"No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin,
or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate,
and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love,
for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite."
~ Nelson Mandela ~
Each new generation inherits the past. Part of our inheritance is material, as in the things of this earth that are made by us as well as the ideas and skill sets that created them. Part of our inheritance is ecological, by which I mean the great good earth itself and all the diverse forms of life that grow and decay upon it as well as its mysteries, some as small as atoms and others as large as all eternity. And part of our inheritance--probably the most elemental of all of what we inherit because knowledge of them and about them shapes everything we are and do--is contained in the historical and cultural narratives that teach us who and where we are, what we are about, and what we should learn to believe in. Over time, these are the narratives we draw on to answer, one way or another, our questions about our place out here among the stars as well as what we should do, or must do, with our lives.
Today we celebrate the life and mourn the early death of one of the best of us, Martin Luther King, Jr. We remember his speeches, recall his image, and think about his courage and his convictions. His life and work, his story, is part of our national narrative inheritance. So, too, are the memories we carry with us of his murder: Of the image of an empty balcony on the second floor of a blue-tinged motel in Memphis; of Bono's words about "April 4th, shots ring out in the night." Or of why we believe he came into our tortured world and what he accomplished for us while here, "in the name of love."
Much has been remembered of the gifts of his life and the tragedy of his death, but I think that both of those legacies speak to us differently this year. By which I mean this year after Tucson . By which I mean in this first month of a new year when once again the twin forces of extraordinary good and the banality of evil reveal themselves to be once again pumping as blood through the very heart of our nation.
Once again we are reminded, as we learn more about the lives of the victims, that regardless of how good we are as a person or what we stand for, bad things can and do happen to the best of us. That from wherever we live and breathe, it doesn't so much matter whether or not the violent surround of mediated politics and pundits were responsible for one man's rampage against reason. What matters is death. Sudden death. Or being shot in the face at point blank range. What we see, and fear in spite of ourselves, are the shattered lives of fellow human beings who, like us, got up on a Saturday morning without any inkling of what would become them. And of what did.
Martin Luther King, Jr., some say, may have had a premonition of his own death. His last speech, recorded earlier that day, seems to indicate it. He said he had "been to the mountaintop" and he felt he knew what was on the other side. And he said this:
"And then I got to Memphis. And some began to say the threats... or talk about the threats that were out. What would happen to me from some of our sick white brothers?"
"Sick white brothers," indeed. Crazy. Their actions are inexplicable, unless these shooters are, indeed, insane.
We cannot know the mind of the murderer of Martin Luther King, Jr., or of Jared Lee Loughner, at least not yet, but it seems to me that we too often find that blaming an unspeakable crime on a "nut job" is preferable to doing very much about it. So, in the case of Loughner, instead of addressing the hard issues of mental health or gun laws, or holding those who advocate violence as a political remedy accountable for the sorry state of political rhetoric, it is easier for us as a people to listen to a fine presidential euology and then quietly forget the whole thing.
In that quiet forgetting I am as guilty as you are. I was surprised, for example, and my guess is that if you don't already know about it you are going to be surprised too, by the extent of American gun slaughter. As Bob Herbert (via the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence) reminds us, over one million Americans have been killed or committed suicide with guns since 1968.
If that statistic doesn't give pause to your reading, try this one, also from the Herbert article: "Excluding the deaths from 9/11, over 150,000 citizens have been murdered in the 21st century." That's only the first ten years. And admittedly that is murder of all kinds.