Monday, December 17, 2012

Our first task.

An untold number of children around the world die violently almost every year, many them the "collateral damage" of war.  Collateral damage is something abstract, a statistic so remote from us that we don't give it more than as passing thought.  Of course these deaths, these supposed unintended consequences, are of individuals.  Each is painfully real and immediate for both the victim and for those left behind.  The fact that we don't take proper account of them may evidence some degree of callousness, but more likely it is that we are just emotionally ill equipped to do so.

What happened at the Sandy Hook School is something else entirely.  Perhaps these children will ultimately morph into a statistic as well — the worst such slaying of its kind — but today they are only too real.   We think, as did our tearful president, of our own children or children we know and project from there in the most personal way.  In the days ahead there will be funerals and stories that draw us into their lives and the anguish of their families, families just like our own.  It's not surprising that the president and Michelle Obama planned to hug their own girls, or that he suggested we do the same.  Forget no drama Obama, our president is like all of us, a human being who instinctively needs to reach out and touch his family in times like this if only to confirm that they are okay.  None of us wants to think the unthinkable, but in a world of the unexpected, we can't help ourselves.   We need reassurance.

The facts in the Sandy Hook tragedy are still unfolding.  With two of the central players dead, some may never be fully known.  As with any such event (think ben Ghazi), the first days saw their share of misreporting, but the most consequential facts are known.  Twenty-six of our fellow human beings lost their lives in that school, most of them first graders.  According to the medical examiner, their lives were brought to end with horrendous brutality.  One doesn't have to be a pathologist, CSI or psychiatrist to know that this has the markings of a very personal act of extraordinary rage.  Adam Lanza apparently shot his mother Nancy, the first victim, in the face.  What and why are yet to be determined.

Marcus Yam for the NY Times
These killings pose, among others, one of the most fundamental and troubling questions faced by human beings and specifically by religion.  Theodicy concerns the "why" of suffering, but in its most troubling form it asks why really bad things happen to really good people.  The death of innocent children puts that question into its sharpest relief.  Nowhere do we find clergy (I can tell you from personal experience) more tongue tied or inept than when confronted with extreme questions like this.  It seems that any articulated response comes off at best as hopelessly convoluted and more often as a hollow clich√©.  The widely repeated notion expressed at last night's interfaith memorial that the dead are now in God's hands may offer comfort to some, but in a profound way it too is an evasion.  The empty chairs at family tables will be remain a palpable void, a wound not easily healed.  When it comes to theodicy, we simply don't know, don't have a credible answer.

Of course bad things happen to good people in different ways.  Thousands of children died in the Tsunami that overwhelmed parts of Asia at Christmastime in 2004 and good people died just weeks ago in the monster storm that caused havoc in the New York area.  Acts of nature that leave death and destruction in their path are hard to fathom, especially when they touch someone we know directly or indirectly. In those instances the classic responses to theodicy may suffice, principally because we see no identifiable villain, which makes the questioning, even if sincere, more pro forma.  Being in the path of the storm has an aspect of accident to it.  We understand the inexplicable nature of accidents and, painful as it may be, can somehow accept them as something out of our or anybody's control.

Kevin Lamarque Reuters
That is not the case with the murders in Newtown.  Here we not only have victims but an identifiable perpetrator.  The weapon is not wind, sea, or some fault under the earth's surface but humanly invented and manufactured guns.  These are weapons to which we as a society have given virtually unfettered license that, according to the current interpretation of our Constitution, is seen as an inalienable right.

According to the NY Times Nancy Lanza, Adam's mother, "loved guns".  It is far too early to attribute any blame for this awful act to her, but there is something very disconcerting about hearing someone talk of guns as the object of love.  We love our children, our parents, our chosen life-partners but guns?  It was Nancy who purchased the guns used in this massacre, one of which ended her life.  Some love, some end. 

Other Americans love their guns.  They claim that guns don't kill, people do.  I don't buy it.  Perhaps the Constitution gives us the right to bear arms, but I seriously doubt the Founders had anything close to assault weapons in mind when they included that provision.  Even judicial originalists can't argue they did with a straight face.  Former Education Secretary Bill Bennett thinks the teachers (or at least someone at a school) should be armed, that this might have averted Sandy Hook.  Nonsense.  This isn't a time to arm up but to disarm.  At the very least, we should find ways to better control what is clearly a gun culture gone amock.  Too many people have too many weapons and too many of them are using those guns to kill. 

"This is our first task, caring for our children. It’s our first job. If we don’t get that right, we don’t get anything right. That’s how, as a society, we will be judged".   That's what President Obama told us in his very moving speech in Newtown's high school auditorium last night.  He then posed the question that is on many of our minds today: "Can we truly say, as a nation, that we’re meeting our obligations?"  It demanded and was given an immediate answer.
I’ve been reflecting on this the last few days, and if we’re honest with ourselves, the answer’s no. We’re not doing enough. And we will have to change. Since I’ve been president, this is the fourth time we have come together to comfort a grieving community torn apart by mass shootings, fourth time we’ve hugged survivors, the fourth time we’ve consoled the families of victims.
... We can’t tolerate this anymore. These tragedies must end. And to end them, we must change.
Perhaps we, religious our not, have no good answer for theodicy, but we have no such excuse when it comes to gun violence.  Time is long overdue to turn swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks.  We may not have the ability to answer why bad things happen to good people, but we do have the power to do that.  It's time that we stop just wringing our hands; time we turn instead to exercising that power.

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