9/11, Gun Violence, and Remembrance

There is a aloneness that I feel on the 4 train even when it is packed. If my mind is not distracted by a text from a colleague or family member or if I’m not reading something, my mind often wanders based on the advertisement text above the subway windows. Today I saw this advertisement:

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The woman in the poster stated something that I just can’t get out of my mind:

It was very necessary for me as a person, as an American, as a New Yorker, to experience the museum.”

The poster grabbed my attention because of the collective impulse the poster evokes about American consciousness. We are all New Yorkers on September 11. We never forget.  The attacks on September 11th changed the way we do everything.  Airlines.  Homeland Security.  At least two wars in the Middle East.  The War on Terror.  The Patriot Act.  Curtailment of civil liberties.  All of these are offshoots of the enhanced security state after 9/11.

By the same token, there is no saying out there that we must never forget the Aurora Theater shooting.  There is no date to remember the Newtown Massacre (in fact, many avidly oppose trying to outlaw the weapons that were used to gun down those children). There is no date to remember Virginia Tech. Columbine feels like a childhood memory.  Noe one says “never forget” when Dylan Roof shot and killed members of an African American church in Charleston (in fact, it instead started a debate about confederate paraphernalia).

The Dylan Roof shooting in particular reminds us that we still have not overcome.  While few would justify outright violence against blacks, we do not mind innuendo about how “those inner cities” (read coded language for “those black people”) need to be fixed.  One comment on a recent facebook feed about the recent shooting of Congressmen Steve Scalise I was involved with said this:

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One person even said:

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In other words, just “get rid” of those big cities (again, I don’t see any other way to read this than get rid of black people), then our country would be so much better.  Quotes like these remind me why I try to stay off Facebook on days like today, but the subway ride home reminded me the problem of shootings are much larger than the partisan rankling that gets televised once every few months in a raging debate over gun control.  The bigger issue is about what we remember.

We chose as a nation to never forget 9/11.  And it was a choice just like the choice we make to ignore every time four or more people are shot by a single gun to say, “It’s not the fault of gun owners!  We are responsible! Don’t blame us.”  Notice no one makes the argument, “If we could just have guns on planes, we would be safer” after a terrorist attack.  We have chosen to avoid even liquids on planes for fears that they might be used as bombs.  We have chosen to deter terrorism at all costs.  

And yet we continue to justify gun violence even when, in cases like Dylan Roof, the motive was clearly terrorism.  Roof’s actions, just like the actions of the Klan, were meant to terrorize and put fear toward an entire race.  We justify keeping our weapons today just like we justified the policies of segregation by saying “we fear government overreach.”  We couch it in terms of individual and state rights (e.g. “Don’t Tread on Me.”).  George Wallace, the avowed segregationist, said before the ’64 DNC that he would oppose the “excesses of central government [that] gives free reign to this party.” (Source: Pillar of Fire, Taylor Hatch).  He was using the issue of state rights to try and counteract the civil rights bill that would – gasp – give blacks the right to vote.

Similarly on a  plane, Martin Luther King debated a young supporter of Barry Goldwater who opposed the civil rights bill.  His justification?  It would “carry on the trend toward federal dictatorship.” (Source: Pillar of Fire).

But even if we get past the issue of mass  shootings, we find the mproblem much larger  than even mass shootings.  Ending mass shootings would only stop about 0.5% of gun deaths in the United States.  The vast majority of homicides, most of which do not make above the fold (or, often, not even on the front page), are part of a cycle of violence and poverty that is a direct result of long-standing segregationist policies and a lack of aid to those most in need of it.  These are all choices that we made based on the people we have elected, the local policies we have erected in our cities, and the attitudes that we take toward the least of these.

Speaking of “never forgetting” . . .

If I bring up slavery as an aspect of our national heritage, I am instantly hit with, “Well I didn’t own any slaves.” Or, “that was a long time ago.” Never mind the fact that many people have relatives who knew someone who had been born into slavery just a generation before. We are only about the third generation out of the 13th amendment which abolished slavery (I was born in 1986, my great-grandparents, from Arkansas, could have known people who owned slaves).  We are not as far removed from it as we think.

If this is not good enough for you or too far removed, remember that there are people who are still living who lived through the freedom summer in Mississippi and the Bus Boycotts. It was within the lifetime of my parents that civil rights leaders like Medgar Evers and Martin Luther King were assassinated and Bull Connor turned fire hoses against black children and let loose police dogs to bite them.  It was within their lifetime that black churches were firebombed and civil rights leaders were chased, killed, tortured, and maimed simply for asking for the right to vote.  The perpetrators walked free while the victims walked in terror that violence could strike again at any moment.   This was terrorism that we did forget.

If my parents generation is too far removed for you then consider that black Americans are incarcerated at a much higher rate than white Americans and that schools are almost always systematically segregated by race. The judicial system has actually (and ironically) entrenched that resegregation in supreme court cases that reverse the historic Brown v. Board of Education.  The unemployment rates for blacks is nearly double that for white Americans and they are more likely while unemployed to be charged for low level crimes (even if that same white person also commits that low level crime).

I bring up the race issue here because the majority of that gun violence (after suicides, which account for 60% of deaths by guns) happens to black people.  Although blacks make up about 14% of the population, they are victims of more than half of all gun homicides.  We changed our entire country because a little less than 3,000 people died and spent billions fighting two wars and building an intelligence infrastructure so that we could say “never again.”  When will we say that enough is enough with gun violence?  When will we make the choice to look our country in the eyes and deal with the dark underbelly that has loomed over us for over 100 years.  We have yet to make amends with who we are and what we have done as a country and until we do, we will never know who we are.



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