A Potential for Brutality Growing up in China near the end of the Cultural Revolution, Yinong Young-Xu witnessed cruelty and violence. Now in the U.S., he believes he must avoid exercising the brutality he learned as a child.
NPR logo

A Potential for Brutality

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/7693473/7715250" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
A Potential for Brutality

A Potential for Brutality

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/7693473/7715250" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

(Soundbite of This I Believe intro)

BLOCK: Among the listeners who sent us essays for our series This I Believe is today's contributor, Dr. Yinong Young-Xu. He grew up in China, in Shanghai, and immigrated to the United States when he was 16. He's now an epidemiologist at the National Center for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in White River Junction, Vermont.

Here's our series curator, independent producer Jay Allison.

JAY ALLISON: In his clinical work with PTSD, Dr. Young-Xu sees mainly Iraq war veterans. Every day he reckons with the consequences of human violence. But the foundation of his belief goes back to harrowing events he experienced many years ago as a child in China. Here's Dr. Yinong Young-Xu with his essay for This I Believe.

Dr. YINONG YOUNG-XU (National Center for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder): I believe in our innate potential for brutality. When I was six, in the streets of Shanghai, near the end of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, I watched the parade of trucks carrying political dissidents on their way to be publicly executed. At the front of each truck was a young man, roped from head to toe, and wearing a sign that said counter-revolutionary. If not for that, you would have had trouble guessing what the event was.

There was an air of festivity. Thousands of bystanders were laughing, talking, gesturing and pointing at the prisoners. The whole population of Shanghai must have been there. It was like a traditional Chinese New Year's celebration — except the city was celebrating its own brutality. I believe that we are brutal because innocence can be corrupted, like mine was as a six-year-old in a time of revolution.

When I entered first grade, I started to wave flags, denounce the politically fallen of the day, and shout, Death to counter-revolutionaries. My friends and I did not want to miss any of the meetings, where political dissidents were publicly tortured and humiliated. That was entertainment for us, just the way movies are for American kids. Science has taught us that normal genes in cells can be damaged or mutated to become deadly oncogenes that result in cancer.

I believe brutality is a disease just like cancer; each and every one of us is at risk, including me. I used to fantasize about revenge against the Japanese for the atrocities they committed against the Chinese in World War II. Once I reduced an utterly innocent Japanese girl to tears. I said many cruel things and couldn't stop the venom from pouring out, even though I had already begun to feel sorry for her. When our better instincts are suppressed, isn't that the beginning of brutality?

I am fortunate. I was too young to be a Red Guard, where my brutality would have been codified. And I had a grandmother who showed me the value of kindness. My own capacity for brutality has never been fully tested. But I believe it is always there. We're taught not to smoke in order to prevent carcinogens from damaging the genes in our cells. I wish we could learn to prevent hatred from forming and brutality from actualizing. I teach my children that hitting is not allowed, period.

I encourage them to be compassionate, to aid those in need, and to stand up for the weak. Most of all, I try to be vigilant over the purity of my motives and cautious about my actions. I believe I must guard against my own potential for brutality and the mutation of my own humanity.

ALLISON: Dr. Yinong Young-Xu with his essay for This I Believe. Dr. Young-Xu's belief finds echoes in his work with Iraq war veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder. For them, he says, the human capacity for brutality has been proven, and they are changed by the irrevocable knowledge of it. If you, like Dr. Young-Xu, would like to join the more than 22,000 people who have sent us essays for our series, please visit npr.org.

For This I Believe, I'm Jay Allison.

BLOCK: Next Monday on MORNING EDITION, a This I Believe essay from Amy Lyles Wilson(ph) of Nashville, who draws on the resilience of old women.

Copyright © 2007 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.