It’s not that I haven’t been writing lately, or that my mind and body haven’t been churning with thoughts and confusions and frustrations and the need to purge them through organized language. I’ve just had a really hard time doing so. I started 5 blog posts in June that just spiraled into anger or despair or pathos. Still working on some of those, but in the interim I find it necessary to summarize the just-concluded Supreme Court term for my own sanity, to explicate the sources of my feelings of horror and doom that have been growing ever since Merrick Garland was denied a hearing in 2016.
A potential life (no constitutional protections for people carrying dead fetuses) potential birth (no constitutional protection for ectopic pregnancies) an embryo (no constitutional protections for IUDs or Plan B pills) a zygote is more important than the life of a living woman or other pregnant person (Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization)
Border patrol agents cannot be personally sued for physically abusing and harassing citizens (Egbert v. Boule), and police officers cannot be personally sued for failing to inform suspects of their Miranda rights (Vega v. Tekoh)
The rights of people to carry hidden, loaded guns wherever they want is more important than the rights of states to vet those people in order to protects its citizens and law enforcement officers from random or impulsive violence (New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. Bruen)
Our tax dollars can pay for students to attend religious schools that may choose to decline admission of students who are gay, trans, queer, or non-Christian (Carson v. Makin)
The right of a public school employee in a position of authority to publicly perform and encourage participation in a Christian religious practice in front of his charges at his school is more important than protecting students from religious targeting, coercion, and potentially unfair treatment (Kennedy v. Bremerton School District)
Hearing the Supreme Court’s decisions roll out this term has left me feeling the same way I did when I watched a before and after video of war-ruined cities in the Ukraine – art and culture and homes and lives crushed before my eyes. For what? Who does this serve? How do we let this happen? Will we ever recover?
In the excellent podcast Amicus, Dahlia Lithwick has been framing Supreme Court decisions in terms of what they say about where our compassion lies/ who and what we care about. On this July 4th in 2022 we do not appear to care about women, LGBTQ and non-Christian youth, Tribal sovereignty, victims of gun violence, people abused by law enforcement, or the environment. We do seem to care about veterans, at least in some circumstances; and although the safety of refugees and immigrants was not the impetus, I am pleased with the dismissal of the Remain in Mexico policy. I don’t know if that’s enough to keep me hopeful for this country. Nor are the January 6th hearings, despite the committee’s dispassionate, indefatigable, truly exceptional work restoring some of my faith in elected officials. There is so much worth saving. I hope the foundation will be strong enough to build on if these fires of hatred, violence, greed, and neglect burn our country to the ground.
I wasn’t ready to propose solutions last week, and I still hesitate, because, after all, what hasn’t been said, and attempted, and written off and what can we possibly do about it anyway? I post this only as an attempt as a Buddhish perspective on this ongoing nightmare of violence and pain.
I haven’t delved too deeply into the current wave of ideas, because most of it is the same old story: lots of people centering gun regulation, other people focusing on mental health (though not doing anything to improve it). I did read Malcolm Gladwell’s 2015 article on the interesting theory of the slow motion mob, which aligns with the increase in fame-motivated and bigotry-motivated incidents (hate seems far too broad a term for attacks on specific identity groups), and I listened to an interview with Drs. Jillian Peterson and James Densley, (Minnesota!) Professors of Criminology who have written what seems to be THE book on mass shooters. Their research supports my (upcoming!) proposal, but like every human I know my brain is choosing which information it wants to hear, so I won’t claim objectivity. With that caveat, here are their key findings, based on extensive data and interviews. A few that stood out to me:
80% of shooters were in a noticeable crisis prior to shooting, 40% had been for years
Psychosis was not a factor for 70% of mass shooters, and was minor in another 10%
70% of mass shooters were suicidal prior to and/or during their attacks
Other than shootings at houses of worship (typically motivated by religious or ethnic hatred), shooters were part of the targeted community nearly 90% of the time
Dr. Peterson has summarized:
There’s this really consistent pathway. Early childhood trauma seems to be the foundation, whether violence in the home, sexual assault, parental suicides, extreme bullying. Then you see the build toward hopelessness, despair, isolation, self-loathing, oftentimes rejection from peers. That turns into a really identifiable crisis point where they’re acting differently. Sometimes they have previous suicide attempts.
What’s different from traditional suicide is that the self-hate turns against a group. They start asking themselves, “Whose fault is this?” Is it a racial group or women or a religious group, or is it my classmates? The hate turns outward. There’s also this quest for fame and notoriety.
I feel like there are two real questions here, that either get conflated or shrunken down to one.
How do we stop mass shootings?
How do we stop people from wanting to commit mass shootings?
If you’re just interested in #1, then gun regulations make the most sense, especially those that restrict the number of bullets and the speed at which bullets can be fired. Obviously, background checks and red flag laws make sense. Putting age minimums on most gun purchases makes a fuck of a lot of sense, since the brain isn’t fully developed until our mid-20s. (Do I have to say it? We don’t think people are mature enough to drink, smoke pot, or, in some places, buy cigarettes until age 21; but they can buy an AR-15 as young as 18, are “adult” in the eyes of the justice system at 18, and can be tried as an adult when as young as 12, depending on the crime and the state.)
Maybe #2 seems too hard, but you want to reduce gun violence overall? Gun culture is one of the defining characteristics of the US, and the obsession with gun “rights” in some communities seems to prevail over almost everything else. Gang violence is dominated by shootings. It seems pretty clear that people are more likely to grab a gun in the face of internal or external conflict here than in other countries. Just look at the data on gun purchases during the pandemic. I doubt you read this blog for the research, but it’s worth noting that I could not find a single article on the increase in gun sales in other countries during the pandemic, while in the US nearly 20% of households bought a gun when COVID showed up, and 5% of those bought a gun for the first time. We view crisis as conflict and conflict as threat and threat as something that can only be fought with deadly weapons. Maybe there’s another way to think? Maybe we could see crisis as an opportunity for outreach and connection? Despite the emphasis on self-defense, people who purchased firearms during the pandemic were more likely to be suicidal. Suicides make up 2/3 of our gun deaths and the majority of mass shooters are suicidal.
Although folks like to put them in non-adjacent boxes, the culture that encompasses fearful self-defense and gun ownership and aggression goes to the source of #2. Why do people want to commit mass shootings? Whether they are glorified suicides or not? The illusion of separateness. Whether you believe it’s an illusion or not, the feeling of separateness seems to me pretty clearly the source of every act of aggression, ever. Sometimes the illusion is made unbearably realistic through abuse and neglect. As Dr. Peterson said above, early childhood trauma is the foundation of this behavior. Bullying is an act of separation, and creates feelings of separation. Inflicting abuse in general is impossible without the belief that you are harming a distinct, separate entity, even though the consequences inevitably impact both the one performing the action and the one it’s performed upon. Othering particular races or religions or other groups is creating separation, but young men like the Buffalo shooter are likely to join White Supremacist groups for the feeling of belonging and purpose they offer. If we want to stop people from committing mass shootings, we need them to feel connected to nonviolent, caring people.
Okay, great, Z. So what if we agree with you? What can we do about it? Can we force people to see the world in a different way? Can we compel compassion?
Last weekend we watched Everything Everywhere All At Once. It’s delightfully weird and fun, and, being the kind of nerd I am, I was particularly excited about both the fairly casual acceptance that there is no given purpose to life, and the transformation of the unimpressive husband from a nice, nerdy simpleton into a hero with one line: “this is how I fight.” That he is not supportive and loving out of weakness or fear or blindness or shallowness, but as a philosophical stand in the face of meaninglessness. His kindness is his weapon. I’ve said it before and I’ll surely quote it again: “If nothing you do matters, the only thing that matters is what you do.”
Big problems set us searching for big solutions. Perhaps that’s right, but the big solution to suicidal/homicidal acts may be comprised of millions of actions perceptible only to the actor and, sometimes, the recipient. What does it cost us to show a little extra kindness – a bit of embarrassment? A twinge of awkwardness? A minor inconvenience? And what is the payout – a potentially life-changing impact on another human and their community. I assume that every one of us has had a bad day in which a few words from another person completely turned us around. Kindness, just regular everyday kindness, has stopped people from attempting suicide that day. No one person can be held responsible for another person’s horrific act, but as a society we are not guiltless. We are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers, because we are fundamentally interdependent and a connection to others is an essential part of every person’s wellbeing. I’m not a gamer, but I do appreciate the practice some video games offer – an alternative lifestyle, even. If you run across another character in a game (provided your goal isn’t to kill everyone you see), it’s generally a good idea to talk to them – you don’t know what you could discover. If we could play life with the same curiosity and fearlessness, I think we’d be a lot better off.
Yes, some people make it hard to be kind. Those are usually the ones who need it most. And yes, you should listen to your own warning bells and no, you can’t save everyone, and often you won’t even see the rewards of your work, and not everyone with a gun can be helped with simple kindness. But the return on investment is enormous.
Yes, vote to make it harder to shoot people, and support free mental health services, but I truly can’t think of anything that would make more of a difference than a concerted effort to be kind to people we interact with, to look at people as though they were something more than extras in our lives.
Upon completion, this all seems so obvious that it’s hardly worth posting. I hope it was worth reading. As by kickboxing instructor says, at least I showed up!
I have neglected the blog lately not because I have nothing to write about, but because there is too much. And writing feels so petty. And what does it accomplish. What does anything accomplish?
So here we are.
I have so many thoughts about the recent killings, and I have my opinions on solutions like everyone else, but for now, a heartbreaking moment of connection.
About a week ago, there was a clip of Amerie Jo Garza’s stepfather talking to a reporter on NPR, crying as he spoke, grasping at narrative.
She was the sweetest little girl who did nothing wrong. She listened to her mom and dad. She always brushed her teeth. She was creative. She made things for us. She never got in trouble in school. Like, I just want to know what she did to be a victim.
She always brushed her teeth.
That gutted me, and I spent the next several minutes sobbing harder than I had during this entire ordeal.
A few days later, our little Socially Engaged Buddhist group met online, and our facilitator referenced the exact same line.
What is it about that sentence?
In a different context, it might even be funny. Some joke about a guy being dragged down from the locked gates of heaven, yelling, “I always brushed my teeth!”
Is it the clash of the mundane with the profound?
Is it the conflation of obedience with the Goodness? Practicality with morality?
Is it that we all can relate to it, down to the feel of the brushes on our living gums? That we ourselves avoided it, whined about it, that we were worse kids than Amerie? That we could, if we chose to, be reminded of this little girl every morning, every night?
Is it the amorphous agony of hearing this man try to understand the incomprehensible? He wasn’t trying to paint a picture of his daughter for the reporter; he was searching for meaning, for an explanation. Here are the facts – how can it come to this conclusion? How could this happen to her?
It’s such a simple question, such a standard accessory to any crime against an innocent victim that we barely notice when people ask it. She always brushed her teeth forces us to consider it again, puts us face to face with the horror of loss and injustice, makes it real and specific in its universality.
It’s a piece of instrumental music that leaves you in tears without knowing why. It draws us together like a manifestation of our interconnectedness. We bear witness to all of it – the love, the pain, and the confusion.
You can leave it there, with that man, with all of the people who loved all of those children, with all of the people who loved the victims in Buffalo, in Tulsa, in Ukraine and Syria and Yemen and anyone who has ever lost anyone. You can sit with it and let it break your heart open.
Anyone out there feeling strange feelings in response to Putin’s invasion of the Ukraine? I’m not talking about anger or fear or frustration or dread. Those are all media-friendly and acceptable in wartime. I’m talking about jealousy.
Part of me envies Ukrainian residents right now. I admit it. Hiding my feelings has never done me much good, so fuck it: I am jealous. This doesn’t mean I don’t fear for their safety or mourn their innocent (all innocent) dead. It doesn’t mean I minimize the agony and losses that will only accumulate as this continues. But, as Chris Hedges reluctantly argues in War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, our pleasant or unpleasant daily existence cannot compare with the addictive urgency of fighting or running for your life. Former war correspondents and soldiers don’t suffer from depression just because of the horrors they’ve seen or done in combat, they are also depressed because they are not in combat. What could be more real, more present, more in the moment than constantly being on guard for your very life, and the lives of those you feel compelled to protect? It’s physically and emotionally unsustainable (ask a pandemic nurse, if you don’t know a soldier), but it’s hardly depressing.
There are convincing theories, too, that the more comfortable we become as humans, the more anxious and lost we are likely to be. Those of us who have benefited from capitalism, etc. are only forced to face our own mortality on rare occasions, whereas our ancestors were up against it daily, either via hunger, predators, or deadly illness. Look, safety is great. It paved the way for all the things that fill our existentialist lives now. Art and philosophy and love replaced running for our lives and making babies so our species doesn’t die out as ways to give our lives meaning, and I would never trade them for the adrenaline of war.
Victor Frankl believed that a sense of purpose made the biggest difference between surviving and slowly dying in the concentration camps. Some speculate that the invasion on our Capital last year, the growth in QAnon conspiracy followers, the need to believe in the Big Lie comes largely out of boredom. That those folks have manufactured something that threatens their country, their children, their democracy in order to feel that rush of purpose. I’m not desperate enough to go that route, but I sympathize. I try to redirect my inherent need for meaning, if it does exist, into approaching the world with a relatively passive commitment to kindness and compassion. I try to resist the compulsion to find a villain and a position on which to hang my focus.
But, damn. Can the enemy, the goal, and the urgency be more clear than today in Ukraine? I know it’s never as simple as it seems, but what it seems is that a ruthless, murdering, amoral dictator is attempting to take over an independent, Democratic country in an attempt to restore a long-dead empire and increase his own power. His rhetoric attempts to erase the strong cultural identification of Ukrainians, and he flat out lies about the government and the people. I admire the civilians who are taking up arms to defend their cities, but I don’t find this surprising in the least. What greater purpose could you ask for? Not just protecting oneself or one’s family, but one’s cultural brothers and sisters, land, way of life, political freedom, language, heritage, etc. etc. I heard on the radio this morning that folks who had left the country when war started to look inevitable are now returning to fight. Volodymyr Zelensky adds more fuel to the righteous fire in his refusal to leave or be cowed by Putin. A great purpose and an honorable leader? I mean, come on!
So, yeah. I’m jealous. I don’t know if there are atheists in a foxhole, but I’ll bet there are no depressives. All the systems that our body employs to respond to a clear and present danger preempt depression. The floating anxiety that seems to crave a target, and which our systems seek to fill with abstract, random, manufactured worries transform in battle into real, tangible concerns, ones we can prepare for and fight against.
There are real devastating and apocalyptic things happening all around us in this century. The pandemic and global warming, to name a few. But climate change doesn’t present us with a clear way to stand up to it, not one that is inspiring and motivating, anyway. And the pandemic doesn’t present a way for most of us to contribute, other than by isolation and inactivity, which feel purposeless and depressing. Some do a good job of forcing urgency – chaining themselves to pipeline construction or even less extreme protests – and that can help both society and the individual involved, but when your community continues to roll along as if nothing is wrong, it’s very difficult to sustain motivation there, either. Medical professionals on the aptly named “front lines” of the pandemic have more than enough purpose, but it’s not just the excess that is wearing on them; it’s the disconnect between the war they face at work, and the obliviousness outside of the hospital. Some drone operators may suffer more psychologically than soldiers on the ground, because they likewise inhabit a world in which the battle they are fighting is invisible once they step off base. That is certainly not the situation in the Ukraine.
Look, I advocate for nonviolence, and my inclination is toward nonviolence, but it is not a ride or die position for me. And I can’t say for sure that it is the right answer for every person in every situation. I don’t know what I would do if I were a Ukrainian in the Ukraine right now. Most of those Russian soldiers probably don’t want to be there either, and could be the victims of reactive Ukrainian violence that is yet another element of the injustice seething from every pore of this attack. I am not minimizing the horror of this situation. But I don’t believe in binaries anymore. It is frightening and monstrous AND it would be really nice to feel, in my body, that I truly mattered to something greater than myself, that I could make a real, life-or-death difference in my community, that I could make a meaningful sacrifice.
Blessings to all those good people, regardless, as I sit here with the luxury to ponder, and critique, and analyze, and envy. May you be well. May you be happy. May you be safe.