There will be countless distractions from the fundamental issue. We shall all share in the unseemly hunger for the details. We will want to know the how and, principally, the why. What could possibly motivate so brutal and heartless an act? What kind of madness did this young perpetrator suffer from? What caused him to snap and head off on his rampage? What could have been done to prevent the massacre of twenty innocent young children, and six of those entrusted with their care? Who can be blamed for the atrocity?
But Gail Collins had it right, in her New York Times column this morning, Looking For America. Who are we? "We have come to regard ourselves," she writes, "--and the world has come to regard us--as a country that's so gun happy that the right to traffic freely in the most obscene quantity of weapons is regarded as far more precious than an American's right to health care or a good education." She concludes, rightly to my mind, "We have to make ourselves better."
No matter the distractions, this is all about guns and gun violence. It's no coincidence that we lead the world in civilian possession of firearms AND deaths caused by gunfire. Could the Founding Fathers, so often invoked to defend the "right to bear arms," have envisioned the deadly efficiency of a young man armed with semi-automatics, able to kill twenty children and six adults in a matter of moments--and leave only one intended victim alive? Was such their hallowed "intention"? I believe not.
We need to change, but change will only come about with the support of those sane and lawful gun owners--74 percent, I heard, of the NRA--who believe in merely sensible controls in the sales of guns and ammunition. It's the leadership of the gun lobby that's at fault, with their perverted ideology and the deep pockets that allow them to drive fear into the hearts of lawmakers. The question is, will this latest outrage move these people to action? They know that no one is trying to deprive them of the guns they use for sport, whether hunting--though I personally deplore this pastime--or for target shooting. For neither of these activities, nor even for "self-defense," is the assault rifle a necessity; nor are those clips that fire up to 100 bullets in a matter of seconds.
Let's start there, and with sensible background checks. Let's rally those adult, thinking gun owners who have been corralled by powerful interests into mindless, knee-jerk reaction to any perceived threat to their rights, no matter how delusional. Let's get started on what should have been started at least a dozen similar outrages ago, and what the President perhaps too timidly suggested yesterday: some "meaningful action to prevent more tragedies like this, regardless of politics."
A footnote: At the Hammer Museum, our original destination, we came upon an installation by the Chinese artists Sun Yuan and Peng Yu which has some relevance to this topic. Entering the space, the visitor is attracted to a small hole dug into the wall across from the entry. Approaching close, you find yourself gazing into an unblinking human eye not three inches from your own. Look for long enough, and the narrow passage of the hole appears to expand and contract disconcertingly. You begin to wonder who this observer is, regarding you with such dispassion…
Once you’re curious enough, you back away and walk down to the corner of the wall to look around, to see what might be happening on the other side—and you’ll be shocked to find that the one you have been engaging so intimately in this way is a Taliban fighter in full regalia, armed with an AK47, eying you through the wall. You realize at once not only the “danger” you’ve been in, but that you are the complicit partner in this close exchange. You have been, in effect, the mirror image of that Taliban fighter. You might find yourself, as I did, recalling the last line of the poem “To the Reader in Charles Baudelaire’s Fleurs du Mal: Vous, hypocrite lecteur, mon semblable, mon frère… You, hypocrite reader, my likeness, my brother.
The sad truth is that we all carry within us the seeds of violence, the potential for hatred and rage. To recognize this may be the first step toward healing not only our selves but the volatile world around us. To fail to do so is to invite more tragic episodes like yesterday's.