There’s been no shortage of sad news lately. In “Terrorism Has No Religion,” I wrote about the tragic Manchester bombing. This was quickly followed by the London Bridge attack, and the (accidental) fire in a West London apartment tower yesterday — the same day as a shooting targeting members of Congress who were out for baseball practice in Alexandria, Virginia. Late in the same day, yet another deadly shooting at a San Francisco UPS facility.
I have in mind to talk mostly about the baseball shooting, making two main points about it: first, that some facts aren’t being faced which need to be faced; second, that some solutions exist which aren’t being discussed. Finally, since I’m a film buff, in contrast to all these Big Murders I want to talk about Little Murders, which was a film written by Jules Feiffer capturing that peculiar American proclivity for taking lethal potshots at one’s neighbors.
Regarding the baseball shooting, the most commonly expressed sentiments are:
- Thoughts and prayers for the victims
- The shooter was a lone nut.
- If anything’s to blame, it’s overheated rhetoric.
What’s pointedly omitted is any discussion that however utterly wrong and misguided, the shooter may have been responding to actual policies, not just overheated rhetoric. Of course, that doesn’t make it right.
Causation is not justification, so in investigating a phenomenon we shouldn’t be afraid to look for causation wherever it may lie. The difficulty is that immediately after the baseball shooting, the Washington beltway — including elected officials of both parties as well as the mainstream media — closed ranks and indulged in a collective Kumbaya moment. “Sure we argue about politics,” they said, “But who could possibly take politics so seriously that they would want to commit violence over it?”
Not I, to be sure. I am an avowed peace-lover. But some people, yes. People who are subject to policies which can be like death sentences for them, and who lack the tools or insights which would help them diffuse their anger at such unjust policies.
Was the French Revolution nuts in its bloodthirstiness? Maybe, but it was aggravated by wretched excess on the part of the French aristocracy, who evinced a shocking indifference to the travails of their subjects.
Now, to foreshadow my discussion of the movie Little Murders: it’s a black comedy which includes many quirky characters drawn from New York City life, such as an ultra-liberal minister who claims that “Nothing can hurt, if you do not see it as being hurtful.” The reason this is comical to gritty New Yorkers is that a kick in the head is hurtful regardless of how you feel about it, even if there’s no social media or 24-hour cable news to orchestrate opinion (and there wasn’t in 1971 when the film was released). You feel a kick in the head — that’s how you know it’s hurtful.
Let’s look at two mostly Republican policies which might have felt like kicks in the head to James Hodgkinson, the unemployed, mentally ill senior who began taking potshots at members of Congress, lobbyists, staffers, and Capitol Police — or to people like him.
First, there’s the American Health Care Act, which (if eventually enacted) would result in about 24 million Americans losing their health care. The Republican House passed it, then attended a victory party in the White House Rose Garden, with plenty of back-slapping and guzzling of Bud Light. (A tad ostentatious, don’t you think?)
This policy would certainly be a death sentence (or a sentence to bankruptcy and homelessness) for many Americans who rely on government-assisted health care for their very survival. Some of these may be diabetics who require daily shots of insulin. But the cry of Republican House members was (metaphorically speaking): Let them inject cake.
Second, there’s the overturning by Donald Trump of “an Obama administration gun regulation that prevented certain individuals with mental health conditions from buying firearms.” That regulation affected “individuals who are unable to work because of severe mental impairment and can’t manage their own Social Security financial benefits.” Overturning the regulation means putting more guns in the hands of mentally ill people — just what we need.
We’re talking policy, not politics here. Gun safety at its root is not a political concept, but a practical one. It’s rooted in the simple observation (borne out by statistics) that if you have a mass proliferation of firearms, you’ll get a mass proliferation of shootings — a soaring murder rate. That’s what we have in this country, and Western allies like Britain and France think Americans are crazy. Why do they need all those guns? Why don’t they see the connection between guns and murder? Why can’t they implement gun safety? Why must even mentally ill people have guns?
Here, an element of corruption enters in. Congresswoman Gabby Giffords was shot. People said: “We need to do something about guns.” Twenty children and six adults were shot at Sandy Hook elementary school. People said: “We need to do something about guns.” Forty-nine people were shot at an Orlando nightclub. People said: “We need to do something about guns.”
But nothing meaningful is done about guns because the politicians are in the pocket of the gun lobby. America is the richest country in the world; we have the best democracy money can buy, and the most guns per capita.
So, these are two examples of policies which strongly affect people’s lives, regardless of any accompanying rhetoric. Overheated rhetoric is, no doubt, an aggravating factor in senseless acts of violence, but what’s driving some Americans (literally) nuts is government policy on issues like health care and gun safety.
Why did mainstream media miss this in the wake of the baseball shooting? Because many mainstream media figures aren’t directly affected by the policies in question. They’re well-paid, have good quality health insurance through their employers, and tend to live in safe neighborhoods where gun violence is not an issue — often the same neighborhoods (e.g. Alexandria) as politicians, generals, and lobbyists. Media people may argue politics left and right, but they’re often above the fray because they’re economically shielded from bad government policies.
I repeat for emphasis that causation is not justification. Nothing justifies the baseball shooting or any of the other senseless shootings that have become a grim daily feature of American life. But when looking at causation, we need to honestly face the fact that some Americans are being driven over the edge of sanity by policies which are insane. Like the proverbial kick in the head, these policies are felt directly and are not swathed in abstraction.
God bless USA Today’s Heidi Przbyla (and may the Lord send her some vowels), but one reason she can’t comprehend what pushes someone like James Hodgkinson over the edge is that she lives in safety amidst the politicians, generals, and lobbyists. Her salary and benefits effectively insulate her from cuts to Medicaid, and guns in the hands of the mentally ill.
I certainly don’t mean to pick on Ms. Przbyla. She’s a perfectly nice person who takes liberal positions which I generally support. She happens to be a good anecdotal example because she lives in Alexandria and evinces the typically “shocked” reaction of people who argue politics for a living, but don’t live or die according to what policies the government sets.
Unlike Heidi Przbyla, the people with cancer who show up at town halls and are mad as hell about losing their health care are fighting for their lives — literally. In spite of that I encourage them to remain non-violent, because taking potshots at politicians solves nothing and is morally reprehensible.
The shock of some politicians and media figures in the wake of the baseball shooting is expressed in the form of incredulity that the shooter could no longer see the targets as fellow human beings. He so objectified and depersonalized them that their lives meant nothing to him. But again, compare this with the real world effects of Republican policies concerning health care and guns. Is there a similar objectification and depersonalization which permits lawmakers to act with no empathy for the chronically ill and impoverished, and no empathy for the victims of gun violence? Does the sound of lobbyist dollars rubbing together deafen them to the cries of those affected by their policies? I’m reminded of a quote from Upton Sinclair: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”
The struggle to be a true human being is the struggle to overcome tendencies in our society toward objectification and depersonalization. This moral duty does not fall solely on individual citizens, but also government institutions. When such institutions fail to respect the humanity of citizens, we should not be shocked to find that some citizens lose the ability to see the humanity of government officials. This is the underlying psychological reality behind the social media response to the baseball shooting that “what goes around comes around.” When you take away people’s health care and put guns in the hands of the mentally ill as public policies, some people at the grassroots level are going to go apesh*t. This effect is wholly undesirable, but not wholly unexpected.
We need to work peacefully toward a more compassionate society where people are fully valued across the spectrum. We need to believe in human dignity, respect people’s basic needs for food and medicine, and shape our government institutions so that they no longer appear as impersonal bureaucracies run for the benefit of corporations, lobbyists, and an economic elite. We need to make them fully responsive to the needs of all the people.
My take on James Hodgkinson is that at some point he hit his head up against a phenomenon known as “repressive tolerance.” At its simplest, repressive tolerance means that you can protest, write letters, carry signs, and talk till you’re blue in the face — but at certain points in history the table is run by the big money boys, who will let you blow off steam, but won’t let you make substantive changes. Now, in truth, change does happen, but so slowly that it often appears as if nothing is happening at all, or as if the clock is being turned backwards not forwards. In his farewell address, President Barack Obama said:
Yes, our progress has been uneven. The work of democracy has always been hard, contentious and sometimes bloody. For every two steps forward, it often feels we take one step back. But the long sweep of America has been defined by forward motion, a constant widening of our founding creed to embrace all, and not just some.
This might be augmented by a quote from Max Weber that:
Politics is a strong and slow boring of hard boards. It requires passion as well as perspective. Certainly all historical experience confirms that man would not have achieved the possible unless time and again he had reached out for the impossible. But to do that, a man must be a leader, and more than a leader, he must be a hero as well, in a very sober sense of the word. And even those who are neither leaders nor heroes must arm themselves with that resolve of heart which can brave even the failing of all hopes.
This begins to get at the weaknesses of our education in civics. We teach people to believe that they can make change happen, but we don’t equip them to deal with failure, or the ineffable slowness of change, or its herky-jerky motion.
From emerging accounts it appears that James Hodgkinson had many flaws (aside from being a homicidal maniac). One of them was the inability to accept failure with equanimity. This points to broader spiritual issues.
Often, political people believe only in politics; but politics is limited in what it can achieve. Peace of mind can only come from spiritual practice. If we have even an iota of peace of mind, then the problems of the world will not seem so heavy and unmanageable.
The lack of peace is a universal problem. Lack of peace in the human mind leads to lack of peace between nations, to warring political factions within the same nation, and to random acts of violence.
When we recognize the keen lack of any resource, as well as its importance and significance, we try to cultivate that resource. So it is with peace. The field of Peace Studies has grown up around an awareness of what peace can do to benefit the quality of human life. Peace Studies can be something personal and individual, or it can focus on groups and institutions. Individuals who are firmly grounded in peace can go on to create or change institutions so that they better reflect ideals of peace.
On an individual level, peace is an antidote to problems like anger and impulsiveness which can lead to crime and violence. One component of Peace Studies is meditation; and while meditation is often most effective as part of a comprehensive spiritual outlook, it still retains much of its effectiveness when presented as “quiet time” or as a basic technique for de-stressing and focusing. See this NBC Nightly News report on “Schools and Meditation”:
Aside from helping people become more peaceful and focused, meditation can also lead to insights both personal and cosmic. With greater insight comes less need to change the world by force or commit acts of aggression against a perceived enemy. When we experience peace, which is a solid form of strength, we feel that we are okay and the world is okay. There are problems, true, but these problems cannot be solved through sudden violent outbursts. They can only be solved through reflection and cooperation.
If the NBC report is any indicator, it seems that meditation is a technique which fosters learning, or helps create conditions which make learning possible in spite of stress factors in the broader environment.
It seems that Peace Studies teaches us the value of Peace Studies! It’s a resource or tool in our toolkit that we didn’t know we had. As we realize its usefulness, some form of Peace Studies will ideally be incorporated into school curricula at every level, and also used to help solve particular problems like school violence.
With each new generation we have the potential to increase knowledge and wisdom. Children who grow up in schools where meditation and Peace Studies are part of the learning experience may also turn out to be better at handling stress and conflict in adult life.
Would this have made a difference in the life of James Hodgkinson? Would he still have become a crazed shooter? No one knows. But with better anger management tools at his disposal, his anger might never have metastasized into full-blown psychosis. Had he possessed an iota of peace and insight, he might have been able to laugh at his own failure to produce any tangible change through his political activities. In silence or “quiet time,” he might have gotten the insight that we are all part of the same human family, even if we sometimes quarrel.
Such insights are rare and precious, and if we know of methods to share them and pass them along, we have a certain moral and ethical responsibility to do so, within reason. (I am not advocating aggressive proselytizing.)
The average cable TV service provides nearly 200 channels; but perhaps none of those channels offer any insight into living peaceably with one’s fellow human beings. Cable news channels run 24 hours a day, but do they have even 5 minutes of quiet time? We think of silence as awkward, something to be filled; but silence can be treasured, a vehicle for growth.
The objections to this line of thought are built right into the NBC story. When interviewed, athletic director Barry O’Driscoll confessed his initial reaction:
I thought it was a joke. I thought this is hippie stuff that didn’t work in the 70s, so how’s it gonna work now?
But when the kids started meditating and stopped fighting, O’Driscoll become an ardent supporter of the program. Sharing quiet time became the new normal.
This lets me segue into a discussion of the film Little Murders. Although it’s a black comedy, one of its underlying themes is the normalization of inexplicable acts of random violence. That’s a perennial theme in areas of large, modern urban sprawl where no one really knows anyone else, and everyone double or triple-locks their doors:
***SPOILERS*** The film starts out as an offbeat New York romantic comedy, but after the female lead is killed by random gun violence, it turns into more of an exploration of the bizarre coping strategies adopted by surviving family members.
Though a commercial flop, Little Murders enjoys a dedicated fan base. It marked Alan Arkin’s directorial debut, and Arkin also plays the mercurial Lieutenant Practice, a police detective having a nervous breakdown due to 345 unsolved homicides with no motive, no clues, and nothing in common. It’s a bravura performance by Arkin at his wackiest. Donald Sutherland famously plays a counterculture minister with ultra-liberal views who manages to enrage everyone at the outlandish wedding ceremony he performs. Lou Jacobi also delivers an outstanding monologue as an eccentric judge haunted by his impoverished upbringing on the Lower East Side.
At the end of the film (SPOILER CLIP BELOW), the family is sitting around, depressed as usual, when widower Alfred (Elliott Gould) returns home with a newly purchased rifle. Slowly, the male members of the family gather round, becoming enthused about the rifle as an icon of power, liberation, and emotional catharsis. They no longer fight against the popular tide of random violence, but for the first time revel in it, throwing open the steel shutters, poking holes in the living room window, and egging each other on to take potshots at random passersby:
In the wake of this bonding ritual they become cheerful, giddy, and garrulous around the dinner table. In the film’s closing moments, the matriarch of the family exclaims: “Oh, you don’t know how good it is to hear my family laughing again! You know, for a while there I was really worried.”
It seems we are faced with two very different possible futures: one which normalizes random acts of violence, and another which normalizes peace and insight. I would rather live in a world where peace and insight play a greater role, and anger has less of a chance to metastasize into full-blown violence.
The views expressed are my own, and do not represent any other person or organization.
Of Further Interest
Sidebar: Jo Cox
As it happens, the day I am posting this is the one-year anniversary of the murder of Jo Cox. She was a British MP who campaigned for Britain to stay in the European Union. Before entering Parliament in 2015, she had previously worked for Oxfam.
She was shot and stabbed to death by Thomas Mair, a white supremacist with ties to far right organizations. Mair was pro-Brexit and apparently viewed Cox as a collaborator and a traitor to white people.
In the argot of social media, Mair (now sentenced to life in prison) is an RWNJ or right-wing nut job, just as James Hodgkinson (killed in the shootout) was an LWNJ or left-wing nut job.
On the day she was murdered, Jo’s husband Brendan issued this statement:
Today is the beginning of a new chapter in our lives. More difficult, more painful, less joyful, less full of love. I and Jo’s friends and family are going to work every moment of our lives to love and nurture our kids and to fight against the hate that killed Jo. Jo believed in a better world and she fought for it every day of her life with an energy, and a zest for life that would exhaust most people. She would have wanted two things above all else to happen now, one that our precious children are bathed in love and two, that we all unite to fight against the hatred that killed her. Hate doesn’t have a creed, race or religion, it is poisonous. Jo would have no regrets about her life, she lived every day of it to the full.
According to The Independent, “More than 100,000 events will be held around the country to celebrate the life of Jo Cox on the one year anniversary of her death.”
See also “Jo Cox, the Brexit Vote, and the Politics of Murder” in the New Yorker.
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