“Our words seem small beside the loss you have endured. But I found a few I wanted to share today. I’ve received a lot of letters in these last terrible days. One stood out because it came from a young widow and a mother of three whose own husband was murdered with over 200 other Americans when Pan Am 103 was shot down. Here is what that woman said I should say to you today:
‘The anger you feel is valid, but you must not allow yourselves to be consumed by it. The hurt you feel must not be allowed to turn into hate, but instead into the search for justice. The loss you feel must not paralyze your own lives. Instead, you must try to pay tribute to your loved ones by continuing to do all the things they left undone, thus ensuring they did not die in vain.’
Wise words from one who also knows…
You have lost too much, but you have not lost everything. And you have certainly not lost America, for we will stand with you for as many tomorrows as it takes… My fellow Americans, a tree takes a long time to grow, and wounds take a long time to heal. But we must begin. Those who are lost now belong to God. Some day we will be with them. But until that happens, their legacy must be our lives.”
— William Jefferson Clinton, Oklahoma Bombing Memorial Prayer Service Speech
We must have courage. We have faced violence before. And we will face it again. But whether it comes in the form of community unrest, as it has in Chicago, Illinois—a great city now immersed in crisis, where 260 lives were lost to senseless killings by the time most of us gathered to enjoy 4th of July fireworks shows—or maniacal bloodshed at the hands of an unstable individual, as it did days ago in Aurora, Colorado, this nation and its people can rise. We can and we must. These events are not symbols. They are tragedies. Violence made them tragic. Violence directed by one human being on others. And as in tragedies before, evidence of heroism has been rampant, and those with everything-to-lose remained in the path of violence, and tried to save lives—for the moment, and for the sake of a better future ushered in by the few who spend their lives in service of the many.
After the Columbine High School massacre, Michael Moore’s film, “Bowling for Columbine,” became a lightning rod for the already hyperpolarized policy debate over gun control. Unfortunately, the controversial, confrontational interview of Charlton Heston, depicted in the film, took center stage. Instead of engaging in a reflective dialogue, intended to yield positive results, informed by a diverse set of voices, (including those implicated in the incident, like Marilyn Manson) substance-averse, hackneyed pundits and politicians from both the left, and the right, engaged in bombastic, monological exchanges over which aspects of pop culture had the most negative influence on the attitudes of America’s youth.
A more courageous path would have called on the National Rifle Association to join the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, the Joyce Foundation, the Brady Campaign, the Department of Health and Human Services, the Department of Education, and so forth, in a pledge to educate all children, those who come from households with guns, and those who do not, of the legal, economic, physical, and mental health consequences of gun violence on the individual and the community. Instead of relying on a somewhat cheesy, propagandist effort like “Just say, no,” or relying solely on a series of gruesome images and statistics like, “Red Asphalt,” the film about driving fatalities, or the Montana Meth Project,” famous for its depictions of the consequences of methamphetamine use. What was called for then, and what is called for now, is an uncompromising willingness to expose young people to a comprehensive curriculum about everything that happens to someone shooting a gun, the person being shot, and everyone around these two individuals—families, friends, neighbors, merchants, workers, nurses, doctors, cops, judges, juries, teachers, classmates, etc.—once the trigger is pulled. None of this calls for a dogmatic debate over the 2nd Amendment. But it exhorts speaking the truth in love.
Each life extinguished in Chicago and Aurora is worthy of equal recognition, deserving of our deepest condolences and most heartfelt mourning. Because lost loved ones are irreplaceable, it does us no good to channel our grief and disgust into an anger that seeks a quick and easy outlet. It behooves us to repair each and every crevasse in our society and its systems that facilitates widespread, destructive action on empathy-less intention. I agree that we must have an adult conversation about guns. I do not agree that the greatest good can come from dwelling exclusively on any matter, even this one.
When scans of brain activity, and scientific study of our behavior, prove that Americans suffer from declining empathy exacerbated by notions of racial identity, and differences in socioeconomic class, we are called upon to do much more than engage in proverbial soul searching. Incontrovertible evidence tells us that even persons holding advanced degrees, and committing themselves to fields of public service, such as healthcare and education, do not hold equitable empathy and expectations for whites and people of color, those with evidence of wealth and those who live in poverty, those whose immigration status is undocumented and those whose documentation is current. When a Phi Beta Kappa graduate student in neuroscience displays a complete lack of empathy and humanity, we are called upon not only to analyze our laws and rights. But also our responsibilities and expectations:
Should we not tax media violence the way we tax alcohol, tobacco, sugary beverages, and fatty foods? What if every bullet discharged in a movie cost the studio a substantial dollar amount, and those funds were earmarked toward the prevention and treatment of real world violence? If not for the Supreme Court Fox Television would have paid a $550,000 fine for an “indecent broadcast” during the 2004 Super Bowl Halftime Show. What if an equivalent per-entertainment-bullet tax went toward the benefit and wellbeing of the children in Chicago scarred by homicide? It’s clear that no TV show, video game, film, or album, is legally responsible for the loss of life in Colorado or Illinois. Nevertheless, if we are truly committed to an America free from preventable tragedy, then it only follows that we establish a norm by which the entertainment and gaming industries distribute a percentage of the profits they derive from fantasy depictions of violence, toward the reduction of actual violence, and the treatment of its resulting real world harm. This does not require censorship, merely an acknowledgement that our culture is flawed. AsSamhita wrote on Feministing, “We already know censoring things doesn’t stop them from circulating, and the evidence as to whether violent [media] leads to violence is questionable… But either way the references [in this media] reflect and reinforce a culture that relies on violence and the objectification of women.”
May vice today be virtue tomorrow.
Robert Francis Kennedy once wrote, “What happens to the country, to the world, depends on what we do with what others have left us.” RFK was no stranger to loss, to challenge, to the frightening aspects of change, to both welcomed and uninvited transformation. But he also believed, as I do, that God is no closer or farther in difficult days than in glorious ones. This country and its people must bear a heavy mantle: a burden of greatness—both when confronted by an enemy at the gates and when facing discord inside our own house.
We must have courage. Not impulsive action. Not a path paved by inflamed passion and unchecked emotion. Courage is standing fast for principle. The genuine love for humanity that moves the desire to help others, free from the defeatist attitude that we lack the energies, talents, strategies, or resources needed to meet the challenges that lay before us. Let us heal with courage. Let us not fall into the temptation of exploiting tragedy for the sake of punditry. Let us not forget to pray for patience, restraint, and compassion. And let us all have courage enough to not fall into familiar traps. No political party, advocacy group, no faith, church, no editorial desk, television or radio host is empowered to dispense the final word of judgment. I would ask all those who have already pointed the finger of blame, to open accusatory hands entirely, and extend them in signs of peace: Shalom aleikhem. As-Salāmu `Alaykum.Pax vobis. Et cum spiritu tuo.
What we have witnessed in both Chicago and Aurora is violence. And there is no answer to violence, nothing that prevents the existence of cycles where harm begets harm, other than courage—the courage to stand as heirs of the American Revolution, Abolition, the Suffrage, and Civil Rights movements, and champion Bobby Kennedy’s words. As well as those of Martin Luther King Jr., who wisely noted, “The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy. Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it… Through violence you may murder the hater, but you do not murder hate… Hate is just as injurious to the hater as it is to the hated. Like an unchecked cancer, hate corrodes the personality and eats away at its vital unity. Many of our inner conflicts are rooted in hate… Time is cluttered with the wreckage of individuals and communities that surrendered to hatred and violence. For the salvation of our nation and the salvation of mankind, we must find another way… Humanity is waiting for something other than a blind imitation of the past.”