Sunday, December 16, 2012

Maybe we’re asking the wrong questions

As I write this, less than two weeks before Christmas, the nation is stunned again by the slaughter of innocents by yet another self-deluded gunman. The news tonight is dominated by another horror; dozens of Connecticut families shattered in the time it takes to walk down a hallway and open a classroom door. The epidemic continues unabated as innocent people are gunned down where they work, pray, study, shop, eat, and relax. While our government spends billions of dollars a year to try to protect us from outside threats, we are not safe from each other.

Even as we try to digest today's events, we ask ourselves the same questions and we come up with the same dearth of answers. "How," we ask, "do we stop the madness?" How did we become a people for whom spraying bullets in a classroom or a theater or a workshop is a viable solution to our problems? It is not even all that rare any more; in a continuing litany of tragedy, Mother Jones magazine has chronicled now 61 mass shootings since 1982. That's more than two a year. How, indeed, do we stop the madness?

The first answer that pops into people's minds is always gun control. There is no reason, we will say, to own the kinds of guns used to unleash death in a school or a restaurant. That road is always a dead end, and not just because of the obstructionist bullying of a lobbyist group devoted to its own perpetuation, but because gun control simply does not work. I proved this to myself when I set out in the mid 1990s to prove that reasonable, rational, and strictly-enforced gun laws could prevent most of the senseless murder taking place then. What I ended up doing was proving myself wrong. A single incident - the Dec. 7, 1993, rampage of Colin Ferguson through a Long Island rail car - wiped away all of the evidence I'd gathered. Earlier that year, Ferguson had moved to California, satisfied the residency requirements, legally bought the handgun he would later use to kill six people and wound 19 others, and moved back to New York. It was clear to me that if the toughest gun laws in the nation couldn't save lives, nothing short of revocation of the Second Amendment was going to work. That was not something I wanted to consider

In fact, even if it were possible to repeal the right to bear arms - a right that is unique in the world - it would fail to staunch the blood. Just as booze flowed freely throughout Prohibition and drugs permeate our society despite an ever-intensifying war on them, illegal guns would be just as plentiful as legal ones are now. And the repeal of not just a Constitutional amendment but of one of the Bill of Rights, a member of the decalogue that defines American style freedom, is simply unthinkable.

So, are we doomed to suffer repeated tragedies as the cost of freedom? I don't think so. We have to find the answer to the original question - how to end, or at least minimize, mass killings in public - within the context of our liberties, and that won't be easy. But then, to paraphrase one of my favorite screenwriters, America isn't easy.

America's style of civil rights is hard because it is unique among nations; never before had the freedoms we enjoy been accorded. Before the dawn of the 19th century, government and society in general consisted of those few with absolute power oppressing the masses without power. There may have been the occasional benevolent ruler, but building and maintaining a kingdom, a nation, an empire, was a brutal and cruel business. The American republic was the first attempt in the history of humankind to establish a nation in which the power resided entirely in the people's hands, the transition from one government to the next was entirely peaceful, and the laws of the land applied to everyone equally. Never before had the common individual been trusted with so much freedom. It was so different from what had been that it was called a great experiment. It is still called an experiment, and it is still not perfect and it is still not entirely successful. It was supposed to offer more than just freedom; it was supposed to offer safety and prosperity and respect for all if its citizens, and after almost two and a half centuries we still haven't gotten it completely right.

Because America is still an experiment, we do not yet know how we will evolve. We are only now beginning to learn the unintended consequences of such sweeping freedom. Politics in the United States is a constant struggle to keep base human desire from running amok without reverting to the darkness of the past. Add to that the American mythology of rugged individualism, manifest destiny, and world preeminence, and it's no wonder we think we can solve our problems with firearms. In a nation where liberty and opportunity are so celebrated, it's easy for a disappointment to become an oppression, for a failure to become a bloody cause.

If mass shootings are a consequence of the American tradition and mythos, then we still have a lot of work to do. It may be necessary to start re-imagining America as the land of the safe and the home of the conciliatory. Instead of battling tooth and claw over our differences, maybe it's time to start celebrating, not our violent, genocidal, enslaved past, but our tradition of justice, diversity, and equality.

A change like this won't be easy, of course, and it won't happen in one or two generations. But it can start with each one of us asking ourselves a different question from the one we've been asking all along. Instead of asking, "Am I right?" we need to start asking, "Am I good?" And then we need to answer honestly. The deaths of the children in Connecticut, and the deaths of the victims of "mass shooters" for the past thirty years, must at some point become a rallying point for change, and that change needs to be in the way we see ourselves. We need to understand, as disappointing as it must be, that what we're doing now just isn't working. It's time to quit being right and start being good.