Selective Sorrows

Michigan Citizen,  January 23-29, 2011

President Obama captured the anguish of the nation when he spoke in Tucson of the death of 9-year-old Christina-Taylor Green. “We see all of our children,” he said. “So curious, so trusting, so energetic, so full of magic.”

“I want America to be as good as she imagined it.” President Obama concluded, “All of us—we should do everything we can to make sure this country lives up to our children’s expectations.”

At the heart of his speech, the President called for reflection. “If this tragedy prompts reflection and debate, as it should, let’s make sure it’s worthy of those we have lost.  Let’s make sure it’s not on the usual plane of politics and point scoring and pettiness that drifts away with the next news cycle. The loss of these wonderful people should make every one of us strive to be better in our private lives, to be better friends and neighbors, co-workers and parents. 

“And if, as has been discussed in recent days, their deaths help usher in more civility in our public discourse, let’s remember that it is not because a simple lack of civility caused this tragedy, it didn’t, but rather because only a more civil and honest public discourse can help us face up to our challenges as a nation, in a way that would make them proud.”

Yet we are a people skilled at evading reflection and honest public discourse. It is proving more comfortable to talk not-so-honestly about civility in politics than to take a serious look at how violence is woven into our culture.

As Americans we can care deeply and honestly about the loss of one child. But we seem unable to grasp the death of 10, or 100 or 100,000. Too many young lives, equally filled with magic and promise, pass unnoticed. We give barely a thought to the children of Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia or any of the countries where our military policy brings death daily and as certainly as a sniper bullet.

In the 10 days since the tragedy in Tucson we have lost nearly 80 young people in the U.S.A. to gun violence. Most of us will never know their names. The Children’s Defense Fund estimates that we lose eight young people a day, every day, to gun violence.

The sorrow of America is that we only acknowledge violence selectively. Most frequently we respond when it bursts into the public world. Otherwise we pretend it doesn’t exist.

Every year nearly 100,000 people are shot in the United States. More than 30,000 of them die. Since the beginning of this new century more than 150,000 Americans have been murdered here at home while we’re waging wars abroad.

Most violence is not the result of disturbed strangers. It is the result of deliberate, calculated policies abroad or it happens at home between people who know each other, sometimes often love each other.

On any given day 65,000 people, mostly women and children, seek shelter from violence. Every day, more than 5,500 people are turned away because shelters are overcrowded and underfunded. Every day more than 1 million children are abused or neglected and more than 3 million children watch unspeakable violence between the adults in their lives.

It was the blindness to this everyday violence that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. tried to get us to see when he said that the U.S. government was “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.”

Dr. King recognized the corrosion of our souls through the casual acceptance of violence at home and abroad. His call for a radical revolution of values, to create a truly beloved community,  is the only way to transform ourselves into a people as good as our children would imagine us to be.

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