Friday, July 8, 2016

This Is Not a War. It's Worse.

Pieta, Michelangelo

It's one of the most affecting images in Christian iconography: a seated woman holding the body of a nearly-naked man in her lap. The woman is Mary, the man is her son Jesus. He has just been brought down from the cross. It takes another iconic image--Mary holding her infant son--and alters the scale in a way that might seem absurd, if it were not so poignant, so archetypal in ways that go far beyond its theological foundations. Centuries before the first Christians told the story of Mary standing at the foot of the cross, watching her son die, the prophet Jeremiah wrote of this same fundamental experience with these words: "A voice is heard in Ramah, lamentation and bitter weeping. Rachel is weeping for her children; she refuses to be comforted...because they are no more." (Jeremiah 31:15)

You don't have to be a Christian to feel the anguish in Michelangelo's Pieta, or a Jew to ache for the grief in Jeremiah's description. Is there any sorrow like to the sorrow of a grieving parent?

It's images like these I find myself turning to as I consider the events of the last 48 hours. On Wednesday, in incidents separated by more than a thousand miles, two African-American men were shot to death by police without provocation. Across the United States, people responded in outrage and grief, and last night, demonstrations against police violence were held in several cities. In Portland, a man was taken into custody after threatening demonstrators with a handgun. In and of itself, that causes me to fear for the future of my country. But what happened in Dallas takes our centuries-long struggle to a new level. There police were working traffic control for a lawful, peaceful demonstration, and found themselves the targets of sniper fire. Five were killed, six wounded. Three suspects were taken into custody. One 25-year-old man had to be taken out with a robot-placed bomb.

As terrible as this shooting was--the most police deaths in one incident since September 11, 2001--what followed ratcheted the tragedy up even higher. A former Congressman declared war on the Black Lives Matter movement; A prominent conservative web page put up the headline "Black Lives Kill"; and the New York Post led with "Civil War." 

It's not surprising that conservatives are so quick to cast the current Age of Arms (a term I just encountered in the Isaac Chotiner article cited in the previous paragraph) as a race war: it lets gun enthusiasts off the hook, dismisses the white guilt so many liberals are expressing, and gives them an excuse to blame the violence on criminals (conservative code for persons of color). If, as the NRA so frequently claims, the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun, and now there are bad guys targeting police officers, then we need more armed good guys to defeat the bad guys. Translation: the solution to gun violence is more guns in the hands of "responsible" shooters.

Of course, this ignores the fact that the vast majority of shooting victims in America are "good guys" killed, not by criminals, but by their own family members--or by themselves--due to irresponsibility, absent-mindedness, or suicide; or that the ratio of victims of police shootings to police shot in the line of duty in 2015 was 21:1.

It's been that lop-sided, or worse, for hundreds of years. Perhaps it was only a matter of time until some individual or group of individuals channeled their outrage into an assault on police officers. But there's no question in my mind that ever-easier access to firearms played into last night's sniper attack on what is, by all accounts, one of the most progressive, community-minded police departments in the United States.

This is not a war, not yet, probably not ever. Wars have rules. There are no rules to what's happening in this Age of Arms: persons of color dying in police custody as individual cops go too far, violating department policy, firing deadly weapons with minimal provocation, and suffer minimal consequences for their actions; and as private individuals, frustrated at the inability of peaceful demonstrations to affect policy in any meaningful way, finally take advantage of the availability of assault weapons and turn them on the police. 

My fear is that, in the wake of this shooting, police officers, already concerned for their own safety by the prevalence of privately-owned guns, will become even more quick on the draw, better lethal than sorry; and that as more innocent people become victims of police shootings, more angry gun owners will take revenge in their own hands, until this country descends into a conflagration of revenge killings.

That fear is grounded in the prevalence of firearms. We've turned this country into a minefield, and rather than defusing the mines that already exist, we're just continuing to lay more of them. With so many weapons out there, and with what restrictions have survived falling to NRA lobbying (Texas, for instance, has now lifted all restrictions on carrying concealed weapons on campus), the United States could all too easily tip into becoming a fire zone.

There are already far too many Rachels, weeping for their lost children, inconsolable because they are gone forever. And there are far too many stony-faced conservatives, refusing to be moved by the tears of bereaved parents, insisting that no amount of innocent victims is too high a price to pay for their right to bear arms, blaming the victims for the violence inflicted on them.

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