Updated, December 14, 2012.
You would think the death of Skittles-eating teen Trayvon Martin, shot by a neighborhood watchdog in an upscale community, and other acts of violence would have shaken US citizens enough to catalyze a national movement against hate. But, here it is months and many shootings including several mass murders later and America is still fighting vehemently. Among the ugliest exchanges are those on gun control.
When I first wrote this essay, I hopefully noted that a debate on hate rhetoric was: “A good thing, since children are watching. And people everywhere, of every age, seem ever more numb to violence.”
I’m heartbroken to report that, as of today, many more people are paying attention to our culture of violence. And few are numb, anymore.
As I write this, police in Connecticut are still counting the bodies of the dead after an elementary school shooting there.
So far, 20 children are among the 27 dead. This unspeakable tragedy was foreseeable.
Please read on, as this piece helps explain how our Country has sunk to this horrific low. No longer can any of us ignore our abilities to to do something–everything, anything–we can, to address this terrible track we’re on. As I’m ashamed to admit I did for over a year, before I finally could bring myself to write the story below, published here last Fall. It was my attempt to catalyze critical thinking about who we are.
Seasoned police chaplains aren’t easily shaken. But just over a year ago one group from Minnesota was shocked into silence. By disturbing photos depicting a full-sized image of Hillary Clinton decimated by bullet holes.
Posed by the Secretary of State’s gutted likeness was a 40-something white man. His arms were around two youth drawing them into the scene. They could have been anyone’s children. Like Trayvon, or teen mom Bristol Palin, dubbed by Keith Olbermann as the “Worst Person in the World.” Another child and a female adult in some photos appeared, like the man, to be laughing.
The chaplain group includes full-time pastors and police who volunteer their spare time and ministerial touch to officers and others after unthinkable experiences—deadly accidents, domestic assault, drug abuse.
Though comforters and caregivers by temperament and training, they struggled to articulate their reactions to the pictures. One former pro-football playing Captain, one rector of a large local parish called Grace, one state senator whose church community supported his knock-down political campaign, one practicing therapist, two energetic young officers—all speechless.
The photos illustrated a culture coming undone by vitriolic norms.
Which seems illogical and incomprehensible, until witnessed up-close. As it was by children posed in the ugly tableau. Children unwittingly, if not unwillingly inserted into depravity. Immersed in hate we’ve all witnessed, coming from multiple corners of the partisan continuum. Leaving us half paralyzed, half paranoid. While it soils our national esteem and degrades into a national pastime.
It’s easy to see how, with non-stop pathogens of rage-rhetoric emitted round-the-clock to all in range of a computer screen, cell tower or radio antennae. Perpetrated by professional personalities, politicians and real people. Many carry the corrosive themes into online incivility campaigns. Others perform them for pay. Some spread them in social settings gone seriously anti-social.
Including events intended to uplift our national ideals, like this one family’s Fourth of July celebration. Where grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins and friends gathered for a picnic and fireworks. And, to apparently, obliterate Clinton’s image.
While children watched.
Apparently some at the reunion thought it was funny. Most adults there were professionals not generally perceived as fringe-types. Past family gatherings might have included nothing more dangerous than teaching kids how to shoot clay pigeons.
But the man in the photos, a Rush Limbaugh fan, has been known to deride Clinton and other women with Limbaugh’s trademark slur “femi-Nazis.”
It’s unclear if any attempted to step in and stop the spectacle. Though everything we know about social behaviors suggest had any, the more fervent would have attempted to obstruct them. Dissenters would likely have been taunted for their quaint ideals.
Police chaplains aren’t quaint idealists. They’ve seen too much. Still, those who saw evidence of the effigy were head-shakingly stunned. When they finally spoke, sobering words: “sad,” “sick” and “Why?” were uttered.
They worried for the children.
And despaired about today’s polarizing tones that find seemingly respectable people at historically friendly events blatantly, brutally caricaturizing our country. Though our Constitution (and common sense) calls all to identify as proudly diverse, and yet all “same” people. Called to see and synthesize our abilities with and for our common “Oneness.” Co-caring for our place, country, people, children.
Not destroy our undergirding by un-righting our shared Rights. Rights meant to insure all have a say and all succeed. And remind us we’re responsible for scaffolding the success of all, especially our children.
Not by indoctrinating them in communal contempt.
The chaplains—fathers, uncles and grandfathers, spoke of consuming lives and work that offer little opportunity to change a country that’s slipped over the edge into craziness.
It’s a reaction too many of us harbor. But, if we ignore destructive behaviors, we imply we condone them. Say nothing to indecent, imbalanced behaviors we legitimize them. Don’t do all we can to end uncivil, undignified behaviors, we betray cowardice unbecoming a “country of the brave.”
If we as citizens and country let hate thrive in our own backyards unaddressed, we are complicit in the spread of more.
In fact the chaplains are known to make uncommon efforts of support. So, though struggling with their emotions, they offered reassurance. That people like the man in the photos are unfortunate anomalies.
But they know more. They know guns are the weapons most likely to succeed in US malevolence. That anti-government hate groups have grown eight fold in three years.
The photo was taken July 4, 2010. Six months later an Arizona senator, the wife of an astronaut, was gunned down. A grandmother, little girl, judge and others didn’t survive the assassination attempt.
Ominous trends presaged their deaths.
Arizona hate crimes rose dramatically between 2008-2010. A 2009 warning by the US Department of Homeland Security cited the “charged economic and political climate” as “fueling a resurgence of Rightwing radicalization and recruitment.” It outlined how groups were “broaden(ing) their scope and appeal through propaganda (…) across the country. The overall number of hate groups in the US grew again in 2010.
The gunman was a “lone wolf,” an anomaly. The county sheriff acknowledged the killer’s “mental instability.” Adding an often-overlooked detail. “People who are unbalanced are especially susceptible to vitriol (that) we hear day in and day out.”
Just weeks before the shootings, an unavoidably vitriol-inciting message was erected just five miles away. The billboard featured pictures of stray bullets holes, with the words: “Rush Limbaugh Straight Shooter.”
How many lone wolfs drove by the billboard? For that matter, how many children were driven by it?
“I think of how our youngsters are being raised,” said the Sheriff. Arizona has “become the mecca for prejudice and bigotry.”
As, it seems, has the rest of the country.
Minnesota police chaplains agreed. After they saw photos of a favorite target of Limbaugh symbolically shot up. Perhaps even by children recruited to obliterate one of their country’s leaders image.
And, one must conclude, by fellow citizens who abet—even with only their silence—hostile expressions. Which corrupt our country’s freedom to thrive. Accelerating malignant divisions that catch on via social means, infecting private lives. And, as they do, invade children’s innocence.
Like radio shows that play on and on. While lone wolves grow more vulnerable to the incendiary noise. And police chaplains play catch up to console more people caught in the crossfire.
Whether young Trayvon Martin’s death was a hate-crime has yet to be determined. But the possibility must be considered in a country where non-reflective “shoot first” reactivity is now justified. By powerful voices that whip up fears so fierce both children and once-reasonable people are all but coerced to play along.
And, now, in Connecticut, more children — all younger even than Trayvon was, have been gunned down at their elementary school.
I am with this Arizona sheriff, who is playing a different tune. In his words:
“It’s time that we all do some soul-searching.”
Andrea Morisette Grazzini is a writer, consultant and participatory researcher. Her work has influenced numerous national and global conversations on co-productive change. She founded the cross-partisan initiative DynamicShift in 2009.