It’s Memorial Day, and I’m one of those Americans who has the day off to relax and BBQ and cram a few extra chores in. This is the reality of what we do, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Though it’s important to remember why we have the day off—because people died when they didn’t want to, doing something they’d rather not have been doing, but did anyway for a host of reasons ranging from noble and heroic to mundane and tragic. Nobody wants to fight and die, but a lot of people harnessed that fear and tried to do something with it, something they felt was important and worth doing no matter the personal cost. That’s worth remembering. Courage and camaraderie usually are.
For me, it’s been a day of thinking about the dead. Memorial Day is the obvious, and the most recent mass killing in California lurks, too. When I first heard there’d been another shooting spree, I deliberately avoided the news about it. I stayed off major news sites and barely touched social media. I sure as hell didn’t click any links. I didn’t avoid the story because it wasn’t important, but because I knew that what I read wouldn’t give credit to how important it really was. The fact that we’re talking about “another” shooting is abhorrent, but the pre-written scripts people now pull for these events are tragic in their own way.
I knew that as soon as I opened up an article, I’d find the buzzwords “gun control,” “mental illness,” “legally registered firearm,” and several synonyms for “unexpected.” Eventually, I did read up on the story because it’s my mental way of clipping another article from the paper and putting it in the “Is There Any Hope?” scrapbook. Sure enough, the first story I found from CNN contained all the right lingo, the total lack of nuance, and even some surprises. Rodger’s motive (at least as he expressed it) of retribution, based upon his perceived rejection and slights against him by all women, was an unusual component to what has become a common story in this country. The hashtag #YesAllWomen, which sprang up as a way to express how prevalent violence against women still is in our society, only added more to the conversation. Not all of the murdered in Isla Vista were women, but the rage and well of hate fed by Rodger’s narcissistic and misogynistic worldview can’t be ignored.
This is exactly the point, though. There’s nothing about this story that’s cut and dry. The nuance abounds. And despite how news sources and pundits who bring us the stories of mass killings time and again reduce the events to soundbites and singular issues (generally speaking, gun control for the left and mental illness for the right as a way to deflect from gun control), they just aren’t that simple. This one story, this one incident, is about a lot. It’s about hatred of and violence toward women. It’s about mental illness. It’s about how yet another person bought a legal device made to kill people easily and used it to kill people easily. It’s about how all of these things sit on a foundation of willful cultural ignorance about what plagues us. We are a society which breeds violence like a fighting dog, feeds it and gives it all the images and vitriol it needs to grow, then acts surprised when we are bitten. We let people get away with saying “If only a good guy with a gun was there” and “Why should therapy and meds be paid for on my tax dime?” and “Well what was she wearing?” This one story is about all these issues making up a cultural pathology, and when we don’t acknowledge all the pieces of the puzzle exist, we can’t fix a damn thing.
So where does that leave us? By ignoring the nuance and by not following the strands back to their rotten core, we’re left with a pretty simple reality on the surface: just as soldiers live with the reality of violent death on the battlefield, we civilians will only grow more accustomed to violent death in our neighborhoods. On this Memorial Day, it might be worth admitting that so many of those soldiers who died in throws of war and violence did so with the hope that the heinous scenes of the battlefield would never plague their home soil. Perhaps we can truly honor our fallen dead with a pledge not to let violence and death be our norm, not to let the deaths of those who fought in wars abroad mean less because we cannot squelch war at home, and to be the blessed peacemakers who make it a point to ensure fewer and fewer soldiers and civilians die before their time. I don’t pray much anymore, but this is my prayer. Amen.