By now, everyone’s heard about yesterday’s shooting in Arizona, in which six people were killed and congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was critically injured. It would be easy to respond with a knee-jerk reaction: "Oh, it’s America, they’re all gun-crazy, remember Columbine?", but obviously that’s a crass and unhelpful stereotype. Sure, from a European perspective, the US gun culture seems a little… extreme, but thousands of people own the things and most of them don’t go around shooting up shopping malls. It’s too easy to argue about the how without paying careful enough consideration to the why. And I guess the why is all about violence seemingly being the default response to a problem.
"You spilt my pint!" POW!
"You have imaginary weapons of mass destruction!" KABOOM!
"I don’t like your politics." Bang.
Over the last 24 hours, Attention has been drawn to American political discourse, especially its use of violent imagery (Sarah Palin’s website has been withdrawing quotes along the lines of "Don’t retreat, reload"); "It’s not serious", goes the commentary, "It’s rooted in a revolutionary past". Fair enough, I guess, but again, why is the default response to issues an appeal to that revolutionary past? It’s not like the world’s remaining superpower has to fight a War of Independence again. It’s not like England’s international football matches have to be preceeded by tabloids photoshopping a tin helmet on to Wayne Rooney and invoking the spirit of the Blitz and Churchill just because, you know, someone’s playing a game. It’s not like Salman Rushdie should have had to spend years in hiding because he wrote a book.
You’d hope that, in the wake of a tragedy that saw the murder of a nine-year-old girl, people would pull together and react against the violence, but no, the extremists and the crazy people just keep on talking. Everyone’s least favourite collection of homophobic bigots, Westboro Baptist, claim that they’re going to protest the funerals of yesterday’s victims, for no good reason other than they want to blaspheme the spirit of Jesus Christ even more than they already are. Once again the response to a problem is violence, emotional and spiritual violence sure, but violence nonetheless. Why?
Why, why, why? There are no easy answers, are there? You can blame all sorts of things – upbringing, video games, rock music, St. Augustine blamed the gladitorial games in Ancient Rome – but there’s more to it than that, I think. What makes one person a Hitler and another a Martin Luther King? What makes one person want to pray for yesterday’s victims, while another wants to make a scene at their funerals?
The answers to these questions certainly aren’t going to be found on this blog, that’s fairly obvious. Even the questions feel a bit inadequate, and I’m aware I’m rambling, but this is my blog and I can ramble if I want to.
There’s a gorgeous line from the Bible, looking forward to a time when violence is no longer the first resort – "They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore." It’s one of those lines that sticks with me, partly because of the stark contrast between its view of the future and present reality. Likewise the Sermon on the Mount’s injunction to turn the other cheek – I’ve read theories that this is a creative way of non-violently affirming your common humanity in the face of oppression, and I like that theory, but what if it’s simpler than that? What if it’s as straightforward as Jesus saying "You know, smacking the other guy in the face isn’t the best way of dealing with things", no underlying theories? It’s something that can be accepted on an individual level, while on a corporate level some would dismiss it as hopelessly naive, until you consider the non-violent resistance movements organised by MLK and Ghandi. Then it stops looking naive and starts to look powerful. Powerful enough to reveal the inadequacies of violence, and while I’m not necessarily a pacifist, I’ve always loved moments where the hero choses to lay down his gun rather than shoot it.
Maybe we just need to, metaphorically speaking, make a conscious decision to lay down those guns. Because a lot of the rhetoric described above comes from ordinary people like us, and affecting change that way, rather than hoping a government somewhere will put everything right.
In the meantime, thoughts and prayers go out to those affected by yesterday’s events.