It has been a terrible week - not so much in terms of absolute numbers (with the number of annual firearm deaths in the US well north of 10,000, seven or so more doesn't really move the needle much) but because we are forced to confront them. We cannot look away. Most gun homicides and shootings in the US are invisible, often buried even in the local media, so we can pretend they're not there. This week we don't have that luxury.
More grieving. More spouses and partners left to put shattered lives back together. More children sobbing for their parent who they will never see again.
That the victims this time were police is a particular loss. Whatever else may be true of policing across the United States - and it is clear that there are a LOT of problems - police officers have tremendous potential for positive impact. They are role models. They intervene when no one else will, when someone is on the wrong track headed to destruction, and sometimes they turn those people around. And yes, they save lives. How many lives would these officers have impacted had their own not been cut short?
Early indications - and they are VERY early - suggest that the Dallas attack was in some way retaliation for the deaths of black men elsewhere at the hands of police. We know there are a few whites who, like Dylann Roof, would like to ignite a race war. It would come as little surprise to learn that there are a handful of blacks who feel the same. Time will tell whether that story fits the facts or not.
Rather than analyze or explain this specific event, all I can do is look at this in a larger context. I wrote yesterday that the world is broken, and that brokenness hurts. One of the greatest dimensions of that brokenness is our belief, held to the core of our bones, that violence solves problems. Those who carried out the attack in Dallas, whoever they were, decided that violence was their best option to create the world they want. Police officers who shoot first and ask questions later make the same decision, whether they think about it or not.
Of course race is an issue, in powerful and complex ways. There are no simple solutions to that problem - the chief of police in Dallas, for example, is black, which does not seem to have made the issue go away. Diversity among police is important, but it is not the cure-all.
But violence - that is the one thing that unites us. Our faith in the gun, in the efficacy of killing. In the right circumstances we cheer for killing for revenge, for "justice" (by which we mean far too often retribution), even for redemption. We exalt and celebrate those whose job it is to kill. Soldiers and armies may be a necessary evil in this world, but that doesn't mean that we should glory in the fact that we still have wars. Regardless of party or which side of these debates you're on, we almost all share a core belief that violence is a useful thing, a good thing. We only disagree about the appropriate targets.
This is where I think we need to reconsider. I mourn for the loss of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. I mourn for the loss of Brent Thompson and the other officers who died yesterday, whose names have not yet been released. I mourn for all of them, and grieve with their families, because it is clear that none of this violence is good. It is all brokenness.
If I knew more - if they weren't made invisible by our indifference - I would mourn for the thousands of others shot and killed each year in our country. If we examined their cases as closely as we examine the few that make it into the headlines, we would probably conclude that some were "justified". The suspect attacking a police officer with a knife. The criminal firing at civilians. We can easily call to mind these narratives, where the "good guy with a gun" saved the day against the "bad guy".
But we should mourn for the "bad guys" too - not only because Jesus told us clearly to love our enemies, but because when we hate and revile these people and cheer their deaths, we do so in the dark. We do not know them, or their histories, or how they came to be where and who they were. We judge in almost complete ignorance, knowing nothing about these people and yet absolutely certain of our moral righteousness in calling their death "justified". We're glad they're dead.
In my career I have attended many graduate ceremonies, and have heard a couple dozen speeches. None has ever been as good as the speech given at my own graduation from college 25 years ago by then-Yale Law School Dean Guido Calabresi. In his address he told a series of stories, one of which went something like this:
My third story also concerns someone in Italy, and also at the risk of someone's life. It concerns a farmer on some of our lands in Italy whom I went to see after the war. He had had the reputation that during the war he had hidden at the risk of his life allied servicemen who had been caught behind German lines and were escaping. Jews who were escaping from the Nazis. All the people on the right side of that conflict who were in trouble. But he had also the reputation that the moment things changed in 1944-1945, he hid the Germans who were running away. Now it wasn't at the risk of his life but when they came through, he hid them as well. And I went to see him because I was very young and I thought that this was terrible; that this was someone who did not understand the difference between right and wrong, that he couldn't distinguish between hiding people who deserved to be hidden and hiding criminals. I already sounded like a lawyer, I guess. And when I went to see him, I asked him and he said, "Politics, politics, I don't know anything about that. I don't know anything about those things. I don't care about them. When they came here, when they were running away, each one of them was in trouble. “Erun tutti e figli di mamma” -- They were each the child of some mother somewhere."
Each of us is some mother's child. Each of us is a child of God. What we do with our lives - good things, bad things, heroic things, terrible things - none of those things changes what we are.
When we cheer for violence, when we decide that this group of people needs to die, that those people over there deserve to be killed, we ignore this reality. We divide ourselves up and set upon each other with a zest and a zeal unknown almost anywhere else. We are one of very few species on the planet that kills its own, and we are far better at it than any other.
As we mourn and grieve for the lost, I hope (or wish, for hope is hard to find) that we will find the courage to talk about the things that really matter. One of those things is violence - our addiction to it, our beliefs about it, our misplaced faith in its power. We cannot heal ourselves through others' deaths. But until we really start talking, nothing will change. Tomorrow, and next week, and next month, and next year, more people will die by the hands of their fellow humans. And we will mourn again.