killer, but he fulfilled his obligation, and the feud continues.
For another view on this topic, read Peter Huston's opinion here.
The violence in that society reminds me of “West Side Story”, in which members of rival street gangs, the Jets and the Sharks, hated each other because one gang was white and the other was Puerto Rican. There is a love story in this play — Tony of the Jets falls in love with Maria, who was the sister of Bernardo, of the Sharks, and Maria sends Tony to stop a rumble between the two gangs. Things get out of hand and by the end, Tony is the third person killed in back-an-forth revenge violence. His body is carried off the stage by members of both gangs, a romantic ending to this Romeo and Juliet plot.
The finale of this Hollywood musical is not what happens on New Guinea, nor on the streets of Schenectady, Albany, Chicago, or any other city where gangs are rife. It’s not because a pig uprooted another man’s garden or any other such event that gangs fight each other. It’s just that the members of the gangs don’t have any other families other than their gangs, and today, in a world that seems to be armed to the teeth on every front, kids in grammar school have guns and use them in their battles.
In Chicago more than 40 kids have been killed this school year, all by guns. In Schenectady, the Public Safety Commissioner Wayne Bennett blames the gun violence on personal vendettas, not drug wars or any other more “serious” matters. Last Tuesday night there was yet another community meeting to discuss the city’s gun problems. Among the many suggestions was that parents stop arguing with children, lay down the law, and/or spank them.
There also has been violence in Albany and Troy recently, involving guns and at least a few deaths.
When I was a kid, the Sergeant Street Gang kept me from venturing on that street during my formative years. Still, I wasn’t afraid of getting shot, because guns were not in the hands of minors on the streets of Cohoes, even those terrorists from Sergeant Street. Generally disputes were settled with fists or merely imprecations.
And it wasn’t because we didn’t know what guns were. Certainly there were enough gangster movies we had seen while growing up: “Scarface,” “Public Enemy,” “Little Caesar,” “G-men,” with Cagney, Muni, Robinson and others mowing people down with tommy guns and gats, were a regular part of our lives. After our ritual Saturdays at the Rialto, the shows we saw gave us inspiration for our games of cops and robbers, using wooden guns or sticks and saying, “Bang! I got you, Richie, behind your father’s car ...”
Before street guns
It’s too bad that we can’t go back to the “good old days” when kids’ gangs were less dangerous, and we never even thought of challenging a cop or killing our “enemies” with guns or any other weapons. However, that was also a time when our country was fighting the Germans and the Japanese with guns, flamethrowers, cannons, and all manner of weapons meant to injure, maim, and otherwise cause grievous bodily harm to the enemy.
We have the same kind of rivalry that existed in the world now as we did in the 1940s, but there is a difference now. On the homefront there are too many young men toting guns. It’s a little like the Wild West, where everyone walked around with pearl-handled revolvers strapped to their waists as they entered the swinging doors of those ubiquitous saloons. Perhaps we might use the biblical exhortation and have those kids armed today beat their swords (or guns) into plowshares, though it is unlikely that the ones with the guns would know what to do with something that required more effort to use than simply squeezing a trigger. A sad commentary on their limited education.
K.C. Halloran lives in Melrose. The Gazette encourages readers to submit material on local issues for the Sunday Opinion section.