In the America we live in today, that assumption is false.
Our culture is awash in violence. There’s violence, both real and imagined, twenty-four-seven on television and on the Web. Our children play games (yes, they’re called games!) with cruelty and violence at their core. The fact is that we live surrounded by a constant loop of violent images. We stare at the images, at once fascinated and then repulsed, and then pretend that the reality of violent chaos will never stain our own doorsteps.
We’re certainly a clever lot, are we not?
Nature and nurture have provided us with a deep storehouse of psychological tricks to guard our perception of safety, even as we’re confronted daily with the shootings, the suicides, and the mayhem. We tell ourselves the story that the cruel disruptions of violence are something that happens only to other people—never to us. To keep the reality at bay, we fool ourselves into believing that violence visits only those unlucky enough to have been born or descended into the most dire of life’s circumstances: poverty that crushes the spirit, the foulness of racism and ethnic hatred, the traps of sectarian violence, the tangles of historic discontent.
One of the greatest tragedies of our time is that we find ourselves in a cycle of violence that has become institutionalized in the halls of Congress and upon the benches of the Supreme Court. We and our politicians cower before a powerful and well-funded gun lobby that claims that the right of some citizens to amass arsenals of military-style weapons is more fundamental than the right of the rest of us to be safe in our homes and our public places.
And then we’re forced to confront the face of Richard Martinez.
There he is on the evening news pleading with us to wake up. There he is. Someone just like us. There he is, yet another grieving father who finds himself dragged into the sad and never-ending parade of parents whose children have been taken from them.
Richard Martinez’s cry of pain should be ours as well. And yet it isn’t. Mr. Martinez will go off to live in his own hell of grieving for the cruel and unnecessary death of his twenty-year-old son Christopher. The gun lobby and the NRA will continue to pour money into the coffers of politicians. And we—the public, the paralyzed public—will go on, believing that the descent into violence is irreversible. That nothing can be done.
And make no mistake about it. It is that presumption of powerlessness that is the greatest and most foul abdication of all.
I am sick to the bone watching politicians and religious leaders meeting with the bereaved families, offering up their rehearsed condolences and then returning to Congress or the pulpit and doing nothing. I am sick to the bone seeing yet another tearful candlelight memorial, yet another stack of wilting flowers and scribbled notes outside the school, the parking lot, the courthouse, the movie theater.
What has happened to our belief in the fundamental right to safety? Have we forgotten—or been made to forget—that one of the most revered of our documents—our Declaration of Independence—enshrines our right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”? Can we not all agree that without safety there is no life? That without safety there is no liberty? That without safety there is no place to pursue our happiness whatever that may be?
It seems we have completely forgotten the power we have to organize, to speak out, to protest, to insist that our politicians listen to us. I cannot help but wonder who we are —the “we” that is the 97-percent majority—that we continue to accept in near silence the obscene parade of carnage.
It is time to remind ourselves that the words enshrined in the Declaration of Independence became the road map and rallying cry for the great, progressive social movements in American history. The suffragists, the abolitionists, the foot soldiers of the civil-rights movement—all believed in the fundamental truth of those words and fought for their right to claim them as their own.
The question is: Will we summon the courage to follow in their footsteps?