Monday, July 23, 2012

It happened again.

Panel from Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns (1986)
What do I say?

Some execrably pathetic excuse for a human being walked into a suburban movie theater with a small arsenal and opened fire on a group of people whose only crime was buying a Batman ticket. What do I say?

This problem was supposed to be solved by now, you know that? It’s like those flying cars we were all promised 50 years ago. In the future, we’ll all have flying cars! There are even songs about how baby boomers are still waiting for their flying cars. Well, for my generation, it was mass shootings. We were supposed to be done with those by now.

I still remember sitting on a bus on a middle-school trip and reading about a now-forgotten rampage in Jonesboro, Arkansas. Someone had smuggled a newspaper onto the bus, and all the girls were giggling over pictures of Leonardo diCaprio in the Oscars section. The front page was abandoned on the floor, and I picked it up and read about a couple of teenage boys pulling a fire alarm and picking off their classmates as they ran for safety.

I was a freshman in high school when the Columbine shootings went down. I remember reading over a classmate’s shoulder as she wrote a letter to a friend, saying she was “hearing all about the ‘tragedy’ in Colorado,” and I remember thinking, no, that doesn’t need quotation marks. It’s not a so-called tragedy. It’s a tragedy, full stop.

And the grownups always told us, reassuringly, that in the future we wouldn’t have these problems. All we had to do was put a stop to bullying (ha!), or get these kids on medication (pfft!), or pass stricter gun laws (snrk!). In the future, there will be no mass shootings.

Well, it’s the future. I’m an adult now, more or less. And what is this I wake up to, one fine Friday morning? What do I have to explain to a room full of ten-year-olds when I go to work?

I can tell you one thing I didn’t say. Not once on Friday did I utter the phrase “in the future”. Because this will happen again, and I know it. Congress isn’t passing any gun laws in an election year, and probably not after that, either. More idiots will get their hands on more guns and go to more public places and kill more people. Some of them will be full-on deranged; some of them will just be depressed, or enraged, or sick of the world. Some of them will be trying to get famous, because let’s face it, that’s one way to do it.

I’ve heard a few people say already that the solution is just to take the guns away. Gun control? Don’t make me laugh. Even if we do manage to greatly restrict the sale and ownership of guns, the most that will do is reduce the body count slightly. Anybody remember the headlines from Europe and Asia about “stabbing sprees” and a burgeoning “knife culture”? Unless the future is a place where all of our food comes pre-cut, determined monsters will always have weapons, no farther away than the kitchen drawer. And even if we ban knives, we’ll probably hear about biting sprees. We’re just that kind of species.

No, the more I hear about Aurora—no matter how much I don’t want to hear about yet another public massacre—the more I think about something a very wise man once wrote:

“… sin, young man, is when you treat people like things. Including yourself. That's what sin is.”
“It's a lot more complicated than that—”
“No. It ain't. When people say things are a lot more complicated than that, they means they're getting worried that they won't like the truth. People as things, that's where it starts.”
“Oh, I'm sure there are worse crimes—”
“But they starts with thinking about people as things...”

That exchange is from Terry Pratchett’s novel Carpe Jugulem, a hilarious little book about vampires and witches and pictsies and a truly ridiculous amount of alcohol. Pratchett’s grammatically challenged speaker is a mountain witch named Granny Weatherwax. Seek out his books about her if you can—I highly recommend them, like I recommend all his work—but watch out for landmines like that one. Pratchett’s a satirist, and satirists wait until you’re laughing and then stab you with a thought.

People as things, that’s where it starts.

I don’t know what motive, if any, the Aurora shooter might have had. It’s possible that none of us will ever know. But I remember an interview with a military sniper I saw once in a documentary, and I remember the man saying that the first thing you notice about a living human target when you look at it through a gunsight is that “the target has eyes, and the eyes move.” It’s a jarring realization, I’m told—that the creature whose life you’re about to end has such human features. And I think about a young man in a gas mask, in a dark theater. You can’t see eyes very well that way. Not enough to see them move.

People as things.

Kids running from a distant school, onto a killing field. People as things. Students huddled under tables in a library, their faces obscured. People as things. Shadowy faces in a movie theater, their features blurred by flickering light from the screen. People as things.

There are so many causes, so many complex explanations, so many justifications and ramifications and otherications that you quickly lose track of them all. But at some point, I’m beginning to suspect, it always comes down to two people, one of them holding a gun and seeing a thing through the sights.

I hear my students talk trash about people who are different from them—people of other races, other creeds and countries, the opposite sex. They laugh about “blowing away” the latest boogeyman on the news sites. And I know it’s just talk, just kidding around. They’ll grow up and realize how problematic those solutions are. They’ll realize that Dr. Seuss was right all along—a person’s a person, no matter how small (or how strange). A person is not a thing.

In the future, we won’t have mass shootings.

People as things.

The future is something we build. We make it ourselves. What kind of future would we make, I wonder, if we taught our children never to think of people as things? If we reminded one another that a person’s a person, no matter how small? If we looked one another in the eye, and saw the eyes move?

The deranged we will always have with us. We will always have weapons, even if they’re only our teeth. This won’t stop the real psychopaths, or the tragic accidents. But could we stop some of the horror this way?

In the future, people will never be things.

It’s a start.


  1. Excellent thoughts, Rebekah.

  2. Excellent thoughts, indeed, Rebekah, that provoke more thoughts...

    ...paradoxically, perhaps the one time in which some would argue it appropriate to think of a person as a thing, is when THAT person has by his or her own actions decided to become less than human, a monster, bent on harm, death and destruction.

    I don't know about other countries, but America, at least, is even better than that. We permit people to own weapons for self-defense and we arm our police and wield an army. And I think that's something good about America.

    Because we view the taking of human life, even monstrous humans, very seriously. We want it to happen only when it is commensurate to the threat-level the monster poses to ourselves and other innocent people. Or when our sense of justice demands a commensurate penalty to completed monstrous acts. And when it is necessary, we grieve to be forced to use it. When we capture monsters, we treat them as people, give them their human rights of due process, all the while grieving for the people they harmed, and the people those monsters once were.

    And I think that's something great about America.

  3. Having just re-read your comment, Rick, I'd like to add an anecdote that I think you'll appreciate.

    Not long after the 9/11 attacks, Spider Robinson and a few of his friends were exchanging emails about the perpetrators, and one of the correspondents (Robinson says it wasn't him) suggested that those responsible for the deaths should be "stamped out like cockroaches."

    Jef Raskin, the father of the Macintosh, happened to be in on the exchange and replied, "Stamp them out like cockroaches? No. Capture suspects and try them like humans. We have had too much treating humans like cockroaches."

    The story may be found in "What Does It Mean to be Human?", an essay in Robinson's book "The Crazy Years," which I highly recommend.