So this is who we are, and I didn’t see it
Amidst a raucous crowd of nearly 600 runners — and probably just as many spectators — a couple of Saturday nights ago at the start of a race at Highlands Brewing in Asheville, I noticed quite a few people with phones taking videos.
And before I could tell myself not to go there, before I could steel myself so as not to give in to the state of paranoia that I suspect many are feeling, my mind ran away to the cell phone video of the St. Paul shooting victim by his girlfriend, to the cell phone videos of the protestors fleeing for their lives in Dallas after a gunman opened up on police, to the flood of mass shootings and police assassinations, and then I was scanning the ground around me for unattended bags, found myself eyeing spectators for anyone who seemed out of place and not into the party-like atmosphere of the moment.
I forced myself to look at the sky, the sun close to setting, to vanquish such thoughts, to enjoy the energy of the people around me. And then I thought of my wife and daughter, who would be flying from a European capital city in a mere two days — leaving a place that has suffered at the hands of terrorists — back to the U.S., a place that is suffering from terrorism-linked violence and reeling from racial and police violence that is threatening to rip apart the social fabric of our own country.
This is what it’s come to, then, even for someone who has refused to get caught up in the guns-racial violence-terrorism fears that are engulfing our nation. It’s too easy to be fearful or to draw a line and take sides, to react in ways that do nothing to solve anything. But so much death in so little time is hard to swallow.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m in no way comparing the recent violence against police and toward young African Americans men with the terrorism emanating from ISIS-inspired Muslims. Still, I sometimes feel like much of civil society in America feels like it is the crosshairs, that decent people who truly care about their communities, the people who live in them and the police, are feeling utterly powerless as we wait for another tragedy to play out on television or on the internet or, worse yet, right in front of us.
I’m one of those who has always relied upon reason and deep thought to come to grips with whatever may seem insurmountable. Think things through, figure out what can put an end to the problem, take action. These days that too often fails.
So where does that leave me? With the realization that my country is very likely the most heavily armed and violent society in the history of mankind. Several studies suggest that there are around 90 weapons in this country for every 100 citizens. This has been true for some years. That is staggering, and perhaps even more alarming when I look around and realize how many people I personally know who don’t own guns. That translates to a lot of families out there who are in possession of small arsenals.
This reality intersects with a growing fixation and reliance on social media and the internet in general. Very quickly can a deranged individual find a like-minded video or hate group to encourage what may have at first seemed a far-fetched idea. I can’t help but think the easy availability of guns and the growth of social media and internet use are somehow related to the violence on strangers that seems to have escalated in this country over the last three years.
But this didn’t happen overnight. The truth is this country was born out of violence, and then almost 100 years later it took a war that killed more than 750,000 men to free us from slavery. Today, 59 percent of our federal budget’s discretionary spending goes toward the military budget.
I’ve known that since World War II we’ve become this superpower, that the U.S.’s military strength — perhaps more so than our economic might, though the two are intricately tied together — is what now defines us around the world. But I hadn’t really thought too deeply about the ramifications, that we have now become a violent, militaristic society where open carry laws are often the norm and where 48 children and teens die each week in gun violence.
Gun control? We could pass the strictest laws in the world, but short of some kind of national confiscation movement it wouldn’t change much. It’s too late. Besides, the loose gun laws and the obscene reluctance by politicians to deal with the violence are symptoms of a much larger revelation about the society we’ve become.
Hell, I’m not pessimistic about all this. Reality is what it is. We’re in an era where those at the highest level of leadership have forsaken the civic values on which they were raised. They can’t see through the corrupting influences of lobbyists and corporate money. Change will have to come from the ground up, not from the top down. I’m fairly certain that, eventually, the good people of the kind I come into contact with every day will overwhelm those who take advantage of violence and death to create division.
I just wish it would happen sooner than later, that America would regain its footing on the moral high ground I grew up believing we occupied.