Pakistan

Why…and Why Not? Questions about the Sandy Hook Shooting

The peace, joy and celebrations of Christmas and the holiday season have been shattered by despicable violence. In many parts of the country, people have been physically sickened and have shed tears, some uncontrollably. The first question, the Why, is not an attempt to seek and understand an explanation for the massacre. Rather, it queries the reason so many in our country care what happened.

Certainly for the families and friends who lost loved ones at Sandy Hook Elementary School, the pain and sorrow are obvious and understandable. Families have been ripped apart, literally, as they lay the bodies of their little ones to rest. Sadly, neither our President, nor local politicians, nor our teachers, nor even our pastors can craft adequate words of consolation. Darkness hangs over the city of Newton; an oppressive darkness that obscures even the light of Christmas. On a basic and intuitive level we understand the concern and care of each of the families and of their friends.

But why should the rest of the country care? Most of us did not know these little children or their families. Could it be that the wanton murder of twenty little first graders creates an existential disruption in our own lives? After all, for most of us, the massacre was, and remains, incomprehensible. Our own sense of order has been distorted and thrown into chaos. Or could it be that we have become afraid? Afraid for ourselves and our own children? Or maybe it is that the massacre of innocent six and seven-year-olds is simply too unsettling to fathom, compounded by the fact that their little bodies were riddled with close-range bullets. Could it be our own repugnance at the terror they must have felt as their bodies were pierced and life ripped from their tiny frames? There are many legitimate and humane reasons to care. And as a nation, we care deeply.

But we are challenged by the second question:
Why Not? Why do we not demonstrate the same outrage and grief for the innocent children killed in Pakistan and Yemen? I don’t mean children who are victims of floods, earthquakes and other natural disasters, or even children who die of starvation or disease. I am not speaking of children caught in the crossfire of soldiers’ rifles in the midst of war. No. I mean the 178 children killed by drone attacks ordered by our own government, the United States of America. That is nearly nine times the number killed in Newton!

The children at Sandy Hook faced a madman. Children living in Pakistan and Yemen faced unmanned drones. Is their terror any less because they cannot see their killer? Are they any less innocent? Are their futures filled with any less promise? Are their dreams of being teachers or doctors, scientists or musicians any less deserving? Why don’t we rise up in anger and protest? Why don’t we care?

Could it be that they are not massacred together in a single violent act? Could it be that the media doesn’t deem these deaths worthy of news coverage? Could it be that we do not see their faces or know their names? Could it be that we consider them the “other” because they are not us? Could it simply be that they are different?

We try to justify our drone attacks by saying we are pursuing an enemy. We are hunting the “bad guys.” Well, little children are not the bad guys—no matter what country they live in. The fear that overwhelms them as they hear a drone humming in the sky above is just as real as the fear of children who hear gunfire in the next classroom. And it is just as evil.

This is not a lecture, and I do not have the answer. I have only the question:
Why don’t we care?
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The Death of Bin Laden—A Second Look

There is, of course, no picture of Osama Bin Laden in this blog. It would serve no purpose other than to further agitate the distorted intellects of conspiracy theorists who are already frenetically claiming Bin Laden’s death is a hoax. Still, if a picture paints a thousand words, then moving pictures sketch a dictionary. While photographs possess the power to entrance, often leaving us wanting more, moving pictures transport us to the very heart of action itself, exhausting and exciting our emotions whether for good or for ill.

Following the terrorist attacks of 9/11, people all over the world were stunned and alarmed. Not only did we watch in horror while planes flew into the Twin Towers, we were also dismayed at the level of destruction as the towers collapsed with mini mushroom clouds vainly attempting to shroud the ruin. To make matters worse, the world was subjected to videos of cheering crowds dancing and celebrating these unprovoked acts of death and destruction.

For almost ten years Osama Bin Laden, the founder and leader of al-Qaeda, had eluded the combined efforts of the world’s most sophisticated intelligence organizations. Though he never faded from memory, most people had understandably begun to wonder if he would ever be caught, if justice would forever be denied.

Then, on Sunday night, May 1st, President Obama announced a successful intelligence operation that ended with the death of Bin Laden. The President delivered the announcement with cultured elegance. It is difficult to imagine the emotions he must have been feeling. There appeared to have been excitement in his eyes—resulting as much from the magnitude and impact of his speech as from any possible joy or satisfaction. Obama pronounced a verdict of justice with sedate solemnity, and his words were filled with gravitas as he reaffirmed the perilous milieu of terror that still grips our world. Through it all, Obama was profoundly presidential and resolutely restrained.

Contrast the President’s demeanor with the throngs that gathered outside the White House, in New York City and elsewhere—chanting masses that seem so eerily similar to the cheering crowds of 9/11. It is tempting to dismiss this reaction as Schadenfreude. The truth is more sinister and therefore more difficult to correct.

Certainly there is a mix of emotions welling from within, most uniquely from within the hearts of those who have lost family and friends to the violence of al-Qaeda. From those whose loved ones have been ripped from life, we expect to find relief, gratitude, closure, perhaps even some sense of peace. No one can sit in judgment on how any individual who has suffered such tragedy should feel or react. Indeed, there probably is no “should”.

At the same time, a desire for understanding and compassion must not deter anyone from probing deeper questions of response. Specifically, what is an appropriate collective reaction when a perpetrator of mass violence ends up the prey of violence, himself? There is simply no triumph or honor in the ability to kill. That was what Bin Laden stood for; it cannot define us, also. There is something terribly obscene about watching people celebrate any death, even the demise of Osama Bin Laden.

Whether in the Middle East or in the United States, such assemblies demonstrate a depraved indifference to life and exhibit a duplicity that is beyond the pale of reason. If all human life is of value, then every human life is of value. For believers there is also a religious component. After all, even the Osama Bin Laden’s of the world are created in the image of God. Although they betray that image by acts of violence, we also betray that image--and our faith--by celebrating their executions.

In the United States today, perhaps in every country, we cry out for leaders, for men and women to serve as examples the rest of us can admire and emulate. It was evident on Sunday that we have at least one politician who understands what it means to lead and to inspire. President Obama did not taunt the enemy in his Sunday address. He spoke with candor about justice, but his words did not evoke revenge.

Public displays of emotion, even those that originate from conflict, are not inherently perverse. Innumerable photos and newsreels abound of citizens from various countries celebrating the end of World War I & World War II. In those pictures we see men and women rejoicing, not because someone has died, but because the specter of violence has ended. They celebrate in the hope that perhaps no one else will have to die by bloodshed. They celebrate a peace that was won with incredible sacrifice.

While that hope certainly surfaces with the death of Bin Laden, the mobs we have seen in the streets of America are not celebrating peace. As the president stated, the fight against terror goes on. No, the mobs are celebrating violence itself, and that kind of rejoicing debases us all. However difficult it may be, we must reach deep within ourselves to embrace the more courageous and truer principles of peace. We must be better than Osama Bin Laden was.
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