Of this I have no doubt: the U.S. urgently needs meaningful gun control. I support the four-point platform of the Law Center To Prevent Gun Violence shared in Benjamin Van Houten’s Yes Magazine piece (written after Representative Gabrielle Gifford’s shooting in 2011). It’s been making the rounds again after the massacre perpetrated by Adam Lanza at Sandy Hook School in Newton, Connecticut.
Van Houten called for these actions: “Ban large capacity ammunition magazines;” “Require a background check every time a firearm is sold;” “Give ATF the resources it needs;” and “Improve access to funding and data for researchers.”
Nancy Lanza, the assassin’s mother and first victim, adored guns. It appears she obtained all the murder weapons through legal channels and that they were properly registered.
It makes sense that people responded to this shocking story by focusing immediately on the presence of guns in our common life. Residents of the United States own guns at a rate far higher than any other country: in 2007, we had 89 guns per 100 households; Serbia, the second highest, had 52. Guns are ubiquitous in our culture, and gun porn is everywhere, weapons standing in for masculinity and power. Our entertainments continously reinforce Chekhov’s maxim that if a gun appears in the first act, it must go off before the play ends.
A couple of months after 9/11, I convened a delegation of international visitors to New York City. Some of them had never been to the U.S. before, but even those who had were more afraid of the kind of assault they had seen in countless episodes of “Law and Order” than the kind documented in World Trade Center footage. It look a lot of reassurance to persuade them not to cancel their plane reservations. During the week of their visit, we traversed the streets only after assembling into a careful queue resembling a duck family processing toward a pond.
On the other hand, person-to-person, in this country we don’t use our guns as much as many others. Twenty-seven other countries (mostly in the Carribean, Latin America, and Africa) have higher rates of gun homicide, for instance. One hundred and seven countries have higher murder rates overall.
So what does that mean? Are we less violent than we seem? Is there something properly called “normal violence”? Do we need only to tidy up the boundaries on our proclivities, mending the fence after a few errant cattle have escaped?
It depends how you define violence. When violence happens on what I can only call (with an intense sense of irony) a “human” scale—distinct names and faces, innocent lives lost, a terribly broken man inscribing his brokenness in blood on the lives of strangers—our hearts open. We see the faces of children whose lifespans have been brutally truncated, of caring adults struck down as they acted heroically to save the little ones in their charge, and we feel the pain of loss almost as if it were our own. We imagine ourselves in the place of the grieving parents. The weight of sorrow sits down on our chests, and we must lift it with each breath.
When the gates of compassion open, when we traverse them to take in the full meaning of violent acts like Adam Lanza’s, what then? Where does the next step take us? Categories imposed on our collective experience obscure the fullness of our violent truth: homicide is a civilian crime, a private loss, in contrast to the taking of life in war. In the Iraq War, more than 114,000 civilian lives were lost, more than 4,000 times the death toll of Newton, CT. In Afghanistan, more than 13,000 civilian lives have been taken since 2007. These lives and many others have been sacrificed to U.S. strategic objectives without a fraction of the public mourning and soul-searching of the last few days, and with far less apparent awareness of the responsibility we bear for these Iraqi and Afghani families’ loss, the damage done to their communities, to cultural fabric, to a possible future. We account for more than 40 percent of the world’s total military expenditure; China is in second place with eight percent.
So tell me, on the scale of a planet, are we Adam Lanza, or his innocent victims?
Let’s stop there for the moment, knowing that the full truth cannot be revealed without enlarging the category of violence beyond war to the threat to life on this planet posed by the actions of U.S.-based corporations that profit from toxic chemicals or products that accelerate climate change. And much, much beyond that.
How do we extend to all of those damaged by our grand self-entitlement to punish others the same compassion that is ignited in moments such as these? How do we see beyond these electric moments when the deep distortion of an individual character coincides with the culture’s bloodlust and the easy availability of instruments of death? How do we fully take in the impact of this vast, distanced, premeditated, mechanized violence which has become our daily fare? How do we open our hearts for the many thousands slaughtered in our name as wide as they open for 26 in Connecticut?
One answer lies in unpacking our responses to “human scale” butchery. Compassion flows most freely when we gaze at the victims and see ourselves, easily slotting the perpetrator into the category of other. Adam Lanza is an other: an extremely odd boy, smart, isolated, evidently unable to connect. It’s a mistake to read too much into a photograph, but Lanza’s face as depicted in print speaks volumes fitting the established profile of the deranged assassin.
In contrast, something in us wants to push away the reality of the systematized violence we wreak in places like Iraq. We cannot write it off as the action of a lone madman with too-easy access to guns. We know that it was perpetrated by us, in our own name, with our commonwealth and—whether tacit or explicit—our consent. Abraham Joshua Heschel said it well: “…in a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible.”
If I could choose a single step our society could take toward confronting our culture of violence and loosening its grip, it would be this: to teach every child that under the right circumstances, with the right pressures, we are all capable of terrible things. We have to teach that reactivity is built into every human being’s brain and body, and that it requires the careful cultivation of awareness to perceive its arising at a point when choice can still be exercised. If we teach that we are the good, the innocent, the immune, then we render ourselves powerless to alter the culture of violence, leaving ourselves to enact—over and over again—this drama of shock and pain without learning anything from it.
I have written about this many times over the years. If you are interested in more sources, I invite you to read this essay from 2007 entitled “Human Nature,” or this one from 2008 entitled “Not Me: From Google to Mugabe.” And to join me urging that our next step through the gates of compassion moves us toward responsibility for the culture we have created, and toward acknowledgement of our capacity to heal it.
Ben Harper, an acoustic version of “Reason to Mourn.”
Don’t you give me a reason to mourn
Oh, don’t you give me a reason to mourn
I’ll remove the crown of sorrow
Which you have been adorned
But don’t you give me a reason to mourn