By Victor D. Infante
1.) Dancing With Heroes
Perhaps the most fascinating journey on the most-recent season of Dancing with the Stars was that of Alek Skarlato, the 23-year-old Army National Guardsman specialist who, along with two fellow American soldiers, helped subdue a gunman on a train in France. He seems an unlikely “star,” although he has a certain humble, all-American likability about him, and for all of his seeming a bit out of place, he dances quite well.
He also denies that he’s a hero, saying on a recent episode, “I’m just a guy who didn’t want to die on the train in France.” Repeatedly, he says he did what anyone would do. But here’s the thing: We know from the long swathe of human history that most people wouldn’t have done that. Most people, when confronted with mortal danger, either freeze, paralyzed by fear, or flee in panic. Fighting is one of the purposes of the adrenaline rush we experience in times of crisis, but it’s also our least likely response. There’s no dishonor in that. That survival instinct is hard-wired into our brain, and usually it takes extraordinary circumstances – say, a loved one or a child being in immediate danger – to act otherwise, if even then. Police officers and soldiers need to be trained to overcome that impulse.
As a lifelong pacifist, I’ll decline here to discuss the ethics of violence under any circumstances, and instead posit a moment of necessity – an instance where the lives of one’s self and others are in jeopardy, and what’s called for is action. This a moment that calls for heroism, and it is a moment in which many of us, maybe even most of us, will fail. This is the reason that heroes are so compelling in fiction: They’re extremely rare in real life.
But that’s not how we see ourselves in these situations, is it? No, for many of us, we work from an assumption of heroism. Presidential candidate Ben Carson, discussing the recent shootings in Oregon, said, “Not only would I probably not cooperate with him, I would not just stand there and let him shoot me. I would say, ‘Hey guys, everybody attack him. He may shoot me, but he can’t get us all.’”
Perhaps, but it seems unlikely. Carson himself has tried to back up his claim by recounting a tale of being held up in a Popeye’s restaurant in Baltimore, saying, “Guy comes in, put the gun in my ribs, and I just said, ‘I believe that you want the guy behind the counter.’ I redirected him.”
It’s not clear how throwing a minimum wage fast food worker under the bus is supposed to denote an act of bravery, and Baltimore police have been unable to find any record of this incident – it seems unlikely that a corporate fast food train wouldn’t call the police, as Carson has since supposed to explain the lack of corroborating evidence. No matter, he himself has noted the fundamental difference between the alleged Popeye’s stick-up and either the Oregon shooting or the French train attack: “They are two very different situations,” says Carson. “I’m not justifying the fact that he’s coming in to rob the place [in Baltimore], but you’ve got to be able to distinguish between somebody who is trying to rob a joint and somebody who is trying to kill you. I wasn’t fearful for my life at all. I knew why he was there.”
So there we are: This story, if it’s even true, tells us nothing. But then, that’s one of the oddities of this presidential election: Although violence has been a major topic of debate, in a variety of forms, the fact is that very few of the candidates have any sort of experience or understanding of it. Many of them have led extremely pampered lives, and only a handful have any military experience: Only Democrat Jim Webb and Republican Rick Perry, both of whom have ended their campaigns, and Republican Lindsey Graham, whose campaign is currently foundering. Carson is now claiming a history of violence as a youth, but that is looking increasingly suspect. As a registered conscientious objector, it’s an odd -but-unavoidable question to ask: In a world where violent crime, police brutality, terrorism and escalating military action are everyday topics, how healthy is it for most of our potential leaders to have only an abstract understanding of violence? How healthy is it to work from an assumption of heroism?
2.) The Spider-Man Axiom
Those familiar with the comic book character Spider-Man are probably also familiar with the axiom, With great power comes great responsibility, a lesson young Peter Parker learned when failing to stop a petty criminal lead to the death of his Uncle Ben. It’s a remarkably pure philosophy, in its way, rooted in altruism and weighted by a sense of bad things happening if the powerful don’t act.
The comic books of the ’60s were an odd amalgamation of the political and the apolitical, often acting as a Rorschach test for the reader – someone with a conservative bent could read them one way, someone with a liberal bent could read them another. Spidey was either a reaction to Big Government not being up to the task of fighting crime or an example of a Bleeding Heart liberal devoting his life to helping others at great cost to himself. Both were true, or neither, and it didn’t really matter so long as the story was enjoyable.
But the great comic creators of the Silver Age, most notably Stan Lee, were expert at reflecting their times and zeitgeists in ways that were both elegant and blatant: The belief at the time was that the Cold War would be won by science, so science created heroes: The Fantastic Four were transformed trying to win the Space Race, Bruce Banner became the Hulk while trying to build a better bomb, weapon manufacturer Tony Stark keeps his creations out of enemy hands by becoming Iron Man. And high school student Peter Parker – a teenager greatly interested in science – gets bit by a radioactive spider and becomes a hero.
Lee and his collaborators were plugged into the zeitgeist enough to know that the idea of science creating heroes would be extremely compelling to their audience, and they were plugged into human nature enough to know that there would also be a monstrous quality about these heroes, one which frequently marked them as outsiders, feared and distrusted. With great power comes great responsibility, but normal people fear great power on the best of days. The existence of great power is a reminder of one’s own relative powerlessness, and then, there’s that other great axiom, this one from 19th century politician and historian Lord John Dalberg-Acton: Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.
We trust Spider-Man and Captain America and the like because they are fictional characters, and we are privy to their motivations and interior monologues. They are, ultimately, creations of art meant to resound with something in our chests, something that we want to be. But in real life, we hear Lord Acton whispering in our ear each time we see evidence of a police officer or soldier – a person with power and responsibility whom we are culturally assured we should trust – behave in ways which reflect the monster more than the hero. At the very least, we are cogent that they are human beings, and we know how much potential for both light and darkness human beings have.
We trust our police because we are told to, and we trust our neighbors because we must. The erosion in the trust in one erodes the trust in the other, until pretty soon we are less a community and more a jangling of exposed nerves.
A newer axiom has been making the rounds lately: The only defense against a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun. But how do we know which is is which? Is it possible, in real life, to solely be one or the other, when even in the Silver Age of comics, the heroes were also monsters from a certain angle?
3.) A Rainfall of Bullets
At the time of this writing, the country is still reeling from the attacks in San Bernadino, California, where a husband and wife went on a shooting rampage that killed 14 people. The pair were, by most accounts, motivated by a radical form of Islam, although investigations are still underway. Mere days before, a Planned Parenthood in Colorado Springs, Colorado, by a man who seemed motivated by an radical form of conservatism and extremist Christianity. This comes on the heels of men being charged in the Minneapolis shooting of Black Lives Matters protestors in an attack that seems motivated by white supremacy. And this comes on top of multiple people dying in the Boston Marathon bombing, of nine people dying in a biker gang shootout in Waco, Texas, of an uptick of gang-related shootings in Worcester, Massachusetts, of shootings lacking any remotely sane rationale in Newton, Connecticut, and Aurora, Colorado, and Charlton, South Carolina. And so on. And so on. And so on.
And then, there are the shooting deaths of two police officers in New York City in seeming retaliation for the death of Michael Brown and Erick Garner, two unarmed African-American men who died at the hands of police officers … part of a rash of such violence – including the slaying of unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin in Miami Gardens, Florida, by a self-professed member of the “neighborhood watch” – much of which has been overtly covered up by authorities, such as in Chicago, where the uncovering of the circumstances of the death of Laquan McDonald has lead to the resignation of the chief of police. And so on. And so on.
There is a tendency for both the media and the public to treat these things as though they were separate incidents. They are not: They are all symptoms of a violent cancer burbling under the culture’s skin. And yet, the tendency is for both the media and the public to play up some incidents of violence in some places, and downplay it in others. The radical Islamists are dangerous terrorists, but the white Christian shooters are just lone psychopaths. Immigrants and refugees are demonized while biker gangs and cops are defended on Fox News.
You ask me who the good guys with guns in any of these stories are supposed to be, and I have no answer for you. You ask me how the addition of more guns in anybody’s hands would have changed any of these situations, and I am likewise at a loss for words. All I can tell you is that people are dead. No attempt to parse politics or reframe the situation, to shield or demonize one group or another changes that fact. There is only the dead, and a rainfall of bullets falling everywhere.
4.) What We See in the Mirror
We live in the heyday of the pop culture superhero, the denizens of comic book adventures refracted now across a bounty of media: Movies, television, video games, novelizations and more, some of their stories having been told so often that they’ve soaked into our cultural skin. Clark Kent is a strange visitor from a doomed planet fighting for truth, justice and the American way, whatever that is these days. Bruce Wayne watched his parents die in an alley and vowed to rid his city of crime. Peter Parker learned the meaning of responsibility when his uncle died.
As the real world has become more complicated – or at least, our understanding of it has become more nuanced – we’ve allowed our fictions to follow suit. We understand that not even people with the best of intentions agree, and so we understand in intuitively what’s happening when, in films due out next year, Batman squares off against Superman, and Captain America battles Iron Man. We are sophisticated enough to grasp, at least intellectually, that the world is never so easy as “good vs. evil.” One need only have a casual awareness of the movies and TV shows based on Marvel and DC Comics to see that the heroes fail with some degree of regularity. It’s those failures, and the ability to pick one’s self off and try again, that’s appealing. Flawless fictional heroes would be of no interest whatsoever.
Media talking heads not well-versed in the realities of comic books and superheroes like to say things along the lines of the current cultural popularity of superheroes stemming from a desire to see clear-cut good and bad guys in the world as an antidote to the world’s combustive morass of moral gray. But I’m not entirely sure that’s true. Sometimes, I think the popularity comes not from their shining fictional successes, but in their failures: That they disagree, and fight, and buck authority when they have to, and sometimes when they shouldn’t. That they can fail with disastrous consequences, and still redeem themselves. Part of the appeal of the superhero is wish fulfillment, certainly, but one of those wishes is the freedom to fail with the best of intentions, and still be forgiven. And still triumph over darkness.
We see this nuance quite clearly in our fictions, but are often unwilling to apply that understanding to the real world. Some balk at the baldly sensible suggestions that not all – or even most – Muslims are terrorists, or that addressing institutional racism in the nation’s police forces doesn’t mean all cops are evil, or that not all Latino immigrants are dangerous criminals, even if they entered the country illegally. Instead, we fall easily into Manichean dualities, and the result is a philosophic rigidity which causes us to fail to see the humanity in others, and that gap in our understandings floods our hearts with fear, and then hatred, which we then project into the world, perpetuating the cycle until someone unstable, maybe someone with a twisted cause or suffering underneath the dementia of racism, misogyny or one of any number of sicknesses, picks up a gun and tries to alleviate that emptiness by filling it with blood and fire. And then we watch the carnage on the news, and view it in isolation, and try to pick apart what happened, and decide who to blame. And we try very hard not to look at ourselves in mirrors, in case we see something that makes us deeply uncomfortable.
What is it that separates ourselves from a lunatic who fires guns at a school, health clinic or movie theater? What is it that makes an armed policeman terrified enough to fire on an unarmed teenager? What makes someone put on a suicide vest and explode on a public street, or shoot a member of a rival gang in a drive-by? What is missing from these people’s lives that could take them to such a dark place, and are we capable of going there, too? Is it a lack of love? Of God? Of hope? Is it pure, unadulterated evil? Is it the Devil, or just the clockwork mechanics of a culture so deeply ingrained we don’t even see them anymore? Most of us don’t want to really know the answer to that question.
5.) We Could Be Heroes
There are heroes in most of the litany of tragedies that spill across our nightly newscasts. Sandy Hook teacher Kaitlin Roig-DeBellis managed to protect 15 of her students by hiding them in a bathroom. She lived, but fellow teacher Victoria Soto died protecting her students. Both women were in their 20s at the time of Adam Lanza’s attack. Larry Daniel Kaufman, a 42-year-old gay man who worked at a coffee cart inside the Inland Regional Center for people with disabilities in San Bernardino is credited with saving four people before dying as Tashfeen Malik and her husband, Syed Rizwan Farook, attacked. Daniel Hernandez Jr., an openly gay intern to Rep. Gabrielle Giffords saved the Congresswoman’s life with first-aid training when she was attacked by a gunman in Tuscon Arizona. Three young men in their 20s – Jon Blunk, Alex Teves and Matt McQuinn – died shielding their respective girlfriends from the attack by gunman John Holmes on a movie theater during the screening of a Batman film. And there are others. Everyday people who, in a moment of crisis, act in some way to protect others, sometimes sacrificing their lives. Men and women of different backgrounds and beliefs – all as capable of being heroes as others with their exact same backgrounds are of being monsters. We don’t know what people will be until they’re in those moments.
6.) Who Profits?
Gun control – as we discuss it as a political issue – is a Band-Aid. That doesn’t mean it should be dismissed – if you nick your finger chopping vegetables and don’t put a bandage on it, you run the risk of being infected, or worse if the cut is deep enough. Indeed, if you nick your finger and keep cooking, your blood will contaminate the cutting board and everything you cut. One small, easily dealt-with injury can cause large amounts of damage to yourself and others if left untended. What do we do with the untreated wounds of hundreds and hundreds of shootings? What do we do when the blood is everywhere, soaking everything and everyone?
According to an October Gallup poll, 55% of Americans favor stricter gun control. The hold up has been an intransigent Congress, particularly the GOP, almost all of whom are in the pocket of the NRA. Some Democrats, too – even the lauded Bernie Saunders has been weak on the issue – but the NRA gives a disproportionate amount of money to Republican politicians and organizations, and in return they thwart even common-sense gun restrictions, like not being able to buy a gun if you’re on the terrorism no-fly list. But Sanders is correct when he says – ironic phrasing aside – that gun control isn’t “a magic bullet” to solve the problem of mass violence. Nor is better mental health screening, although surely there are times that would have been of use, and better access to mental health care has been a festering culture need since the Reagan administration.
No, an end to widespread gun violence entails a lot of separate remedies, all working in concert. It’s not one wound which you can heal and then be finished with: It’s a multitude of wounds, and each one keeps infecting the rest: You can see the toxicity radiate from each shooting, whether it be the death of unarmed 12-year-old boy Tamir Rice in Cleveland, Ohio, or the shootings at Planned Parenthood in Colorado or the attack in San Bernardino. They are all, in their ways, acts of terrorism, whether motivated by racism, religious intolerance, extremist religious views, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, gang activity and so on. Even the ones described as “lone wolves” seem to always have some twisted motivation that seems rooted in racism, misogyny or some such. The end goal is always the same: Lashing out violently to instill fear in groups: to make women afraid to go to Planned Parenthood, to make African-Americans afraid of police officers, to make Americans afraid of Muslims, to make you feel scared and alone.
Why? Why is this countenanced at all? Who profits when everyone is afraid of everybody else? The NRA and the industry they serve? Gun sales do go up dramatically with each tragedy. The media outlets that peddle fear? Their ratings certainly spike when tragedy hits. The politicians who gain votes by demonizing minorities and keeping people polarized from one another? Donald Trump’s poll numbers certainly seem linked to his blatantly racist and otherwise offensive proclamations. Outright terrorist organizations such as ISIS? Spreading fear is their business model, after all.
Here’s the truth: Every perpetrator responsible for every tragedy – from George Zimmerman shooting Trayvon Martin to the Tsarnaev brothers and the Boston Marathon bombings, from Adam Lanza at Sandy Hook to Planned Parenthood attacker Robert Lewis Dear – assumed they were the hero in their story. For almost all of them, there are still people who actually believe they were the hero of that story.
And what about you? How do you profit from violence, and the forces that shape it? Do you profit from racism or religious intolerance? Do you benefit in some way when large swathes of people are afraid, all the time. Are you sure? How much do you really know of violence and how it works, about what role it plays in your life and history? How much are you just believing what you’re told to believe? What happens if you start letting go of that fear?