Friday, June 6, 2014

Another University Shooting: What Does It Mean?

Another week, another seemingly senseless shooting in a public place. This week's entry took place at Seattle Pacific University; you can find news all over the net. The first version of the news story I found was here.

What interested me about this story was not the particular details, which are in some ways depressingly familiar but in some ways inspiring. I am tempted to use this case, once again, to add to the mountain of evidence that Wayne LaPierre was wrong in his infamous formulation that, "Only a good guy with a gun can stop a bad guy with a gun." I've blogged before on this point, and will leave it here only by pointing out that the "bad guy with a gun" was stopped in this case by a good guy with a can of pepper spray and the will to act. Courage and perceptiveness are the first and most important weapons, without which nothing else matters.

But what really interested me about the story was this quote given in the aftermath of the shooting:
"The actions of the subject in this case do not define Seattle Pacific University nor the city of Seattle," Assistant Police Chief Paul McDonagh said. "The actions of the students and staff on site, those are the things that define Seattle Pacific University."
This is why we spend so much time talking about violence and why the subjects of guns, murder, and the like are so prominent in our public conversations. Violence isn't just about the damage that it causes. While significant, there are lots of other things that cause similar amounts of damage. Nearly as many people died in Hurricane Katrina as died on 9/11; which one has gotten more attention?

We give violence the attention that it gets because of what it says about who we are. When somebody kills others, whether it be with a gun, a knife, or a plane, that act says something about both the perpetrator(s) and the victim(s). And how we respond to that act also says something about us. What it says, of course, is in dispute. We argue about it all the time. It is a, if not the, central question of our lives: who are we?

Recently a friend re-posted an op-ed piece from late 2012, after the Sandy Hook shootings, titled "Our Moloch". In it the author makes a strong argument, not about the tactics or the laws surrounding guns, but about the kind of identity that has been constructed around what might be termed the "gun rights movement". Whether you agree or disagree with his portrait, he is pointing to the right question. It's not about the guns. It's about us.

In times of crisis we look for meanings that uplift. That's why firefighters were so revered in the wake of 9/11 - because of the self-sacrifice they made to try to save other's lives, that noblest and most blessed of pursuits. That's what Assistant Police Chief McDonagh is invoking here. We are not the guy who pulled the trigger on innocent people. We are the guy who jumped on him, who disabled him and took him to the ground, who saved lives. That's who we want to be.

I've blogged a lot before (search the site on the "Use of Force" label; here's one of my favorites) about the intersection of violence and ideas. I think that one problem we have is that people spend both too much and not enough time thinking about violence and its relationship to who we are. We allow Hollywood fantasies about violence to shape our understandings of what it's useful for and how it works (just as we do about sex). At the same time, we don't spend enough effort thinking about who we want to be and where we want violence to fit into that picture. The extremists who carry assault weapons into Target and Home Depot have become a caricature, a grotesque parody of what we would regard as a good and civilized life.

So as we mark another senseless shooting in the headlines (alongside the many hundreds of senseless shootings that go unremarked because they are done in "those parts of town" among "those people") let's try just a little bit more to think. Not about the details of gun control, or the political clout of the NRA, or the best tactics for self-defense. Let's think instead about who we are and who we want to be. And let's talk about that together. Because in the end, that's the only question that really matters.

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