It’s the 334th day of 2015. There have been 355 mass shootings in the United States including the one today. Violence, it seems, is a very normal thing, each nation dealing with its own kind, and throughout every age. The struggle, it seems, is to make violence abnormal.
I have very little to say of today’s shootings. It is par for the course in this nation, as other forms of violence are quite ordinary, elsewhere. Here, we know the subsequent routine that follows mass shootings: outrage, followed by politics, followed by temporary amnesia, followed by nothing – at least little to no political or societal change to prevent this from happening tomorrow. Thoughts and prayers are somewhere in between. I do not make a pejorative of prayer – I pray – and because I do, I know it is disingenuous without works.
I will admit that I am having “a cynical day.” I often prefer not to write about complex matters on such days because I never wish to transfer any temporary helplessness or hopelessness to those who come across my words. I am a hopeful person, but not every moment of every day.
Despite this hopeful stance, I have never been in a non-violent place – and I have been in many places. Depending on where you are in the world and your identities in the world, and your position in the world, you might think of it as safe, ignoring the price paid for that perception of safety. Summarizing Orwell, Richard Grenier cautioned ever so aptly, “People sleep peaceably in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf.”
But I would tell you too that there is no ipso facto safety attached to any space, but there might be an illusion of safety in some places. James Baldwin put it best, “Now, it is true that the nature of society is to create, among its citizens, an illusion of safety; but it is also absolutely true that the safety is always necessarily an illusion. Artists are here to disturb the peace.”
I like to think, like Baldwin, that I am here to disturb the peace because in those spaces where safety is accepted, the illusion is greatest. But perhaps most importantly the peace is not one that is righteous or just or honest. That is why artists disturb it. Artists create chaos in order to reveal reality, and the people are made more conscious because of it. But it is a constant fight between the artists and the consciousness of the people, and the nature of society and the illusion of safety.
In understanding violence in the world we live in, we must be fair. Even if violence is still normalized and even where it takes on new and different forms in different ages, we know too that entire peoples are less at conflict with each other; we know that poverty is less, and we know that as education and standards of living rise, there is less violence. It is difficult to remember this on days like today.
Still, from time to time I think about the first biblical act of violence or at least the first murder – Cain killing Abel out of jealousy. Whether you take this as fundamental truth or a story told to teach fundamental truths, it is disturbing – the reasons one chooses to take another’s life. Then I think about the first war. Do you know when the first war was? Neither do I. But according to history, the first recorded war in Mesopotamia was in 2700 BCE between Sumer and Elam. It is 2015. We have still not learned how to live with each other.
Yes, violence is normal. Even with what we know about the state of the world, the evidence seems to point to its ordinariness. But I think it is not enough to accept this and be content. It is not enough to deem this state the reality of all, but most especially those who are often the most vulnerable. Thus, even if it – violence – is as old as time, we are a better people for refusing to get used to it. So I say to you: refuse to get used to it.
On days like today, perhaps that is the only hope that remains. But we hold onto it because it is sufficient for the day; it holds together the mind and spirit till tomorrow.