The exhausted pleas of the Mayor of Kansas City touched me deeply today. Decrying the shooting death of a one-year-old child, he observed that our city officials can’t be everywhere at once, and exhorted all of us to stand up against violence. As a policy prescription, that translates to instituting restrictions on gun access.
It is true that ready access to firearms inflates violent death. Emotional shock or dehumanizing abuse can create a driving urge to remove the source of our pain. When a gun is at hand and familiar to the touch, it represents an immediate solution. But equally true is that a strong person does not employ that solution unless life is under threat.
The problem is that people are becoming weaker, not stronger. This is obvious in the comments on conservative bulletin boards. A steady theme is that the average American is not valued by the social elite, whether political or business leaders. Looking at the decline of the middle class, it is hard to argue with them. We suffer from the naivete of politicians that believed that the war on drugs could be won through incarceration, or that growth would stimulate China to liberalize its economy. And we suffer from the greed of business leaders that lobby to hold down wages and weaken environmental and public health regulations, often using the threat of Chinese competition as a rationale.
A recent study on sexism and racism on gaming sites reveals the social dynamics of the downward slide. What the researchers discovered is that the most successful gamers are nice to everybody – it’s those that struggle that hurl abuse. That abuse is reserved for new entrants to the competition – the skill of winners is widely admired. The abuse is directed at those trying to enter the community and acquire skills. It’s a means of keeping down direct competition.
I think that this is an important aspect of America’s perverse love affair with guns. They provide a false sense of security to those that bear them. They allow the dispatch of the physical intruder that comes to take our property or our jobs, while the elite collects credit card interest every month, drives up working hours and pushes mortgages into default.
But the love affair doesn’t end there. Our over-sized military and jails are social support systems, providing for the basic needs of large cohorts of our society while incubating violence. Our media appeals to our primitive psychological urges with the portrayal of life-threatening circumstances visited upon sexually attractive people whose mastery of physical violence produces victory. And our sports heroes become ever more powerful and intimidating in their performances, to the point that no padding can protect them from long-term disability, and so we simply throw them into the arena without covering for anything except their genitals.
This sounds terribly gloomy, but the celebration of brute physical power above strength of mind and character has a silver lining. It makes those that struggle against violence all the more powerful.
It’s hard to explain until you’ve actually experienced it (though I try in Ma and Golem). It’s to be stalked by a mountain lion in the moonlight, and to calmly escape it from ten feet after freezing it with the mental command, “Go eat something that can’t talk.” It’s to react to the men squared off over a woman in a night club – not by screaming “take it outside” – but by sucking the violence out of the air to the point that the one that threw a punch actually fell over on the floor, reporting later that “I just got all weak all of a sudden.”
But it’s also to give of our selves. It was the CEO of FMC who, having planned a series of acquisitions that created a vertically integrated company without redundancies, offered to the employees of a small, struggling subsidiary that he had “felt your pain.” It is to look the homeless in the eye, validating them as people. It is to tutor in a school for children that walk mean streets every night to homes that may not contain food to fill their stomachs.
It is to let people in fear know that “Yes, this is what it is to be loved.” Once they know, the short-term thrills of adrenaline and lust just don’t have the same attraction.
And more: through an encounter with a disciplined mind and compassionate heart, the promises of our religious avatars become obvious truths. The overwhelming power of those instruments has no material support – they are what they are only because an infinite source of unconditional love enters the world through them. It is through this knowledge that the long-suffering find patience that blossoms into enduring hope. In that endurance and strength, the threat of violence loses the last of its power.