Breaking Free from Gun Violence

The basic difficulty in ending gun violence is, I think, the immediate reflex toward self-defensive fear in the face of that violence. Where some of us, on hearing of another massacre, will advocate for stronger gun control laws and mental health care, many others see only possible danger to themselves as individuals, and cling to guns as means of self-defense (however uncertain that means is).

It’s a difficult spiral to break free from: violence to self-defensive fear to widespread gun ownership, which leads to more violence and more fear. It’s rooted very deep in our culture, which continues to worship warrior archetypes that invariably represent and advocate violence as the primary means of male power and redemption.

On a personal level, we have to break free of fear, first and foremost. We must recognize that all life is uncertain, and that the effects of our actions extend far beyond our individual selves. We are connected root and branch to the people around us, as the tree is to the soil, and our lives are, in the final analysis, just drops of rain in the torrent. Will we nourish life with kindness and self-sacrifice, or will we, in clinging to our fear and the desire for vengeance, allow our spirits to become poisoned?

On the societal level, we must turn to communities founded on principles of openness, compassion, and nonviolence, and provide them our energy, our material support, and our gratitude. We need also in particular to turn away from the destructive greed of capitalism and its feudal hierarchies, which perpetuate enormous inequality in our daily lives and workplaces. Really, it is when every person is loved and cared for, nurtured emotionally, spiritually and physically, that individual violence and its societal counterpart, war, will finally cease. On that day we will wake up at last to the world we have dreamed; and all we must do to accomplish it is give up our fears.

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Hatred Never Ceases Through Hatred

If what we object to in Nazis is that they dehumanize others and commit acts of violence on that basis, then subjecting Nazis to dehumanization and violence in response solves absolutely nothing. You’ve given way to the thing you despise, and lent your force to the maelstrom of violence that perpetually threatens to engulf us all.

And really, this is the sickness that lies at the heart of all injustice: the reduction of human beings to a faceless Them, deserving only abuse, and the violence that follows upon that separation. This is what we should reject, in the sure knowledge that we are all connected, we are all fundamentally alike, and we are all deserving of compassion.

Politics and Disillusionment

I heard someone say once that enlightenment is a process of disillusionment. Certainly I feel disillusioned today. Everything is raw and painful, like an exposed nerve. For a brief moment it seemed like a better future was possible, that this was merely the beginning, that the seething masses of humanity might at last come to their senses, and step by step we would put ignorance, intolerance and greed behind us.

Now it’s clear that the dream was just that: a phantasm, an illusion. Outside of my safe sphere of friends, family and acquaintances, the same old hatreds were multiplying like a virus, like herpes, lying dormant until the organism was stressed, then erupting into painful, livid boils.

All the pundits and pollsters were wrong. I was wrong with them. And really, it makes me question everything we’ve heard about elections. Maybe the issues, all the fine moral distinctions and considerations of character, experience and record, simply don’t matter. Certainly they didn’t seem to matter this time around. By any measure, Hillary Clinton was better suited for the presidency. Every time I heard someone mention her emails, it only seemed to confirm this fact, by the absurdity of the comparison with Donald Trump’s innumerable lies, insensitivity, insults and personal scandals. “Grab ’em by the pussy!” But right, the emails were what was important.

They weren’t. They never were. They were, rather, a convenient handle upon which to hang one’s rationales for a decision made unconsciously, “in one’s gut.” As another aphorism goes, “How easy it is to find a stick, when one wishes to beat a dog!”

What’s obvious, now, is that the people who voted for Trump simply don’t care about the issues. The issues are utterly unimportant, because they are based upon reason, and these voters don’t care for reason. To the contrary, they vigorously assault it, they oppose it as a mortal enemy to their well-loved beliefs and prejudices.

What’s obvious, now, is that too many people are simply unwilling or unable to face the complex truths of our world. They are terrified of anything they do not understand, the great unknowns, the liminal zones, anything that lies beyond the borders of their comprehension. And concomitant with that terror is the desire for an all-knowing, all-powerful father figure to protect us, a god-king who promises that all will be well, so long as we trust in Him and bow to His rule.

If you consider it, it all makes perfect sense. Remember that a vast majority of voters still claim to believe in a personal God, and not just a nameless beneficent force, but a specifically male deity residing in some otherworldly plane. Having ceded one’s chances for spiritual salvation to Him, it’s a very short step toward seeking a corresponding terrestrial representative for one’s earthly advancement.

Hillary Clinton didn’t fail to meet America’s expectations of a presidential candidate. She failed to meet the expectations of a male ruler archetype passed down from the days of ancient Egypt. She failed by dint of being a woman, and that alone.

And when elections are seen in this light, did Barack Obama win because he made more sense than Mitt Romney? Or was it merely that he was a little taller, younger, more handsome and more muscular? Was it what he said, or merely that he said it in a deeper, more commanding voice? Did George Bush win because of a careful appeal to evangelicals, or because Al Gore’s eyes were a little too squinty? Is the ultimate presidential candidate Arnold Schwarzenegger minus the accent?

Maybe so. But recognizing that, we can leave it behind. We can accept that our leaders are only human – hair and bone and buttholes and all – and not any kind of savior. We can still vote – why not? – while also recognizing that we cannot rely upon government officials to create a more compassionate world. Indeed, we must see that these hierarchical systems are themselves often responsible for a great deal of the world’s pain, and look past them to create change in our own lives.

And the curious thing is, there is most often nothing really stopping us. There is no law against forming cooperatives; quite the contrary. There is no law against installing solar panels, or riding a bicycle, or giving time and money to a nonprofit organization. There is no law against saying hello to a neighbor, against inviting an acquaintance to a movie, against kindness, against open hearts and hands.

All that stands in the way are the obstacles within us: our ignorance of what needs to be done, our greed for possessions and security, our dislike of discomfort and things strange to us. These are the real barriers we face.

The illusion’s been torn away, again, and we see once more how far we have to go. But despairing of government, and of the limitations of others, also serves as a prod; and the decisions we make in our daily lives, I am convinced, have far greater impact than any vote.

 

Looking for sanity in marijuana laws

I’ve spent most of my adult life in two states, Colorado and Washington, and as it happens, these are the two states that have passed laws legalizing pot. Am I single-handedly responsible? Dude, I totally am.

Okay, no, I’m totally not. At least not single-handedly.
I did, however, vote yes on initiative 502, which essentially legalized marijuana in Washington. That’s not to say I had no reservations about the initiative, because I did, and I’ll detail them in a second. But I thought, and still think, that the harm done by incarcerating marijuana users outweighs the harm done by an increase in marijuana addiction.
Yes, marijuana is addictive. If you don’t think it is, then explain that one guy you know who smokes pot from the time he wakes up until right before nighty-night. I’ve known people who smoke before work, who smoke in the break between classes, who smoke before a movie, during a movie, and after a movie. If something’s stressful, they smoke to chill out. If it’s relaxing, they smoke to enjoy it more. If that’s not addiction, it’s a hell of a habit.
At the same time, marijuana is not heroin. It is not crack cocaine. It is not alcohol. If even a long-time heavy user stops smoking altogether, cold turkey, they will not have convulsions or drop into a feverish delirium. What they will likely have is considerable anxiety and an intense desire to get high.
There are, however, a couple of other health concerns. The first is that marijuana smoke is harmful to the lungs. I’m sure this is true – it’s obviously not good for your lungs – but given the comparatively small amount of smoke inhaled by marijuana users, I just can’t get too worked up about it.
The other concern is the connection between marijuana use and mental illness. I believe that heavy marijuana use probably does raise the likelihood of developing mental illness in certain susceptible users, and worsens the conditions of those already diagnosed with mental illness.

This is serious, and is perhaps my foremost worry with legalization, or at least with the full-scale commercialization occurring in Colorado and (soon) Washington. The commercialization of pot will almost certainly increase use; increased use will likely result in higher rates of drug addiction and mental illness. Let’s not downplay it. Marijuana can have a profound effect on individuals, and not infrequently that effect is negative. Played out on a societal basis, it has a significant impact.
My feelings about what role government should play are pretty well summed up in David Brooks’ recent column on pot: “…in healthy societies government wants to subtly tip the scale to favor temperate, prudent, self-governing citizenship. In those societies, government subtly encourages the highest pleasures, like enjoying the arts or being in nature, and discourages lesser pleasures, like being stoned.”
Fair enough. The problem, of course, is that pot policy has been anything but subtle. It has mostly consisted, instead, of locking untold thousands of people in prison for the “crime” of using a drug that most people would concede is less harmful than alcohol or cigarettes.
To call this unjust is like calling the Joker a little bit crazy. It’s more than unjust; it’s positively monstrous. It turns government into a tyrannical Big Brother looking over your shoulder as you light up in your living room, threatening to burst in with assault rifles and throw you in jail. Imprisoning people for marijuana use is utterly wrong, and doing so comes with its own cascade of harmful consequences.
And if we can return to alcohol and cigarettes for a minute: It is also perfectly reasonable to compare marijuana to these substances, and to seek some consistency in our drug laws. It is reasonable to correlate the likelihood of addiction, and the degree of harm posed by that addiction, with the extent of legal prohibition.
That being the case, and since it’s clear that marijuana really is less dangerous than alcohol and tobacco, two lessons can be drawn: first, marijuana should at least be decriminalized; second, alcohol and tobacco should be more tightly controlled.  
With all this focus on health outcomes, though, I don’t want to obfuscate my essential belief that government simply has no right to lock people up for possession of most recreational drugs. Selling drugs, especially large amounts of drugs, is another issue, but even then the law has been hideously inconsistent. Even if they’re doing a drug far more harmful than marijuana, their addiction should be treated as an illness, and that’s all. Locking people up for having a drug addiction like locking people up for having leprosy (which also has not been uncommon historically).
Now, I think there is a middle ground here, one which neither Colorado nor Washington have taken, mostly because the citizens of those states, sick of decades of immoral and ineffective marijuana policies, performed an end run around their legislators and passed initiatives legalizing pot. It would be great if other state legislatures would learn a lesson and avoid the worst consequences of both prohibition on the one hand and commercialization on the other by passing more cautious laws of their own.
Personally, what I’d advocate is a conscious attempt to remove private profit from drug sales. We should seek to eliminate both the black market and the private market – both of which encourage drug use – by replacing them with a tightly controlled government monopoly, or at least a monopoly on retail sales. Practically speaking, this would mean government-run pot dispensaries, similar to the government-run liquor stores common to many states. Possession of moderate amounts of marijuana should be legalized (two ounces sounds like a lot to me), while selling it would remain illegal.
This is a middle path. It recognizes the right of individuals to make basic choices regarding what they put in their bodies, while also recognizing the dangers posed by use and seeking to weaken the drug market, legal and illegal. It’s neither the draconian fist of government smashing people’s lives apart, nor the grasping hand of entrepreneurs encouraging vice for profit. That’s what I call subtle encouragement.

Reflections on Independence Day

When Meg and I arrived at Lake Union Park for the Fourth of July the sun had set and the park was teeming. People poured in from neighboring streets, and each new streetcar creeping from downtown was packed with would-be spectators. For all that, the place wasn’t genuinely packed, and I was happy to see plenty of spaces on the grass affording great views across the lake to Gas Works Park, where the fireworks display would actually be held.

“They have vendors here,” I exclaimed, surprised somehow. “They have ice cream!”
“If you want to wait in line,” Meg replied. It was true, the line snaked back for a long ways.
“We’re not in a hurry. I need to get money first, though.”
I withdrew forty dollars from a little ATM placed right there by the walkway, sheltered by its own ATM-sized tent. Then we stood in line for ten minutes, listening to a nearby musician tapping out Bob Marley tunes on a steel drum, adding to the festal air. Once I’d obtained my cone, we ambled happily away across the grounds toward the clean white edifice of MOHAI, whose acronym I couldn’t quite puzzle out.
People were congregated more densely closer to the water, with families staking out little domains with blankets, towels and lawn chairs. We kept to the concrete walkway, skirting MOHAI’s cafe patio, which was cordoned off with velvet ropes, until we reached the railing by the water. Several yachts were moored there, clearly the properties of the fabulously rich and profligate, whose preposterously small number of friends and hangers-on were flaunting their access by standing on the decks drinking champagne and laughing at the huddled masses behind them. We lingered in a spot close to the building with the patio behind us, breathing the summer air and watching the play of light on the water.
After a while I wished to move on, but Meg, ensconced in her corner away from the crowds, refused to go. “We won’t be able to see the fireworks,” I said, pointing out the obstructing hulks of the yachts.

“Sure we will,” she argued cheerfully. “They’ll be up there, in the sky! Boom!” She was, by this point, more than a little tipsy.
And she would not be moved, however I argued. The truth, I suspected, was that she just didn’t like crowds, but wasn’t willing to say so. In any case, I had a desire to empty my bladder before the show started, so I set off to find a bathroom alone, leaving her there.
The Porta Potties were set up in several long ranks at the edge of the park, easily visible by their bright blue plastic exteriors. In front of them, naturally enough, a queue had formed, as so often happened with crowds. I stood there, waiting patiently, texting Mark and Crystal, until I heard someone nearby talking. “You don’t have to wait,” this person claimed. “There’s all kinds of entrances to the Porta Potties. I don’t even know why there’s a line.”
And on second examination, I realized how strange the line was. There were maybe fifty people queued up, but … there were also at least thirty or forty blue units. Investigating, I got out of line and joined another, smaller line by the second rank of Porta Potties.
As I waited again for my turn, I noticed that the people in front would wait for a door to open, and then head to that vacated unit. But I also noticed that there were a lot of units – at least ten in this little corridor. I began to suspect that most of these units were not in use, at all. When I got to the front of the line, I took a risk and didn’t wait for a door to open. Instead, I walked immediately up to a door I hadn’t seen open, and yanked on it. Sure enough, it was unoccupied.
See, most of the units were unoccupied. It’s just that the lines fulfilled people’s expectation that there would be a line, and we were all apparently perfectly willing to stand there holding our bladders rather than test the validity of what we thoughtwas true. What we risked by such a test was rudeness: being perceived by the crowd as a transgressor of the social compact, one willing to step in front of their fellows out of sheer self-interest.
Pressure relieved, I met up with Mark and Crystal and together we walked back over to Meg’s corner. Again she resisted leaving, but this time was overcome by the pressure of the majority. We found a spot somewhere in the middle of the park and sat down on a patch of surprisingly dry grass, with a great vista of the lake and Gas Works before us. After a while even Meg seemed to relax, despite the proximity of our many neighbors.
The last light was leeching out of the sky when suddenly it seemed half the crowd was standing up. Our great view disappeared, blocked by hundreds of bodies. “Why is everyone standing up?” I asked. “Are the fireworks starting?”
Mark Bell, not one to be caught sitting down, was peering off in the distance. “I think there’s a fire.”
“What?”
“There’s definitely a fire. You can see it. It’s huge.”
Sure enough, once I got to my feet I saw a big plume of thick dark smoke pouring into the sky from somewhere across the water. At its base was the bright orange spark of open flames. “Wow! I hope that’s not the fireworks.”
“It could be. It’s a big fire.”
“So are there even going to be fireworks, then?” Crystal asked.
You could feel the uncertainty in the crowd. From amused and patient spectators we’d been transformed into concerned and anxious citizens. What was happening across the water? Mark tried to access the news on his phone, only to find that he couldn’t connect with thousands of other people in our immediate area trying to do the same. “I want to get a better view,” he said. “Let’s move up to the front.”
“What for?” asked Meg. “We already have a good spot here.”
“We’ll be able to see better up front.”
People were packed three and four and four deep by the railing. There wasn’t much more visible from our new vantage, just that black smoke roiling away into the dusk. Everyone was talking and speculating. We shuffled this way and that, jockeying for a better view through the forest of heads. The smoke diminished. Night fell. Suddenly a panoply of light blossomed in the sky: the fireworks had started. Whatever had happened with the fire, Seattle was going on with the show. We cheered.
Not everyone was happy, though. Right behind us, on the grass, a family of three had set up camp to watch the fireworks, a father, pregnant mother, and young daughter. When the crowd had swarmed to the walkway to see the fire, however, these unfortunates had lost the view they’d coveted. Now the father, who I thought maybe was Thai, was yelling politely enough, “Sit down, please! Everyone, please sit down! The fireworks are starting!”
Heads turned curiously toward him, and then turned back to the fireworks. No one sat.
“Sit down, please! Guys, can everyone please sit down? My daughter wants to see.” His voice was plaintive, chiding, but when he saw that no one was sitting as requested, it became increasingly aggrieved. “Some people have been waiting here for a long time to watch the fireworks. Can everyone please just sit down?”
He went on and on. Still no one sat. His wife joined him in his harangue, less pleasantly: “Doesn’t anyone carethat we’ve been waiting here for five hoursto see the fireworks? Don’t you care that our daughter can’t see?”
This, finally, elicited a response from someone standing right up by the rail. “Some of us have been waiting here for quite a while too,” he ventured.
“If everyone just sat down,we could all see,” she snapped back.
As for us, we just looked at them, puzzled. We weren’t directly in their way, after all, standing off to their left, but it was immediately obvious to us that theirs was a Quixotic struggle. There were at least a dozen people directly in front of them, and if that dozen had sat down, the railing would have blocked theirview, and the people on the edges of the sit-down would have to contend with those still standing. Meanwhile, they were just a few of the thousands of the people in the park, most of whom were standing. It was fighting the tide. Who would even try?
These two, apparently. In a angry, offended huff that stopped just short of swearing (no doubt to protect their daughter’s tender ears), they packed up their blanket with broad aggressive gestures, put their daughter in her stroller, and began forcibly pushing their way to the front of the crowd, determined to obtain the pleasures due their patience.
The really funny thing, of course, is that they weren’t wrong. Hadn’t I made the same comment, back when we were sitting on the grass? If everyone sat down, everyone would be able to see. It was that simple. Instead we all stood, and had to contend with the heads of those in front of us.
The fireworks went on, filling that little low portion of the sky with their familiar spectacle, flowers and fireflies, comets and Saturns. People cheered, several twenty-something men next to us being the loudest. “‘Merica!” they yelled. “Pretty lights!” Or my favorite this year: “Hodor!”
And all the cheers were tinged with irony, I noticed, as I’d noticed at every July 4 celebration I’d ever attended. Even if someone were to yell “Right on, America!” or something, I have to imagine it would be colored by that same self-conscious, semi-sarcastic tone. A crowd will sing the national anthem and place their hands over their hearts, but when watching fireworks they feel forced to acknowledge the ridiculousness of it. They don’t yell “America,” they yell “‘Merica!” Because let’s face it: Shooting colored explosives into the air, as an expression of national unity, is about the lowest common denominator. We may not agree about much else – we may rant and rage about our cousins’ posts on Facebook – but who doesn’t enjoy fireworks? (Okay, probably some people don’t.) It’s a flashy distraction for the masses, candy thrown from a parade float, coins flung from a royal balcony.
As if to prove the point, the fireworks suddenly ended. We waited, but that was it. “That wasn’t much a finale,” I observed.
“I know,” said Meg. “It seemed really short this year.”
It was short: shorter than last year, shorter than the year before. Each year seems to suffer a diminishment. Apparently the city has stopped funding the fireworks, its budget prioritized for more vital needs. It wasn’t clear there even would be a fireworks display this year.
But at the last minute, or so I understand, some private parties stepped in as sponsors: the executives at Amazon, I imagined, and Microsoft, Boeing, Seattle’s corporate titans. I have a theory the reason it was last-minute was because everyone was hoping someone else would foot the bill, playing charity chicken. Finally someone blinked, and threw some coins from their balcony.
There’s a deep ambivalence here, toward crowds, toward our fellow citizens, toward the society we live in. On the one hand, we’re so intent being polite that we’ll wait needlessly for the bathroom for twenty minutes, because we’re afraid that even investigating the situation might upset someone. On the other hand, we’ll all stand up, fighting each other for a view and blocking those with a better claim, even when it’s clearly against our common interest. We all want a celebration, but no one wants to pay for it. We”ll sympathize with someone who gets their house (or boat) burned down, but we won’t actually stop using fireworks to prevent it.

And I wonder, are there countries where everyone stays sitting down? What would that be like? And what would we give up for it?

About Gun Ownership

I owned a gun, very briefly, when I was twenty years old. My ex-wife’s father bought it for us, a diminutive silver pistol ensconced in a gray plastic case. At the gun range I was surprised at the recoil. You wouldn’t think such a small device could snap with such sharp force.

The idea, I guess, was that it provided some kind of “protection.” Protection against what, I’m not sure, because we lived in a pretty nice apartment in a Ft. Collins suburb that reeked of safety. The roads were wide, the lawns were landscaped, fathers rode bicycles with those baby-carrier trailers behind them. We’re talking Safe City, USA, where a few frat boys lighting a couch on fire makes it into the evening news, and people lounge unafraid in city parks at two in the morning.

But still! Protection! Because, you know, bad things can happen. Don’t you watch TV? Bad things happen all the time there, unless you stop them from happening by shooting them with a gun. I mean, how many times did Scully save Mulder’s ass by putting a slug into some sewer-traveling monster? Do you want to get your face sucked off by a sewer monster? No!

Okay, that’s silly. But bad shit does happen, for real. Watch the news, you’ll see. Men shoot people over drugs, money, transgressions real and imagined. Men go crazy and shoot their wives and children and themselves. Men walk into crowded restaurants, and movie theaters, and schools, and open fire with assault rifles and multiple handguns with extended clips. Whole nations go crazy, sometimes, and thousands of men shoot each other – and women too, of course, children, whoever happens to be around – over money, territory, transgressions real and imagined.

And this, this will protect you, this contrivance of steel and powder bucking in your hand. You will face up to that sewer monster, that madman, those soldiers, and you will shoot them down. You will stand triumphant over their bodies like Russell Crowe in that one gunfighter movie. You will cruise down the halls in strangely smooth movements mowing down demons with your chain gun, you will say “Yippee ki-yay, motherfucker,” as the top of the building explodes.

But meanwhile the gun will wait in your bedside drawer. If you’re really paranoid, like my dad, you’ll keep it out of its holster, fully loaded, on top of the nightstand, in case someone tries to steal your TV from you in the middle of the night. The gun will wait, but you will know it’s there. You will tell yourself it’s a last resort. You will feel that now you are really a man, because you hold the power of death in the palm of your hand.

And you would never hurt those close to you. That’s not what it’s for. It’s for all those jerks out there who do want to hurt you, who might cut you off in traffic, and you both start yelling, and then he fires a gun. You would never fire first, unless he had his gun out already. The scenarios are endless. They run constantly through your mind. You’ve seen them before, many times, mostly on television. You never know when you’re going to be attacked. That’s why it’s important to always have the gun with you, in your shoulder holster or glove compartment.

And you would never hurt those close to you. You’d have to be really fucked up, on booze or drugs or something, to even think of that. But you do think of it, one more scenario at the edges. It does happen. Like I had a friend who threatened his wife with a gun one time. They had a pretty negative relationship, seems like. Not like mine. I hardly ever lash out in uncontrollable rage, at anyone. Maybe he thought it was the end of the world, for him. Maybe he craved a sharp climax to a life that made no sense, at the time. Maybe he thought he was the messiah, like a lot of these guys do.

So the gun will wait. It will lie in its dark drawer and when you think of it your thoughts will be dark. You will dream of shooting and being shot, because a gun is a very common, nearly universal dream image, an archetypal symbol of sexual aggression. You will talk with your friends about it, and agree that guns are just cool, and ignore the dark thoughts of gore and unhappiness eddying through the corners of your mind.

Because what else, after all, can you do? How can you give up this perceived if extremely uncertain defense against the possible aggressions of your own neighbors and countrymen? How could you live so defenselessly?

You would have to surrender. You would have to walk down the streets as though ready to offer yourself in sacrifice. You would have to open your arms and expose your heart for all to strike at, if they would. You would have to turn the other cheek. You would have to let go of this surprisingly heavy weight you’ve been carrying, and float along light as a feather. You would have to treat every day like your last. You would have to give up your fear and embrace the world, even if it kills you.