The above beginning words of the familiar English rhyme are well known and perhaps especially so to anyone who has suffered a taunt or taunts on a school play-ground. Aimed at helping the victim by teaching non-retaliation, the words express a noble thought. But the words of the rhyme lie because words do hurt. Words mis-lead. Words matter because they influence our thinking.
For example, let’s look at a group of words often used in our culture— “non-violent crime.” The phrase does not need parsing for us to reach a thorough understanding of it and its relation to crimes of a specific type. Crimes such as theft, arson of personal property and fraud, tax crimes, along with drug and alcohol-related crimes and prostitution and gambling and bribery are a few of crimes listed as non-violent because there is no force used in the commission of the crime.
In 1 Timothy 5:23 Saint Paul writes, “Drink no longer water, but use a little wine for thy stomach’s sake and thine often infirmities.” Now, I like that verse. I cherry pick it to justify my use of alcohol. However, my preacher describes alcohol as “violence in a bottle.” I believe both are good observations for alcohol. Our culture accepts and uses alcohol freely, and even some states, such as Virginia, open their state liquor stores on Sundays. Virginia also manufactures and sells its own brand of moonshine. Some states have legalized marijuana, another drug like alcohol. Is the occasional use, or, as the alcohol advertisements say, use responsibly, consumption of alcohol non-violent? Of course. But, what if a drinker has that one too many and becomes intoxicated? Are her actions going forward non-violent?
Out of the War on Drugs came mandatory sentences. These guidelines are now viewed as draconian, and many organizations are working to free prisoners who were given unreasonable sentences, often life for first offenders such as Ms. Alice Johnson. Johnson, a first-time offender, who was charged with conspiracy to buy and distribute cocaine, and money laundering. She was sentenced to life in prison, but she has just been pardoned by President Trump. I applaud his action, and I hope that many others who were overly punished will be granted pardons. Their crime or crimes are described as non-violent ones, just like the seller of methamphetamines in the Shenandoah Valley whose girlfriend expressed anger at the stiff sentence he received because “he hadn’t hurt anyone.” But what of the children of the users he sold to? Were they not victims of the parent’s addiction? And the world’s oldest profession is viewed as a non-violent crime because no person is forced to take money from another so that one of them can gain fleeting, physical satisfaction.
It would be silly to claim that my having a drink or two with friends or during a meal as violent. However, that “drink or two” has enormous potential to turn suddenly violent. More than one person has suffered from “liquid courage” and perhaps spoken harsh words to a spouse or friend. I grew up in a home where a liquid fortified, angry father beat my mother. While these are not violent events compared to a drunk driver barreling down an interstate the wrong way, they do have victims. But what of the woman, usually, who allows someone to use her body for selfish gratification. No one is forced, but it is violence to another human being and oneself.
Ms. Johnson is called a non-violent offender, but I don’t agree. Her attempted purchases of cocaine and her money laundering did have victims. The money laundering enabled some dealer to sell cocaine to addicts who themselves were victims and the addict probably has family who were victims of her habit. Yes, the selling is not forced, but the buyer and her society are victims, as is the seller.
Any crime is violent because all crime has a victim or victims. To call it less is one more lie that we perpetuate.