By Robert C. Koehler
“They were at places that seemed safe — but few spaces in America are guaranteed safe anymore.”
This is CNN, doing its best to stay atop America’s mass shootings and keep the survivors (by which I mean us) informed. Yeah, 13 gun massacres this past weekend, at strip malls, nightclubs, graduation parties — with 16 people dying, many more injured — and the total number of such shootings so far in 2022 is 246.
“The country is on pace to match or surpass last year’s total, which is the worst on record . . .”
The national “debate” about this seems, well . . . trivial. Should the sale of assault rifles be banned, at least for teenagers? Should we have background checks? I’m not opposed to such laws; they would probably help ease the problem. And I writhe in agony and disbelief every time I hear news that, following the latest headline-grabbing mass shooting, gun sales skyrocket. But the time is now to begin expanding the context of the American “gun debate.”
We’re at war with the world — which includes ourselves.
And waging war, preparing for war, begins with a fervid, unwavering belief in “the enemy.” It may be the most simplistic belief on the planet: The enemy is out to get us and we have to kill him. Indeed, we must kill him. It’s our duty. This is the belief that sustains our ever-expanding defense budget — the latest being pushed by President Biden is $813 billion — and it’s the belief every lost soul with a gun brings with him to the shopping mall, the classroom, the church . . . or wherever.
If we want to curtail mass shootings on the home front, we have to address, collectively, the national assumption that conflict and disagreement are the same thing as war, and that waging war — killing people — fixes all problems. We have to salute, as a people, something other than glorified murder.
Fifteen years ago, in the wake of the horrific mass shooting at Virginia Tech, in which 32 people were killed (I’ve written more than 50 columns about mass shootings over the years), I quoted Lauren Abramson, director of Restorative Response Baltimore: “We live in a culture where people are very much disconnected from each other. I think that’s incredibly dangerous. The more connected we are, the safer we’ll be.”
What if such awareness were geopolitical? Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is the latest indication that this is not the case. It has provoked an increasingly militaristic response from the West, which has sent billions of dollars’ worth of weaponry to Ukraine and has pressured Volodymyr Zelenskyy not to negotiate with Putin.
As Chris Nineham writes:
“It is first and foremost the Ukrainians who will suffer from this approach, as the conflict turns into a terrible war of attrition. But the war has global implications and the risks of a frightening military clash between nuclear armed great powers are higher than at any time for half a century.
“To understand this situation and to be able to challenge it, we have to see beyond the West’s simplistic story that this is a war between the western values of freedom and democracy and Russian despotism.”
If we cannot, if we refuse, to see beyond this simplistic story, yes, it allows us to continue believing it. But that belief — that the wars we wage are good — keeps us blind and stupid, unable to transcend the country’s growing pandemic of violence. Disconnecting ourselves from “the enemy” may put the enemy in a cage, but it puts us in a cage as well, and the cages grow smaller and smaller. It’s me vs. you!
“The U.S. has slaughtered millions of the globe’s inhabitants, including women and children, in Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Somalia, Iraq, Syria and Libya, as well as in numerous proxy wars, the latest in Ukraine,” Chris Hedges writes, noting that this is our national mythology: “the divine right to kill others to purge the earth of evil.”
And when this myth permeates the population, “how can this mythology not be ingested by naïve and alienated individuals?” Hedges asks. “Kill them overseas. Kill them at home. The more the empire deteriorates, the more the impetus to kill grows. Violence, in desperation, becomes the only route to salvation.”
I repeat: “The more connected we are, the safer we’ll be.”
Four hundred million guns in the USA are not the route to connection. But there’s only one way that number will begin to wane, and it is not bureaucratic. People want to feel a sense of power, and for a huge swath of the population, guns are what give them the feeling of power, even if guns also create disconnection and magnify a sense of fear.
What Abramson told me about, in 2007, was a program called Restorative Justice, which her organization facilitated. I had never heard of it before. Some years later I started becoming deeply involved in Restorative Justice and have written about it a great deal. Basically, it’s a way to talk — and listen — to one another . . . deeply listen, without snark or judgment, as people speak their truth. They sit together in a peace circle, in a state of what I have called vibrant equality, and often find a sense of commonality where there had been only disconnect and conflict.
I’m not saying this is a quick fix to the American problem of violence, but rather, that Restorative Justice and similar programs, which create connection, not division, need to be part of the context in which we look at ourselves and our burgeoning mass murders. The violence we’re loosing on the world, and on ourselves, has deep roots. We have to acknowledge this, and begin digging deeper into our souls.
When we wage war, the collateral damage always comes home.