Editor’s Note: This article was submitted by guest author Bill Dolan.
Bruce Cockburn is the guy who wished he had a rocket launcher.
The Canadian singer-songwriter wrote “If I Had a Rocket Launcher” in 1983 after visiting a Guatemalan refugee camp. The song viscerally captures his response to watching government helicopters bomb a defenseless village. The chorus of the anthem states, “If I had a rocket launcher, I’d make somebody pay.” The sentiment in that song illustrates René Girard’s mimetic theory and our human condition that keeps us stuck in cycles of violence. Our first, most natural feeling and a seemingly satisfying response to injustice is to use the same tools as the oppressors. Our righteous indignation at violence leads us to a violent response.
Cockburn knows this. His autobiography, Rumors of Glory (HarperOne, 2014), is more a chronicle of his spiritual and political journeys than a typical rock star’s life story. He documents his searching for faith, how he came to identify as a Christian and his movement from fundamentalist thinking to a more progressive outlook. His successful music career enabled him to travel to many war-ravaged countries such as Nicaragua, Mozambique and Iraq where he served as a witness to give voice to the voiceless. He wrote about what he saw in his songs. He advocated for the poor, the displaced, and the wounded. He lobbied his government to get Canada to sign a treaty to agree not to use land mines in conflict. His travels led him to the realization that “war is the default position of mankind, peace an aberration.”
“Rocket Launcher” is still one of the songs he is most known for. It’s not surprising the song has endured. It feels good to vicariously confront a wrong. The chorus feels right. The unfairness of the situation – bombs dropped by helicopters on unarmed civilians – calls for a response. As Girard describes, humans imitate one another. Despite our outrage at the unjust violence, our response is more violence.
We justify that violence by pointing out the evils of others. In this case, the Guatemalan soldiers are so evil they become deserving of bombs themselves. For Girard, this is the process of scapegoating which allows us to conveniently overlook the fact that we have more in common with the violent ones than we would like to admit. Their violence is evil, our violence is just, we say.
Cockburn discusses his uneasiness with the thought that his song seems to endorse violence. It expresses a real sentiment, a genuine feeling and it resonated with his audience. He was trying to express that, not endorse violence. He doesn’t reference mimetic theory in his book, but Cockburn shows an intuitive understanding of the process Girard describes.
“When I wrote it in 1983, I was trying to share the shock I felt in grasping that had the means been at hand, I was willing to kill Guatemalan soldiers who were perpetrating atrocities against new acquaintances with whom I felt empathy. To me, those men in uniform had forfeited any claim to humanity and should be put down like rabid animals. I was wrong, of course. Far from forfeiting their humanity, they were expressing it. And so was I.”
Cockburn’s reflection sums up our challenge when faced with our reflex towards violence. We should hope for the grace to be aware of it and pray that we can see the humanity of the other.
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