Last Saturday, when our nation learned of the tragic shooting in Tucson Arizona of 20 people, including the killing of Federal Judge John Roll and the wounding of U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords, I was in a Board Retreat with my congregation’s Board of Trustees. None of us learned of the shooting until the early evening, when the retreat ended and we wandered our way home. Our retreat had focused on change management.
When I got home and heard the news, I was certainly saddened. I had a sense and a feeling of sorrow that this kind of thing had happened again. I felt a fear that such shootings motivated by a combination of political vitriol and human instability are becoming more and more common. I said a prayer for those who had been wounded, and for the families of all who had been injured or killed. I held a hope that some way could be found for our nation to step away from the divisive national discourse that I believe creates the circumstances that lead to such tragedies. While I believe we are currently fighting over the soul of our nation, that fight should never be done in a way that dehumanizes one another and creates the conditions where even someone who is mentally unstable can believe they have a mission to kill.
I felt all of these things… and about the last thing I felt was shocked. About the last thing I felt was surprised. About the last thing I felt was that my world-view had changed or been challenged in any way.
Yet, over the two days since the shooting, it has become apparent that large portions of the American population, and especially large portions of the political establishment and the media… were indeed shocked that Jared Loughner, a 22 year old who held some radical views and had some mental instability, took a Glock pistol and killed and wounded so many people. They do not seem to have been shocked that he killed a young girl, or even that he killed a federal judge… but that his target was an elected politician.
The question that came to my mind, as I watched media coverage about how shocking this event has been, and as I have heard from friends and colleagues around the world about how shocking the event is… the question in my mind is whether or not they have been paying even cursory attention to what has been happening in our country? The last thing in the world this event should ever be to anyone is shocking or unexpected. In truth, I am concerned that it is only a continuation… and the more we try to treat it as an isolated incident of a lone, deranged person… the more such incidents are going to happen. Why should politicians be any more immune to such violence than anyone else? As public figures, we should probably expect such attacks to happen more often to politicians, not less.
In the last decade or more, we have had many times many incidents of people conducting mass-killings at schools. Often there is an initial target, and then the killer continues to try and rack up a body-count… just as in the Tucson shooting. We have had a man walk into a church during a worship service to kill Dr. George Tiller because he provided a legal medical service to women. We had a military psychologist go on a mass shooting spree at a U.S. Army base because he feared an upcoming deployment and had come to see his fellow soldiers as the enemy. We had a man, filled with a sense of otherness in his life from romantic rejection, take weapons into a gym that catered to women and begin killing. We have had many times many workplace shootings… many involving more than one target. We have had many shootings on college campuses, from Virginia Tech to Northern Illinois University to the University of Alabama in Huntsville… and many more.
Oh, and we Unitarian Universalists cannot forget the day a man came into the Sunday Morning worship of our congregation in Knoxville Tennessee to kill and wound as many as he could.
Is it really any different because the target this time was a politician? Really? Or, in our shock, are we just trying to pretend this problem is less than what it really is?
In our board retreat on change management, we focused on understanding the difference between Technical Change and Adaptive Change. Technical changes are those transformations that can be addressed by a change in a system or a set of infrastructure. So, if visitors to our congregation are not being greeted at the door because we are not officially scheduling greeters to meet them, there can be a technical change to address that problem… we schedule greeters. However, if the problem is more one of attitude and beliefs… if the real reason we don’t greet visitors is because the congregation is afraid of growth… then applying the technical fix to a problem that is more about whether or not the congregation can adapt, can change its fundamental understanding of itself, will not solve the problem. But we certainly can try it and pretend we are doing something…
In the wake of most mass-shootings, there is some call for gun-control. Now, I am in favor of much sensible gun-control… especially the control of handguns and assault weapons… but I wonder if the focus on gun-control is trying to find a technical fix to an adaptive problem. I have serious doubts about whether any gun-control efforts will make any significant difference in the number of or lethality of such mass shootings… and focusing on a particular kind of gun clip is even sillier. Someone could always bring more clips of ammunition, and with just a little practice one can change clips in less time than it takes most people to blink three times. I could change clips in my Beretta in less than 3 seconds when I was an active combat soldier.
No, the shock our nation has seemed to feel in the wake of this shooting says to me that we are in significant denial about many things about our culture, about our national image, about our political discourse, about the kinds and levels of violence we practice, and about how all of this affects all of us… not just those among us who carry some forms of mental instability. We can seek technical fixes like gun-control or increased security all we wish… but until we get at the adaptive problem of the character and nature of the American soul… of the soul of our nation… I am afraid that such acts of violence will not only become more and more common, but will grow more and more extreme.
Yours in faith,