When the doorbell rang after nine on a recent weeknight, my wife and I looked up from our important intellectual work (she was on Facebook; I was watching a Sopranos rerun). I wouldn’t say a shiver of fear ran through us, even if that weren’t a cliché, but on our small city’s residential streets, unexpected night visitors are a rarity. We tiptoed to the living room and boldly peeked through the blinds to see that the ringer was a well-dressed man holding a clipboard. We tiptoed away, and the ringer rang no more.

The dread that arose with that first ring was mostly justified by the clipboard—surely we would have been subjected to some sort of spiel had we opened the door—but in truth the dread was not untinged with fear. Our city has very little crime, and we did not even lock our doors for the first 20 years we lived here. But the stranger always arouses fear, a natural instinct for self-preservation with an obvious Darwinian component.

I wonder how much the immigration debate depends on this fear of the stranger, and how the Boston bombers have intensified it. Those others with their unpronounceable names come from places without our values, where violence bubbles just below the surface, apt to erupt in the individual or—see Syria—in the society itself. Isn’t our very civilization threatened by these others, with their primitive ways?

Enter a very young man with the wonderfully appropriate name of Pacifique, whose boyhood during the Burundian civil war was just such a nightmare of violence. In his village,  he tells us in “Playing at Violence,” his story in this issue, families would hide in the forest when rebel militiamen drew near, and children like Pacifique wished “they had been born blind and deaf so they couldn’t see their houses being burned and their mothers being raped before being killed, or hear the sounds of bombs or their parents screaming and crying.”

Pacifique left the village, going to a public boarding school on Lake Tanganyika. There a second child of the civil war, a brutal young man named Chrysostom, who considered the militiamen his friends, terrorized the other students in the school, both physically and psychologically. Isn’t this the sort of psychotic personality that a culture of violence produces? Certainly Pacifique knew other such children from his village for whom “violence became easy and fun,” who years later would brag about the atrocities they’d committed.

What of Pacifique himself? He not only escaped the village but also got out of Africa and found himself at Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts. But did he escape a society in which violence had become easy and fun? Not entirely. The source of that violence, however, may surprise you, and show you just how right his given name is.

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Robert Wilson's most recent book is Barnum: An American Life. He was the editor of the Scholar for more than 17 years.


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