Sunday, April 22, 2007

Mass Killing

This past week, Americans were witness to yet another incident of mass killing. An incident where one lone individual decides to make a statement, to act out his/her angers, and uses multiple indiscriminate killings as a tool of self-expression.

This time it was 33 persons dead at Virginia Tech University. With the exception of the University of Texas-Austin 40 years ago, most of our mass killings have spared our colleges and universities. They have been more at high schools (Columbine and the young girls at the Amish school), or in the workplace where an angry employee returns to take vengeance on a boss and innocent coworkers. In its aftermath, there will be the usual national discussion that, in the end, seems to result in little change.

There will be a new call for gun control to prevent such unstable people from obtaining guns; but politically there is not the strength of will to fight the minority NRA and enact meaningful legislation or control processes. Our Bill of Rights guaranteed the right to bear arms. It was written for a time when many people hunted to feed their families with a single-shot rifle, there was no standing law enforcement in the unsettled frontier wilderness, and it followed a citizen’s war of independence against England. (In that same antiquated spirit, the Bill of Rights also guarantees that we cannot be forced to house British troops in our houses, but I believe that has not been an issue for any of us since it was enacted over 200 years ago.) In short, it was a defensive legal protection. I do not know that the constitutional framers envisioned the level of personal armament and firearms usage that we experience today as necessary to protect our homestead.

There will be calls for an investigation into the actions of the campus police and the need for increased security; yet in reality there is little increased security possible at most of our open-access universities. Irresponsible outlets of our national news media roll out the historical comparisons of similar death counts (killing as a competitive Guinness record?) and intrude on the privacy of people’s grief. They broadcast photos and video clips and unending details about the shooter all in the name of “news,” thereby giving that individual all of the inappropriate attention he craved but never had in life, and laying the foundation for the next person to believe that mass sensational killing is the way to make a personal attention-getting statement.

As all of this was happening in America, over 200 citizens of Iraq died this same week. Over 150 people died in one Baghdad marketplace incident alone. By the most conservative of estimates, that war has consumed well over 50,000 innocent citizens on a cumulative daily basis. We rightfully grieve for the 33 lost in Virginia. How can we even imagine what it must be like to experience a Virginia Tech on a daily basis. How can we even imagine the numbing impact on one’s emotions from such a continual exposure to unexpected and horrific death, especially for a whole generation of young people. Why is it that we react more strongly to the death of an individual that we can to 200 hundred people, or to the millions killed in World War II? Our emotional and rational capacity to understand and assimilate death is truly very limited.

Whether it is the suicide shooter or the suicide bomber, whether a Christian shooter or an Islamic car bomber, it is still r4eally about people who have lost their sense of self-worth, of hope, of personal power, and for whom such a “glorious ending” is seen as the only recourse left. It is to this greater issue that our thoughts, energy and prayers must attend. (See future posting on this website regarding “Powerlessness.”)

A member of my spiritual group shared the following at our gathering this week from a prayer made available by the United Methodist Church:

“Whether in Darfur or Baghdad, London or Madrid, Kabul or Atlanta, Paducah or Blacksburg … The bullets ripped their flesh, and tear our souls, Lord God. Flashing from nowhere, unseen, unforeseen, perhaps unforeseeable, lives of promise ended, others mangled by hot steel and the shrapnel lodged in hearts too stunned to cry ... What break in heart, or mind, or flesh moved, possessed, demanded him to stalk these down like prey? We cringe, paralyzed before the mystery of evil even as we remember that he was your son who also needs your peace. We open our mouths, and join the silence of the disbelieving. Hear us, Lord. Heal us, Lord. Grant them, and us, your peace.”

We grieve for them all, and earnestly seek the capacity of forgiveness.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

The Language of Imus

Don Imus was recently fired from his radio show and the various media outlets that have distributed it. He appears to be the latest fodder for what passes for “news” on the several cable network news stations. I guess the great consuming interest in Anna Nicole and Brittany Spears has thankfully finally worn down, at least for the moment.

Apparently, in one of his recent broadcasts, Imus referred to the Rutgers women’s basketball team as a bunch of “nappy-headed hos,” which is street language for calling a black woman a whore. I have not heard the context for Imus’s statement, or what he could have possibly been discussing when he made this reference. I do know that the Rutgers women’s team is not all black, and that they had a very successful basketball season run, including making it to the NCAA championship game before losing to perennial powerhouse Tennessee. So I cannot imagine how that could lead Imus to having anything to say about them at all.

But the fact is it was a stupid thing to say, regardless of any context. It was certainly not accurate, though that has certainly not been a prerequisite to comments made by these radio/TV commentators. It does demonstrate how much entertainment, in the guise of outrageous comments from outraged-appearing “news commentators,” has been the guiding hand for these kind of shows.

Firing Imus appears to have been a right response to his blunder. But it also calls attention to two other items of concern.

One is that cable TV news is in serious need of being called to task, and not just for the individual “shock jocks” that we often hear about. The cable networks’ voracious appetite to fill too much air space with the cheap-to-create product of shouting headlines and happy-talking anchors and arrogant (but intellectually shallow) commentators that passes for news has worn very thin.

I realize that the days of Huntley/Brinkley, Cronkite, and Jennings have passed and will not return. But there are a number of news individuals out there who show respect to my intelligence, and inform me with information and thoughtful perspective that is worthwhile. I have adopted a personal policy that I refuse to listen to any broadcaster who feels it necessary to yell at me to make a point, or to someone who thinks that outtalking and verbally stepping on another guest presenter wins the discussion.

The other item of note is the one-sidedness of our racial dialog. If what Imus said on the air was wrong, it should be wrong for anyone of any race to use the same words. If “nigger” is a bad term to reference a black person, it should be so regardless of whether the speaker is white or black or any other color. If “nappy-headed hos” is a racially and sexually insulting phrase to use about a woman, it should be so regardless of the speaker. Inappropriate language is inappropriate, regardless of age, racial group, or whether the speaker is a musical artist, comedian, news commentator, or just an everyday Joe. I will have no respect for Al Sharpton’s many calls for civil respect until his sword cuts all attackers and defends all of the injured.

Our pressing need is for a language of civility that uplifts relationships among all people on a one-to-one basis. That is an obligation to each other that we all share. And an obligation that needs a lot more work.