Some thoughts over breakfast, on America’s “deadly gun culture”

Some thoughts over breakfast, on America’s “deadly gun culture”

Reading the front page of the Brattleboro Reformer today over a half cup of coffee, after finishing my eggs and toast, I glance to the bottom of the page and see the lead to an inside-page editorial, “America grapples with its deadly gun culture”. My first thought is that “gun culture” is not a single thing, is not the same in every part of the country, and is neither wholly nor intrinsically “deadly”. My second thought, a little later, was of the seeming incompatibility of the concepts of ‘gun’ and of ‘culture’, the former being a tool of violence, the latter conveying thoughts of arts, food, dress, customs and other beautiful expressions of our many different human ways of living.

But I do think that there is such a thing as “gun culture”, so allow me to tell you a bit about my experience of gun culture and we’ll see if that sheds any light on the first thought above.

I was born the in the year following the end of World War II. When I was 10, both Japan and Germany were still occupied by American and Allied troops.   Movies and newsreels made during the war could be seen on television. New movies, both of the war and of the new post-war life in Europe were in the theatres.   My friends and I absorbed all these images through the still unexplainable process of childhood osmosis, so that we shouted “Geronimo!” whenever we jumped off a swing or down from a high place, or we dramatically intoned the words, “Bombs over Tokyo!” while pretending to bomb the enemy with our model planes. We had no idea where we learned these phrases, or where they came from. It was just what you said, it went with what you were doing, that’s all. Of our outdoor games the most popular was to play war. We usually fought as a single commando squad against an imaginary enemy, although if there were enough of us, say six or more, we might divide into two squads and plot ambushes against each other in the fields and woods around, and the outbuildings of our yards.   The imaginary enemy was always either the Germans or the “Japs”. I don’t recall that it mattered which we chose at the outset of any game, the game itself just being a series of imagined situations in which we could display great heroism, and great sacriifice, dying over and over in frontal assaults on machine gun nests, falling dramatically while dropping our imaginary gun, like Robert Capra’s famous Spanish Civil War photograph, or shooting all the enemy down in the trenches like Sergeant York at the Meuse-Argonne offensive in WWI, neither of which we had any inkling of at the time.

But all of this was done without hate. In my family, hate was never expressed toward other cultures or nationalities or people, ever.   Our imaginary play was an excuse for drama, for playing the hero, for displaying bravery and sacrifice, not a way to express our hatred of a nation or a culture. We held no such hatred, could not imagine it even.

Let me tell you now also about my experience with real guns as well. A year or two later, I became friends with D____. D____ played flute in the high school band where I played trumpet.   D____ was a big fellow, a tackle and ball runner on the high school football team. During football season, he would be on the field, while I would be in the stands playing college marches like “On Wisconsin” and our school fight song, “Our Director”.

My family never had guns. If the subject ever came up – in those days the iconic boy’s Christmas present was a BB gun or a .22 caliber rifle – I am sure it was put away very quickly. Mother had an answer for things that she did not want us to do, like chew gum, or have guns, or read trashy comic books (I loved comic books and would bore my friends to death, sitting in their room trying to read all their comic books, while they itched to do something else.) She would simply say, “We don’t do that. We’re Wyckoffs”, instilling in us, she hoped, a sense of aristocracy and being above the hoi polloi. Oy vey.

But D____’s family had guns. His parents had a camp up in New Hampshire and I occasionally went up with him for a weekend.   And we would go hunting together, along with his dog, Princess. He’d loan me an extra rifle, a single shot .22, and with a few bullets in our pockets we would go out walking through the woods, looking for squirrels or other small game. I never shot anything but twigs as a target. I had no wish to kill any animal.   But my friend had grown up hunting with his father and would readily shoot a squirrel or a raccoon if we spotted one. I never disapproved or thought less of him for doing so.   I knew him then, and I know him now, to be the kindest, gentlest person on earth. I know that may seem a contradiction, but I can only report what I felt at the time and what I still understand. I have never seen him express hatred or anger.

Sometime shortly after we graduated from high school my friend enlisted in the Marines and was sent into combat in Vietnam. I saw him briefly again when he returned a couple of years later.   He told me of going out on patrol twice and being the only man to return.   He was changed, though I did not have the understanding then to realize how much. Indeed, I did not begin to understand until I saw him two decades later at our 25th reunion and he handed me a poem he had written, “Finally Home”, about how the war changed him, asking in the last line, “When can we be finally home?”

Now if by this point, dear reader, you feel that I have drifted from the topic into a rambling life reminiscence, please stay with me just a bit longer. The experience of war has much to do with the topic of gun culture. As the preacher says, I am nearly done and I will sit down shortly.

It seems to me that there are at least two kinds of gun culture. The one I know from childhood, both in play, and from my friend, is a culture which grew out of the fabric of the best values upon which this nation was founded.   A child’s fantasies of being a hero, of sacrificing, of defending against enemies, are the same stuff of which a good soldier is made. The sacrifice of self that we played out on our childhood battlefields was done out of love of family, love of country.   We did not hate when we were playing. And my friend’s hunting was also a thing of love and of his family, something which grew out of this nation’s long traditions of frontier readiness and independence.

But there is another gun culture which grows out of hate and fear.   Guns in this culture are not primarily for hunting, but for the ability to attack and defend against other human beings. Military style and high powered guns are not only preferred to hunting weapons, but they are collected and stockpiled by many, along with caches of ammunition sufficient to arm a squadron or a platoon. I do not believe hate and fear ever furnish good reason to act, in any context.

Vermont is a small, rural state, though not the only rural part of this country by any means. There are few gun regulations in Vermont. Other parts of this vast nation are different.  The conditions in many of our cities, for instance, are different from the many rural areas like Vermont.  The suburbs differ from both.  I do not propose here any specific solution, legislative or otherwise, to the current level of gun violence. What I would propose is that people consider thoughtfully how these two kinds of “gun culture” differ from one another and proceed from there.

A current national candidate has suggested that people need to stop “shouting at one another” and begin talking about what can be done. To say that we can do nothing about it strikes me as showing a deep lack of faith in each other, and a deep lack of faith in our strength as a nation and a people.

some post 9/11 thoughts

some post 9/11 thoughts

The attack on the World Trade Center in 2001 often comes to my mind in the following circumstance. Driving on the interstate, heading for a destination several hours or days away, looking at the endless hills and fields and forests, the big rigs carrying goods and materials, the cars from every state, the police patrolling, the work crews, even the highway itself, which speaks of a national resolve for both growth and defense … I could go on. And my thoughts often arrive in a form similar to this:

“What can these people have possibly been thinking, that they supposed that they could “destroy America”? Did they have any idea how vast this country is? How immense in so many ways, population, geography, resources, history, culture, wealth? Is this not a measure of how incalculably small their understanding and their vision was?”

Or sometimes it comes like this:

“To destroy the buildings themselves, buildings contructed by men and women, bolt by bolt, brick by brick, whose every surface inside and out has been blessed by the working hands who designed, constructed, raised, maintained, repaired, cleaned and served other men and women within … To destroy what human hands built – even apart from the terrible destruction of the thousands of lives within them – is itself a supreme blasphemy, an expression of hatred directed not at America, but at God, Yahweh, Allah, Brahman, Tao, the universe, human existence itself.”

And I find these two thoughts combine in this one thought, the utter weakness of hatred. Hatred, which arises out of weakness, out of fear and anger, never out of strength, or confidence and joy.

So now, two days after the anniversary of the attack on the Twin Towers, I sift through the rubble of thoughts, expressions and commentary that have exploded once more in this latest aftershock of remembrance, and again this hatred comes to mind. Not just the hatred of the twenty or so men who planned and carried out the attack. They are dead. They hate no more. No, I ponder the hatred which continues in the living, even which arises in myself.

Hatred narrows one’s view so that a small number of actors come to represent an entire nation, an entire religious community, an entire ethnic community. The violent retribution which the hater feels is just is then visited upon all. An example is the response which I have heard over the years in various forms but recently saw again. It goes like this:

… after 9/11 we should have left only a huge radioactive crater, Lake Afghanistan….

Or this one:

When attacked by a troublesome state or people from a state which harbors them, we go in and break all the furniture and crockery and kill as many of their leaders and defenders as possible and then withdraw with the understanding that if we are troubled by them again, we will be back and do the same again. Rinse and repeat as necessary….

Or this one which dates back to the Vietnam War era but is probably still for sale on a t-shirt somewhere:

Kill ‘em all and let God sort ‘em out!

You get the drift. Reason tells me that responses like these are fundamentally wrong, and will also not accomplish what they intend, the elimination of terrorism and attacks. Religion tells me this also, though in a different way, and you can take your pick or listen to both. I do not find religion and reason incompatible in any way; faith and reason are two sides of the same coin, the human mind.

Let me close with this last thought. War is death and destruction, nothing else. “War is hell”, as General Sherman once said. If reason and religion cannot help us arrive at a better response to terrorism than waging war, then both reason and religion are mere sham. But I believe that they can help us do better, if we can let go of the fear and anger from which hatred grows.

I woke up and found that the anger was gone….

I woke up and found that the anger was gone.  A couple of days later, when asked over the phone by my pastor, Jay Williams, I described it as “satori”.  He asked what I meant.  I recalled to him what I had read fifty years ago in a work by D. T. Suzuki, who said of satori, “Everything is the same, except that your feet are a little bit off the ground.”  Before he asked, I had not thought to describe it other than to notice in wonder that somehow my anger was gone.  Not just my anger over a recent frustration, but from every aspect of my life.  And as the days have gone by since, I have “tested the ice”, looking to see how solid this new footing really is.

And I have concluded that it will not give way, that each day it grows stronger than the day before, until now, nearly a week later, it has occurred to me that I was reborn that moment.  Yes, reborn, as in the Christian concept of ‘born again’.  It is as Suzuki said, the same after as before, only your feet are just a little off the ground.  And it is continual.  There is not one single awakening, only a first awakening.  Or more precisely, a first awakening that you recall, for as you think back you realize that the awakening has been going on continuously, moment by moment, since before you can remember.  And so, after your moment of satori, your moment of rebirth, you find that every moment brings with it another awakening, that your task at all times now is not to go to sleep, not to sink back into the unawareness that takes for granted what it sees and in so doing does not see.

But this was more than an awakening.  This was a removal of anger, and not just the recent anger, but all accumulated anger, like an old, very old, much layered and compacted tumour.  The disappearance of this hardened cyst makes every awakening moment now shimmer just a little bit with the humor and love that is present in it.  The relieving of this weight has left my feet just a little bit off the ground.