A Writer's Duty: 2016 Mass Shootings, Terrorism, and Police Violence
As a writer, my job (as I see it) is to make order from chaos—to bring sense and sequence to the uncomfortable, the disheartening, the indefensible. It is a task I take seriously; words—and the ways in which we use them—can change the world. Indeed they have, many times over. How our words change that world, however, can be for either good or evil, depending on our uses and our intentions. And it is here, at this point where task and consequence meet, that I am always, intensely aware of my responsibility as a writer. With a few strokes of a pen, a writer can incite revolution or quell it. With a few minutes on the keyboard, a person can bring comfort to the burdened or push them further toward despair. A two-paragraph news story can change a man’s life forever—or end it—depending on the words and images chosen. What we say, and how we say it, matters. That we say something at all is our privilege and our obligation as writers.
I largely have been silent on the events of this year. Philando Castile. Alton Sterling. Dylan Noble. Emily Thibodeaux. Orlando. Dallas. Istanbul. Baghdad. The events were too big, too frequent, too sickening to write about. I had too much feeling, not enough facts, and a rapidly declining hope that talking about any of it could change a thing. Those feelings remain, but I can stay silent no longer. Though we may have passed the moment when words were enough to bring us back from the precipice I feel us hurdling over, I can only hope that isn't true. For nearly 15 years, the people of the United States have lived in fear. Of “the enemy.” Of the other. And as the days and years since 9/11 have multiplied, so have our fears. Amplifying, in many cases, the deep-rooted seeds of distrust toward any neighbor or acquaintance different than us—whether that difference be in color, heritage, tradition, wealth, or action. Exploding and expanding that distrust and fear into name-calling and shaming, vitriol and hatred. This expansion is not merely about race, or religion, or national origin. It doesn’t stop at sexuality or gender. It is pervading, pitting teen against teen, parent against parent, father against son, daughter against mother. Soaked in a culture that makes money off fear and uproar, our long history of victim blaming has shifted from applying only to issues of rape and inter-gang homicide (which was bad enough) to accidents involving children, domestic violence, police encounters that end in death, and mass murders. We blame. We shame. “They were asking for it,” we say about the dead, the raped, the executed. “They had it coming.” “I would NEVER have let that happen,” we sanctimoniously proclaim when a child dies an unseemly death or barely escapes it, forgetting the times we didn’t notice immediately when the two year old wandered outside or we served our infant uncut grapes, each the perfect size to wedge into and block a developing windpipe. “I would have stopped/listened/not been holding a gun/not been there at that time of night/not been there at all,” we say, over and over. Again, forgetting the times we too have driven home with too much of a buzz, or forgotten to check our rear taillights before leaving work, or verbally stood up to anyone with more authority than us when we thought we were in the right. Consciously or unconsciously blocking out the time our friend/brother/cousin robbed a store or ran from the cops or sold drugs and didn’t die or kill anyone. We do this, we say these things, we blame and shame, because it helps us find peace, to fight the fear. The same way women hassle and judge other women, agreeing: that skirt was too short, her makeup was too thick, everyone knew that guy was a jerk, she shouldn't have had that much to drink. If we can find a way to differentiate ourselves from the victim, in some way, any way, then whatever happened to her or him can’t happen to us. That’s our thought, and it’s human. But that thought and that belief colors our language and crushes our empathy. We look for differences, and we find them. (We've been taught to be very good at finding them.) And once we do, we blame whomever possesses those differences for the senseless and unceasing violence we see day in and day out. We have been here before. Victim blaming and shaming is not new. Violence of one group against another is nothing new. Fear, danger, retaliation—none of it is new. What is new is the instant access, the unparalleled ability to organize or align with one side or another while the shock is still booming. The ability to find countless—and often anonymous—voices to agree with us with a mere touch of a button. The ability to instantly pick a side. While the fear is still fresh. While the facts are still unknown. Across the Internet, as I write this, people are calling for civil war. They’re clamoring for “action.” For violence. I get this. I do. I understand. But it makes my heart hurt, and it fills me with fear. Violence cannot stem violence. Disorder does not bring peace. More alienation, stereotyping, and ostracizing is not the answer. Pitting neighbor against neighbor, town against town, city against rural, north against south, race against race, will only bring more death, more terror, more fear. Is that the world we want to create? I don’t—I can’t—believe it is. At our core, don’t we all want it to stop? The beatings, the killings? The terror? Aren’t we all afraid and tired of feeling that fear? This is not an “us against them” problem. It is not a whites against blacks problem. It isn’t a women against men problem. It isn’t a gun problem or a purely police problem or a problem with the president. It’s a propaganda problem. An education problem. A mental health problem. And, at its core, an institutional problem. It’s an institutional problem that emphasizes greed and narcissism and taking what you want over compassion and intelligent thought. It’s an institutional problem that says instant sensationalism and ratings outweigh the public’s right to know the facts, because they may take too long to uncover. It’s an institutional problem that wraps broadcasting terrorism in all its gruesome glory in that “right to know” despite the fact that those very videos and audio clips breed more of that same terror. It’s an institutional problem that has enabled a handful of interests to take over all three branches of government, eroding the checks and balances that were designed in the 1700s to keep us united. It’s an institutional problem that creates wealth and opportunity for the very few by keeping us divided and afraid. I don’t claim to know the answers, but I know they won’t be found in more violence. They can't be found in division and civil war. They can't be found behind the walls of our differences. The only place we can possibly find the answers we seek is within our similarities—our collective humanity. However we solve this, we’re going to have to do it together. No more blaming. No more shaming. Rehashing how we got here is not the way to move forward. We must accept where we are. We must accept that this is what is happening right here, right now. And then, we must agree on ways to fix it moving forward—together. That is, I believe, the only way to create the world we want.