In October of 1998, a young man named Matthew Shepard was driven to a remote, rural area, where he was robbed, pistol-whipped, tortured, and then tied to a fence and left to die. Significant media coverage was given to what role Shepard’s sexual orientation played in the killing; Matthew Shepard was gay, and during the trial it was disclosed that the killers had pretended to be gay in order to gain his trust so that they could rob him.
I remember how awful I felt about this incident; I couldn’t get it out of my mind, mental images of this poor kid hanging from that fence, hurt, alone and dying. It haunted me for a long time, and I would scour the newspapers hoping that the killers would be brought to justice quickly. In 1998 the internet was new; it was not a source for news, and it didn’t explode every time something happened. People read the newspaper or listened to the news, and would then talk about things openly. It might seem rather primitive now, but I clearly recall that empathy and compassion still meant something, and most folks were decent enough to allow a space for grieving before arguing and debating over the fallout from such horrible acts of violence.
In April of 1999, two teens went on a shooting spree at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, killing 13 people and wounding more than 20 others before turning their guns on themselves and committing suicide. At the time I was living in Colorado, and I worked less than 15 miles from the high school where the shooting occurred. For many weeks, the shooting was on the front page of the newspapers, and all of the major television networks covered every aspect of the shooting through the last funeral of the last victim. We were in mourning – all of us – together. The crime was the worst high school shooting in U.S. history and prompted a national debate on gun control and school safety, but we mourned first, and saved our fighting for later.
On September 11, 2001, 19 al-Qaeda terrorists hijacked four passenger airliners crashing two of them into the North and South towers of the World Trade Center, one into the Pentagon, and the fourth in a field in Pennsylvania after the passengers tried to overcome the hijackers. In total, the attacks claimed the lives of nearly 3,000 people. Everyone knew about it; TV news repeatedly showed live footage of the crashes across the world. I remember being at work where we were all huddled around the radio listening in horror. It was nearly impossible to accomplish anything that day…we were worried if more strikes would occur – and if so, where. Friends and relatives from all over the country were calling each other to check in and try to process together what was going on. I remember the phone lines were jammed and it was tough to get a call out. We were a country in deep mourning, but everyone came together and hugged and cried and consoled each other. Strangers, from all over the world, lamented together, wanting to know how something so awful could be done.
A week after the attack, I was wrung out and bone weary. My vacation had already been scheduled, and I felt myself being called to the Grand Canyon. I drove there with a friend, and we arrived at the south rim just as the sun was setting. I will never forget seeing the Grand Canyon for the first time at sunset. A lot of other people were present. We were all quiet and deeply reflective, but suddenly someone started singing: “all we are saying, is give peace a chance.” We all stood there quietly, together, singing as the sun slowly faded away. It was one of the most spontaneous and holy moments of my life.
In this decade alone, the acts of violence and mayhem have piled on top of each other. The rate of acceleration is overwhelming to the point where we seem to be losing our capacity for feeling horror. So far this year, there have been 134 mass shootings with four or more victims, and this is only June. Shootings, hate-crimes, acts of terrorism – this is our American nightmare. We still mourn and we still lament, but I can’t help but notice how visibly eroded our ability to feel compassion for each other has become. Our ability to feel deeply one another’s pain seems to be disappearing only to be replaced with a growing hatred and mistrust for each other, and blame has become America’s drug of choice.
I no longer read the newspaper. Like most people, I get my news from the internet. The first page I see when I open my browser is NPR. Today it is possible to track updates anytime, from any news source, using devices such as smartphones, tablets, and laptops. What is even more amazing is that we now have the ability to weigh in on stories as they break.
On Sunday when I got home from church, I opened my browser for the first time that day. The NPR headlines were about the mass-shooting in Orlando. Very little was known at that time other than the nightclub where the shooting occurred was a gay bar, and the shooter was thought to be a Muslim terrorist. A lot of labels for such a small amount of information. Knowing better, I scrolled down to the comments. There were already close to 800, and no one was talking about the terror and the anguish the victims and their families were going through; no one even seemed particularly grieved about what had just happened and how another hole had been punched in the heart of our society. The argument began with the first comment and was about gun rights with each side casting blame on the other for their particular positions in the matter. The comments were snarky and hateful – full of assumptions and completely nonsensical. The entire endeavor was a complete waste of everyone’s time – including my own. Like I said, I should have known better.
But on the flip-side of that came the outpouring of love as people came together all over the world to mourn the victims, support one another and fight back against homophobia with bold displays of love. Thousands lined up to give blood just hours after the attack. Cities all over the world took to the streets in crowded vigils. World landmarks such as the Eiffel Tower and the World Trade center were lit up to let international pride shine through. It is interesting to note how physical presence is more apt to bring out love, while digital anonymity leans more toward hate.
Over the years I have come to see that when we show up for each other; when we reach out to each other; when we talk to each other by using our voices, our natural tendency to show empathy, compassion, and love comes gushing out. We bring it out in each other. We bring out the best in ourselves through each other. But we also bring out the worst in each other when we are cowering and sneaky, hiding ourselves behind white sheets or electronic screens that give us the courage to do things we wouldn’t dare do openly.
I don’t think anyone will argue that there are a lot of things that need fixing in this country. We are a shattered and broken society, and we can’t seem to solve even the simplest of problems because we are so busy hating each other. We distract ourselves by arguing electronically over petty things like who can pee in which bathroom, or how offensive red cups are, while people are being gunned down in movie theaters, schools, shopping malls, churches, and bars. The problem begins with each and every one of us – individually, and can only be solved by all of us together. I came across a quote today, and I think it expresses it better than anything else I have heard so far:
“Many people today agree that we need to reduce violence in our society. If we are truly serious about this, we must deal with the roots of violence, particularly those that exist within each of us. We need to embrace ‘inner disarmament,’ reducing our own emotions of suspicion, hatred and hostility toward our brothers and sisters.” ― Dalai Lama XIV
Inner disarmament – in all our talk of disarmament, has anyone ever mentioned that? When we come together to lament and show empathy and compassion, we are disarming. When we lay down our weapons of suspicion, mistrust and hostility, others are inclined to do likewise. Physical presence, vulnerability, tears blending together, bodies embraced, these things disarm us all and lead to real conversations, and real solutions. If we truly want this country to be great, then inner disarmament and genuine sorrow for our sins against each other is the only way to get there. We are going to have to learn how to lay down our weapons of fear and hate and learn to trust each other. We are all members of the same human family, who all have the same desire to live in peace and harmony. This is how we were created to be, and unless we disarm ourselves, our violence is only going to grow until we have nothing left to destroy.
It begins with me; it begins with you; it begins with all of us – individually and together.
“All we are saying, is give peace a chance…”