I’m proud of my president tonight. I can’t always say that, for reasons I’ll get to in a moment, but I’m proud of him tonight. He (finally) said some challenging things in a challenging time. In fact, I would say that tonight he was not just a president, but a prophet, calling the country to account. And, sadly, he was also a prophet in that he made a prediction about the future which is pretty much guaranteed to come true: that this won’t be the last time he has to make a statement after a massacre.
I’m also proud of President Obama for calling for common-sense gun laws. I agree, particularly in the realm of gun-safety education. The trouble is, I’m fearful. I’m fearful that no such law will ever pass this particular Congress—or any Congress, really, because I fear there will always be at least forty senators who owe more to the National Rifle Association than they owe to their consciences, and four or five Supreme Court justices who often distrust or outright despise government interference in general, and these days that’s enough to halt any law in this country.
But I also have a more direct fear: I’m worried for the president’s life. He’s already said enough that will make certain people want to kill him. If, by some miracle, he managed to get a gun-control law passed before he left office, I’m convinced that he would be attacked, possibly repeatedly, quite possibly by very well-trained men. Many would be killed. The president himself might be killed.
And we already know what the attackers would say to explain themselves, don’t we?
“He was reaching for my gun.”
After all, we know what happens to black men in this country who even appear to be trying to take a gun away from someone, even when said gun is pointed straight at their heads.
Friends, here’s the heart of my fear and the heart of the problem: this is America. We live and die by the gun. The Second Amendment exists because many of the founders of this nation were afraid—afraid that the people they had enslaved would rise up in revolt, afraid that the people they had taken the land from would come to take it back, afraid that the new government they were actually forming at the moment would turn tyrannical. After all, they’d just fought a war against a government that had done just that. Thus our country came into existence by violence, and by violence alone, in at least three different ways. And it was maintained by violence: for all the rhetoric and eloquence of our governmental system, the enslaved Africans and the disinherited First Nations were not persuaded by it. Thomas Jefferson went so far as to suggest that political violence was necessary. And so the Second Amendment legalized the tools to make all that violence possible.
This nation was then shaped by violence; for all that I admire President Lincoln, he was willing to kill to keep the country intact. Then, after a gun took him from us, guns rewrote his legacy, too, disenfranchising the newly-emancipated black people of this land. A reign of violence kept people of color powerless—be it the KKK attacking black families, the Texas Rangers attacking Hispanics in the southwest, or the US Army itself bludgeoning the First Nations to death. Guns and violence took US power around the world and built us an empire—an empire we still maintain, in altered form, with our global military presence. President Obama himself has used violence against his enemies extensively, even when the drone-strike program has left so many innocent dead (along with some judged guilty, but not judged so by means of a trial). And, of course, the United States was the inventor of the biggest weapons possible, the atomic and hydrogen bombs.
We are who we are.
Why will now be any different?
Dr. King—almost exactly a year before he, too, was shot and killed—explained it best. Speaking in 1967, he described going around the country to speak with black rioters in Watts, in Detroit, and in scores of other places. He told them they shouldn’t be using violence to get what they wanted. “But Dr. King,” (he recounted them saying) “what about Vietnam?” And he understood at last that we use violence to get what we want, or to feel just a little bit safer, all the time. Every damn day we use violence, be it yet another case of domestic assault or yet another cop killing yet another black kid or yet another US military op dropping bombs somewhere else in the world. Every damn day.
I’m proud of my president. I’ll stand with him, if he pushes to get a law passed. But the trouble is, he’s treating gun violence as if it were a cancer. As if with the right bone-marrow transplant we could cure ourselves of this. But every era in our history makes it plain that this is not a fluke. It is what it is, and we are who we are. Until we come to grips with the complicated history of violence that has brought us to this state, blood will still be shed.
Guns aren’t a cancer in our bones. They are our bones.
Can a country cut out its own bones?
Occasionally we’ve started to—the end of slavery, the end of Jim Crow—but we wouldn’t finish the job, and we wouldn’t even start until we saw Emmett Till lying in his coffin and Medgar Evers lying in his driveway. And even then we still looked away, from the crimes and from their causes. We refuse to look, and refuse to admit what we’ve done. How could we let someone kill a man like Dr. King? Well, because we’ve already let thousands of people like him die, before and since, because we looked away, and lied the American lie that “It can’t happen here.” We are well-trained in separating causes from their effects.
The first step of the cure is not to look away. God knows it will hurt, and fixing the problem will hurt even more, because the second step is actually admitting what we’ve done, which will burn our lips to ash. And then it’s on to the pain of Step Three… cutting out one’s own bones is not an easy process. But if this is who we are, and we want to be somebody else, then that’s what we’ll have to do.
I was always taught that we Americans could grow up to be anything. Can we grow up to be people who do not look away?