I want to be better.
Sometimes the hardest thing to do in the wake of a tragedy is to look inward. As Friday stretched into the weekend, many of us logged onto Facebook, our twenty-first century church house, to commune over the loss of twenty-six innocent lives. We responded the best way we knew how, saying, in a thousand ways both trite and original, that a.) our hearts were broken, b.) we wished we knew how to help, and c.) there must be a silver lining. Well, there is no silver lining. There's nothing we can do that will bring those children or their doomed protectors back. There's nothing you or I could say or do that would make even the slightest dent in their community's unfathomable pain. That's a hard truth to write. It was an even harder truth to feel. We sure felt it, though, didn't we? And we hoped, in our self-comforting way, that at least maybe this horror would bring us closer together as a country.
And then within minutes we were arguing over about how to be more caring, meaning holier or smarter or righter. I say "we" because I did it, too. Please don't take this as a lecture. It's a confession. I want to be better.
The debate this weekend focused on two issues. First, some people claim God abandoned our schools because we abandoned Him. Well, I'm probably the wrong guy to point this out, but the U.S. has the highest population of Christians of any country in the world. True, we're probably as agnostic as we've ever been these days, but that's not saying much. And if you're willing to suggest, even suggest, God allowed twenty children to die because we decided not to make a daily ritual of prayer in our schools, then you're describing a Deity Who deserves none of your affection. I don't believe in that God. I'll bet you don't, either. Not that God. You shouldn't. That God would be worse than any Devil ever imagined. And please don't hand me that business about free will. You have the "free will" to let a killer get away with shooting a child in front of you, but if you do, especially if you have the power to stop a mass murder, you'll be indicted as an accessory, as well you should be. You can't inject God into this discussion without opening...
Well, obviously this is one of those "can of worms" topics that is bigger and deeper than any of us, and I probably shouldn't delve into it further, especially since it's not the real meat of my comments. Suffice it to say I refuse to believe God allows people to die simply because of their political or even moral choices. That's magical, medieval thinking, and we need to outgrow it.
The other hot topic this weekend was gun control. In any sensible republic, this would be the time, maybe long past the right time, when we had a sober, mature, adult conversation about how to keep insane people from getting their hands on automatic weapons. But we can't seem to have that conversation, because the assumption is "gun control" = "the government is coming to take the guns you bought with your own money to protect your home and family or at least feel like you could if you had to." That also is medieval thinking, because I know very few people--I can count them on the fingers of one hand--who suggest any such thing. As for me, I don't want all your guns. I don't want the government in charge of such a program. I believe in the right to bear arms.
Having said that, I believe in the right to bear arms the exact same way I believe in freedom of speech or car ownership or religion or any other freedom. When your freedom gets in the way of children's safety, your freedom must bend. That's called being a grown-up. You can certainly own a car. You can even drive it. You can't drive it at eighty miles an hour in a school yard.
Now wait just a doggone minute, you say. I own a gun, and I'm no danger to children. How dare you? I know. I know many of you own guns, and I know your kids are at more risk driving to the store than living next to your duly locked gun safe. I know because my mom has a small arsenal locked in a gun safe. I know because I've been trained in how to use guns by people who understood the level of danger they represent. I know my friends are good people, sane people, who can be trusted with a weapon. I want you to be able to protect your family. I know you're hunters and you enjoy that, and I like free venison. We have no difference of opinion on any of that. But if you believe, if you genuinely believe, it should be easy for average people to buy and load semi-automatic weapons, then I really don't know what to say anymore. Does it have to be all or nothing? My friends, can we not even talk about this?
Because really, in almost any moral question in life, isn't the truth somewhere smack in the middle? Isn't it possible, for example, that freedom of speech has its limits? I raise that example because freedom of speech is my own pet right. I believe in it body, mind, and soul. But when I hear the Westboro "Baptist Church" plans to picket the funerals of children, I realize my favorite freedom can be abused, so even freedom can benefit from limits. (It sounds paradoxical, I know. C'est la vie.) Should freedom of religion be extended to even those Westboro monsters? Is that how anyone wants it? Is it possible, even probable, that in order to keep our civilization functional, we may sometimes have to compromise around the edges of even our most cherished "rights?"
I ask because I believe, even more than God or guns, our American hatred of compromise is the biggest obstacle to preventing another Newtown. And we must. We simply must. I don't want to hurt like this anymore. Do you? I thought not. So why can't we just talk about things? Why is the word "compromise" seen as a negative? It's basically the foundation of any working civilization. Don't we know that, in our heart of hearts? So why do slogans like "never give an inch!" and "no quarter asked, no quarter given!" resonate so happily in the American psyche?
I saw a lot of people blaming the media this weekend. It's the news, people said. It gets us so worked up we can't even think anymore. Well, I used to work in TV news, and I can promise you, whatever you may have heard about the "liberal media," it's owned by incredibly rich people. The media may not always agree with your preconceptions, but believe me, the media has only one bias: it wants to make money. And in order to make money, it needs your attention. It tries like hell to go wherever you're looking. If everyone started watching calm, clearheaded summaries on PBS, that's what every other news program would look like before the week was out. This isn't about how the media presents us with information. It's about the kind of stimuli we seek.
We're a thrill-seeking nation, short on patience and long on extreeeeeme! We like monster trucks and fisticuffs and 'splosions and silicone and yelling and crying and colors and sound. Our national anthem crescendos toward "rockets' red glare" and "bombs bursting in air." AC/DC, once decried as "the devil's music," now accompanies Walmart commercials. We pretend to declare wars on things like poverty and drugs that aren't aware they're in a war. We use pronouns like "us" and "we" to refer to the 'roid-raging athletes on our favorite football teams. We even burst into sobs when they lose, as if people we don't know losing a ball game somehow affects our lives. We use inflammatory rhetoric like "George Lucas raped my childhood!" to complain about silly children's movies about light-swords and robots. We can't seem to talk about anything without raising our voices or leaping to doomsday conclusions about every eventuality. There are people in my family we can't even mention the duly elected President of the United States around because they will literally start screaming and their hearts will explode.
My friends, I ask you in all sincerity, what is wrong with us? Aren't we better than this? Why do mundane budget sessions have to end in "fiscal cliff" and "armageddon" scenarios? Why can't we say "snow" without adding the suffix "-pocalypse?" When did vitriolic anger addicts Sean Hannity and Bill Maher acquire the status of journalists? How did we get so worked up? Don't we know we have each other's best interests at heart? Are we so wedded to our insane American drama junkie personality that we can't take a single step back and reassess, even if it means risking the lives of children?
It's so hard to look in the mirror and realize we've gone crazy, but that's what we've done. We've allowed ourselves to degenerate to a place where we can't even look each other in the eye and discuss our mutual future, or that of our children, in good faith. We can't take steps to minimize global warming, because even admitting there is such a thing is decried as anti-business. We can't resolve our budget woes, because the rich will be damned if they'll pay the same tax rate they paid under Reagan. We can't let more people get married or the End of the World will be upon us. We treat everything like the magic trigger that'll somehow undo the fabric of our society. But the sad thing is, we're the trigger, and even worse, we're all trigger happy. I'm as guilty as you, Gentle Reader, perhaps more so. I want to be better.