Learning from mass murder: we must pay attention to our young men

If this past week had been written up as a movie script, I would have rejected it as totally over-the-top, beyond belief.

Two young Chechen immigrants successfully wreak mayhem and turn a city upside down with their improvised explosive devices, in the very same week that the U.S. Senate Republicans successfully beat back a bill designed to stiffen background checks for gun purchases.

Gabrielle Giffords

Gabrielle Giffords

The beautiful, brave Gabrielle Giffords publishes an impassioned piece in The New York Times, condemning the cowardly Senators who put the interests of the National Rifle Association over and above the interests of the American people.

Meanwhile, down in Texas, an explosion in a chemical fertilizer factory flattened a whole neighborhood, killing at least 15 people and injuring more than 200.  The cause of the blast is still unknown.

And the whole middle section of the country was inundated by heavy rains, storms and severe floods.

Fire, air, earth and water, all the elements seem to be drawn into an intensified dance these days, speeded up along with the 24-hour news cycle.

As the bizarre manhunt for the two Chechen bombers unfolded, and the whole country went into virtual “lockdown” in sympathy with the people of Boston and eastern Massachusetts, it felt like we were suddenly waking up to find ourselves in Baghdad.  Things like that don’t happen here.

Until they do.

boston-bomber-suspect-dzhokhar-tsarnaev I don’t have TV in the house, so I got most of my information on the situation in Boston from print media and radio.  But even the few pictures I saw were enough to convey the sense that the official response to these boys’ stupid act of random violence was hugely disproportionate.

Against a lone 19-year-old kid, thousands of law enforcement officers of every stripe were deployed, in full riot gear, toting rifles, traveling around the deserted streets in armored vehicles.

The kid was presumed to be “extremely dangerous.”

How dangerous could one kid be?

I understand that the concern was that he might have had a bomb or a suicide vest that he could detonate at the very end.

But that is not the way the story went.  In the end, he came out with his hands up, just one stupid, confused kid who surrendered to the police without a peep.

His life is over.

Ours will go on.

In the wake of this latest act of violence within our own borders, we need to take a good hard look at the role of the U.S. as a fomenter of violence, both at home and abroad.

Unknown-1 Not only is the U.S. the largest exporter of arms and weaponry in the world, but we are also the biggest developer of violent video games worldwide, the ones I am betting those Chechen boys loved to play.

Why should we expect that we can promote violence by all kinds of channels, and remain immune to it within our own borders?

What goes around comes around.

If we were serious about wanting peace and security, we would start by radically shifting our focus from creating implements of destruction—be they chemical fertilizers, assault weapons or games that encourage violence—to waging peace.

Waging peace—what would that look like?

One of the most urgent tasks is to change the way young men are socialized.

Let us not for a moment forget that every single act of mass violence that has taken place here in the U.S.—every single mass shooting, every single bombing—has been the work of young men.

Young men are do-ers.  They have heroic dreams—and in Western culture, it’s the young men who can slay the dragon or vanquish the ogre who are considered heroic.

We can honor and nourish that warrior spirit in our young men in ways that celebrate heroes who use their strength and talents productively, to safeguard ordinary people.

I suspect that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is someone who would have made an excellent warrior for good.  He was obviously smart, resourceful and could handle himself well under great pressure.

For reasons as yet unknown, he–like Newtown gunman Adam Lanza, Norway gunman Anders Breivik, Aurora, Colorado gunman James Holmes and so many other young men whose names stand for infamous mass murders—chose to walk on the dark side.

We need to be paying attention to the accelerating rate of these crimes.  They are a sign of the dark times we are living through.

Those of us who believe in peace must recommit ourselves to raising our own internal lights higher, beacons for others to rally around.  Those of us who have the great responsibility of raising the next generation of young men—parents, teachers, employers, mentors—must recognize the tremendous importance of our task.

In the past thirty years, there has been a great deal of attention paid to rethinking the way we socialize young women.  This is definitely essential work.  But we forget about our young men at our own peril.

Taking up arms against a sea of troubles

marathon-explosion-people-on-sidewalkIn the wake of the Boston Marathon bombing this week, like everyone else I’ve been thinking again about violence.

I am not a total pacifist. I do think that there are some situations in which violence is the only sane route to follow.

I could never be one of those Buddhists who try to send loving-kindness to their torturer.  Sometimes I even have trouble “turning the other cheek” if someone has offended me.

I am a Scorpio: I hold grudges, I brood, I sometimes lash out (though mostly in fantasy, very rarely in real life).

I am very sensitive to oppression, injustice and abuse—although sometimes this sensitivity manifests as a willed numbness, a deliberate refusal to see, because if I allowed myself to really take in all the oppression, injustice and abuse that saturates our planet daily, I would drown in my own howling depression and the guilt of not doing enough to combat it.

To combat it.  The verb choice there, which came out instinctively, is not innocent.

Is it possible to combat the violence of oppression, injustice and abuse without using violence?

What does sending tong-len or turning the other cheek accomplish besides emboldening one’s opponent to ever more impunity?

I believe there are times and occasions where violence is the only answer and the right answer to oppression, injustice and abuse.

But that is quite a different kind of violence from what happened in Boston this week.

Random violence that breaks into a festive, sunny day and kills and maims innocent bystanders is a totally different form of violence than the measured, carefully aimed violence of righteous resistance.

0415-boston-marathon-bomb-13Bombs loaded with nails and bb pellets, set off low in a dense crowd, are calculated to inflict maximum damage on soft exposed flesh and limbs.

Did whoever set those bombs enjoy the panic that ensued, the blood in the streets, the shock, the horror?

I can only imagine this perpetrator as a sadist, because unlike with the 9/11 attack or even the bombing of the Federal Building in Oklahoma City, there isn’t any apparent symbolism in this attack that makes any sense.

I can understand rage against the U.S. Government, and against the World Trade Center.  Although I could never condone killing innocent people in the service of that rage, I can at least see and comprehend the mindset that saw such collateral damage as instrumental in making a larger statement.

But what possible message could be sent through killing athletes and sports enthusiasts on the streets of an ordinary American city like Boston?

I wish the perpetrator would come forward and stand behind this act of violence.  I want to try to understand the motive, the fury that could have prompted such a carefully calculated crime.

I am not naïve; I know there are many very good reasons that people all over the world hate the U.S. and Americans.

And there are good reasons for Americans ourselves to be angry at our society and government, with its ever-increasing inequality, its investment in environmentally destructive policies and products, its build-up of weapons at the expense of the services that citizens have a right to expect and demand.

There is a staggering amount of oppression, injustice and abuse in the world, not just by people against people, but also by people against the natural world—and thus there is a hell of a lot to be angry about—and even to take up arms about.

But setting off bombs on a street crowded with families and athletes?

That is just more senseless violence–meaningless, useless, a squandering of lives and of anger that could be much more appropriately focused and channeled.

Yes, sometimes violence is necessary, sometimes it’s a good thing.

But the violence we are seeing on at ever-increasing rate here in the U.S. is an empty, hollow kind of violence; the violence of a sadist kid who likes to pull the wings off flies.

And worst part of it is, we seem to be on a roll with it.  Our young people entertain themselves with violent movies and video games; our military-industrial complex continues to grow with ever more sophisticated means to inflict violence abroad; our chemical and industrial destruction of the environment continues unabated.

We live in a violent world of our own making.

Can we who believe in peace, harmony and justice make things right without taking up arms ourselves?

I wish I knew the answer.

American Mothers Must Unite Against the Culture of Violence

A couple of weeks ago, when I heard that my 14-year-old son and his friend had been playing with the other boy’s air-soft pistols by shooting each other at close range, I saw red.

“But it just stings like a bee-sting, Mom,” my son protested.  “It just leaves a welt.  Why are you getting so upset?”

At the time, I wasn’t sure why I was getting so upset—after all, these were only toy guns.

My answer to my son was that a “bullet” could ricochet and end up hitting him in the eye, which is true and a rational explanation for why I flatly forbid him to engage in that kind of behavior any more with those guns.

“Target practice only!” I insisted. But of course, what he and his friends do when I’m not around is impossible to predict or monitor.

Nancy Lanza

Nancy Lanza

Now, after the Newtown massacre, I am thinking more deeply about the issue of guns, violence and kids.  I’m also thinking more about Nancy Lanza, the gunman’s mother, who he savagely shot in the face, leaving her dead in her pajamas in bed while he went out on his mission of mass murder.

I’m far from the only one who is asking what Nancy Lanza could have been thinking to make her home into an arsenal, complete with assault weapons and major ammunition, especially with a son living there who she knew to have social adjustment problems.

I hear that the good people of Newtown are shunning Nancy in death, focusing on the “26 victims” of Adam Lanza and refusing to light a candle in her memory.

This seems like a classic case of blaming the victim, and yet of course Nancy does bear responsibility for the horrific massacre of the 26 innocent victims.

If she hadn’t armed her son, he could not have carried out this crime.

So this begs the question of our responsibility as parents, especially, in this context, as parents to sons.

I have two sons, and like Nancy I am divorced, with my sons’ father very distant from their day-to-day lives.

It is my responsibility to raise them to be kind, good-hearted men, who use their warrior strength to protect and strengthen their communities, not to destroy.

But what a battle it is to keep the tremendously destructive tsunami of media and cultural violence at bay in our home!

I don’t have TV in my house, and my kids don’t own a Wii or Playstation.  But we do have computers, tablets and smartphones; we watch Netflix and go to the movies and have friends who are more casually accepting of (toy) guns than I am.

Unknown-1I have tried to hold the line on violent video games that the boys may have access to through the computer, and for the most part I think I’ve been successful.  Even if they may sneak a violent game or two when I’m not around, at least they don’t play these games obsessively, with impunity, the way most teenage boys do in America.

We’ve talked at length about my objections to media violence, and I know they understand, even if they occasionally express the wish that they could just join the crowd and go on a good virtual shooting rampage like all the other boys they know.

I’ve gotten into arguments with my older son, age 20, and some of my college students, who insist that there is no way they’d ever do in real life what they have so much fun doing in video games.

I hope they’re right.

But I want to know why, as Americans, we tolerate and indeed seem to relish representations of violence, while at the same time we’re so fearful of actual violence that some of us are stockpiling weapons in our homes to prepare ourselves for the worst.

In the old days—not that long ago, in the scale of human history—a whole town used to turn out for a festive viewing of a hanging.

Today in places where conservative Islam reigns, women are stoned to death in public spectacles of participatory violence.

But how different is that, really, from the great American past-time of engaging in virtual violence of the most vicious sort?

America is the most violent, militarized society on Earth and Americans are the greatest exporters of violence, both physical and virtual, to the rest of the world.

Most perpetrators of violence—again, both real and virtual—are men.  Men are the greatest victims of violence too, though women and children bear a disproportionate share, given that they are far less likely to be pulling the triggers.

We need to start looking much harder at the way our culture encourages violence by selling us the story that real men enjoy violence and can handle it with insouciance.

I don’t want my teenage son shooting an airsoft gun at his friend, and I don’t want him going on virtual “special ops” missions armed with a Bushmaster assault rifle.

I wish his father were on hand to back me up in this, and I think my situation as a mother trying to keep violence out of my home is probably far more common than we realize as a nation.

We know that half of marriages end in divorce, and I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that of the remaining married couples, half include men who enjoy guns, violent video games and violent movies, and teach their sons to do the same.

So that leaves a lot of us women either on our own trying to fight the prevailing winds of culture and raise peace-loving men, or tolerating or going along with the culture of violence within our most intimate relationships and the private sphere of our homes.

Yes, some women may themselves be violent.  We still don’t know why Nancy Lanza felt the need to arm herself with such terribly potent weapons.

But the fact remains that of the steadily mounting toll of mass shootings in this country, not one has been committed by a woman.

Women are way more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators, and even as perpetrators they are generally acting in self-defense.

American women, I call on you to look deeply at this issue, and find the strength to stand up collectively against the violence.

Mothers, we need to support each other on this!

Just as the Mothers Against Drunk Driving took a stand and changed the pattern of teenagers driving drunk and killing themselves and others year after year, by forcing legislators, schools, merchants and other parents to take collective responsibility for raising responsible kids, we need to start a new movement against the culture of violence in our country, both virtual and physical.

Then perhaps we could say that the 27 victims of Adam Lanza did not die in vain.

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Standing strong against the Furies

AUDIO OF THIS PIECE READ BY JBH ON WAMC-NORTHEAST PUBLIC RADIO, DECEMBER 21, 2012

Just as people in places like the Maldives, Bangladesh and Japan shook their heads at the cluelessness of Americans who suddenly woke up to climate change when Sandy came to town, people living in hot spots of violence around the world now have every right to be shaking their heads at the collective American refusal to see and understand how, in the wake of the Newtown massacre, we are the cause of our own misery.

t1larg.pakistandronerally.giThe U.S. is the largest arms manufacturer and exporter in the world.  We have by far the largest military.  We are also by far the most heavily armed civilian population in the world, with some 300 million guns circulating among our population of about 300 million people.  Americans, we need to acknowledge that collectively, as a nation, we have been responsible for hundreds, and probably thousands of deaths of children worldwide through the weapons we sell abroad.

There is not a conflict in the world today that has not been fueled by American weaponry.

It is hypocritical to weep crocodile tears for the slaughter of innocent children in a kindergarten in Connecticut but to callously ignore the slaughter of innocent children by American drone fire in places like Afghanistan and Pakistan.

We need to start connecting the dots and realizing that the violence we mete out to the world will come back to haunt us a thousand-fold.

I’m not just talking about gun violence or missiles. I’m talking about the violence of inhuman labor practices and poverty, leading to rage that is sometimes turned inward, as in the spikes of farmer suicides due to heavy-handed Monsanto tactics in places like India and Asia, and sometimes outward, as in the terrorist strikes against targets inside the U.S. (9/11, anyone) or at our representatives abroad (did someone say Benghazi?).

I’m talking about the violence Western-style “development” has wreaked on the natural world, which is now boomeranging back to slam us against the wall of a destabilized climate.

Orangutan with a tranquilizer dart in his side; will be relocated away from palm oil plantation site

Orangutan with a tranquilizer dart in his side; will be relocated away from palm oil plantation site

If you create lethal weapons and spread them widely among the populace, you should not be surprised when they discharge and kill people.

If you overheat the climate and bulldoze all the trees, you should not be surprised at the deadly droughts, wildfires, storms and temperature swings that result.

Back in the 19th century, Charles Darwin taught us to understand that competition is good, that the strongest and fittest will survive, and that if the weak perish it’s all for the best.  It was a perfect rationale for the capitalist/imperialist narrative of the past 500 years, domination as evolution, at gunpoint and bulldozer blade.

Would Darwin look out at today’s dangerous world and proclaim serenely that the coming population drop of humans, due to violence of our own making, is simply part of the grand scheme of Evolution?

If the answer is “yes,” does this mean we should just sit back and watch it all unfold with detachment?

I don’t think so.  I believe it’s the great task of our generation to meet the violence of our time with unwavering, clear-eyed resistance.

To a large extent, the damage has already been done.  The guns are circulating out there in the world; the nuclear power plants are whirring; the oil and gas rigs are pumping; the myriad plants and creatures with whom we grew up in our era on the planet are disappearing.

Pandora’s box is wide open, and the Furies have been released in the world.

We may not be able to get them back, but we can continue to insist that they do not represent us.  We can continue to stand as beacons to another mode of living, based not on competition and aggressiveness, but on collaboration and respect.

As we move into the darkest week of the year, let us not give up hope that as the planet swings back towards the Sun on December 22, we can collectively climb up out of the abyss of violence and pain and unite around the finest human values of life, peace and love, for our fellow human beings, and for the planet as a whole.

Time to end the slaughter of innocents!

Newtown School children right after shooting.  Photo by Shannon Hicks, The Newtown Bee

Newtown School children right after shooting. Photo by Shannon Hicks, The Newtown Bee

And so, once again, we all play the role of passive, horrified bystanders as yet another mass murder erupts into the news headlines.

Last week it was three dead in a shooting in a crowded mall, with police saying it was remarkably fortunate that “only” two were shot before the gunman took his own life.

This time it’s 20 Connecticut elementary school children gunned down in their classrooms, along with seven adults.  Again, the shooter himself is dead, so it will be hard to ever know for sure what in the world led him to commit such a wanton act of violence.

And let’s not forget about last summer’s shooting in a crowded cinema in Aurora, Colorado.  The violence just goes on and on, and no one seems to have the will to put a stop to it.

What would it take?

It would take politicians with the gumption to stand up to the gun lobby and bring the “right to bear arms” code up to 21st century standards.

Back in 1776, citizens were encouraged to bear arms in territorial wars against the French, British and the Native tribes.   That’s the context in which the Second Amendment should be read.

Today there is no reason why anyone who is not a soldier or a law enforcement officer should be bearing the kinds of handguns used by today’s school shooter.

Hunters can keep their shotguns, provided they receive adequate training in how to use them, and maybe some small, simple handguns could be allowed for personal defense, although those tend too often to backfire—just last week two small boys, ages 7 and 11, were taken into custody for threatening a woman with a cocked, loaded gun that they must have taken from their father’s desk drawer.

AP A OH USA 501 Guns

But the semi-automatic assault weapons like the one used by the cinema shooter, or the high-powered pistols used by today’s school shooter should not be casually floating around in civil society.

It is just too easy for a kid undergoing a psychotic break, as today’s 20-year-old shooter must have been—to grab these weapons and go crazy with them, slaughtering innocent people.

It is also too easy to imagine what could happen in situations of shortages and crises brought on by climate-change-induced storms, if men with guns are calling the shots in neighborhoods and villages cut off from law enforcement.

Unknown-1We’ve seen it happen in places in Africa and the Middle East, when the toxic mix of desperate civilians and power-hungry men with guns erupts on to the streets.  Does anyone really think we’d be immune to these kinds of scenarios here?

It’s past time for peace-loving Americans to stand up to the NRA and insist that the long-awaited gun control laws be enacted.

How many more children have to die unnecessarily before we stop being silent witnesses and start taking action?

Hats Off to the Central Park Rape Victim

The gutsy 73-year-old woman who was raped by a drifter in Central Park last week has been on my mind since I first heard about her.

The assailant has been caught, and it turns out he has a history of raping and murdering elderly women, going back to the 1980s.

The mystery is why a man like that was let out of jail.  We keep kids in prison for minor drug infractions, but we let a psycho rapist and murderer out on parole and allow him to drift across state lines without supervision?

Like so many other homeless people, he ended up drifting around in Central Park, and according to the victim, whose name is being withheld to protect her privacy, he had it in for her because a couple of weeks earlier she photographed him masturbating in a lonely section of the park.

The Ramble, Central Park

She was a birder who wandered the park with her binoculars and camera around her neck, in the wooded section known as “the Ramble,” which I remember well from my own youthful ramblings.  I would never set foot in the park alone without my big dog beside me, though.  I knew better than that.  And if I ever saw anyone looking suspicious, I made a beeline for the nearest police officer.  Growing up in Manhattan, you knew you always had to be on guard.

The birdwatcher probably took his picture to identify him to the police, because she did report his obscene public activity to a park ranger.  Unfortunately, her warning was ignored.

Now, after she was pushed down in the bushes and raped in broad daylight, the police aren’t ignoring her anymore.  Thanks to her alert vigilance, she was able to pick her assailant out of a police line-up just a day or so after the crime occurred.

Knowing as much as I do about sexual assault and its psychological effects (I teach a course in Gender & Violence) I have to say I am very impressed with the cool demeanor of this victim.

No hysterics or undue shame—this woman is speaking out, and in the process setting a model for other women to follow.

Rape statistics in the US are pretty ugly.

  • Every two minutes, someone in the US is being sexually assaulted.  Each year there are nearly 208,000 sexual assault in the US
  • 54% of rapes are never reported, and 97% of rapists will never spend a night in jail
  • 80% of victims are under 30, 44% under 18
  • 38% of rapists are a friend of acquaintance of the victim

So the most recent Central Park rape was unusual on every score: the victim was an elder, the rapist was unknown to her, and most important, she marched right out of the shrubbery where she’d been raped and reported it to the police.

In your more typical rape case, a young woman may not want to report the crime because a) it’s embarrassing; b) she would have to undergo invasive evidence-gathering; c) she might be afraid that the rapist, if not arrested, would retaliate against her; d) it’s common knowledge that rape trials are long and intense, and rarely result in conviction.

All this is true.  But it’s also true that if more than half of rape victims do not report the crime or press charges, then that allows the assailants to proceed with cocky impunity.

I don’t think that was part of the picture with David Albert Mitchell, the Central Park birder’s assailant.

He was just a dangerously unbalanced, violent man who has obviously been failed by the criminal justice system.  He should never have been granted parole.

But many rapists circulate in our society much more suavely, preying on young women and girls without necessarily even realizing that what they’re doing is wrong.

In a culture where violent pornographic videos are easily available on the internet, and violence against women is a common ingredient in music videos and Hollywood films as well, it is not hard to see how a young man could get the impression that violating a woman is just another way to prove one’s manhood.

More of us older women have to stand up and say no to this violence.

For quite some time, my heroine in this work has been Eve Ensler, whose V-Day organization has been incredibly successful in channeling women’s creativity and righteous passions into educational anti-violence work.

I don’t yet have a name or a face to put on the 73-year-old Central Park rape victim, but I want her to know she’s my heroine too.

All we’ve seen of the victim so far

Time to show some backbone on gun control!

Another summer, another mass shooting of innocent civilians.

Another round of media feeding frenzy on the tragedy, another collective outpouring of sympathy and outrage from the public, another set of poses and postures from politicians for and against increased regulation of weapons in this country.

It’s gotten to be so predictable, it’s hard to get that engaged, although of course one has to pause and reflect on the horror of being mowed down in one’s seat in a suburban movie theater.

The truth is, it’s amazing that this sort of thing doesn’t happen more often in America.

After all, we are the largest gun manufacturer in the world.  We’re also the largest producer of violent entertainment in the world, from BATMAN to video games to pornography.

Barring countries actively engaged in civil war—Syria, anyone?  Israel/Palestine? Congo?—we sport the most heavily armed civilian population in the world.

As the pundits have been saying repeatedly all day, states like Colorado have no regulation at all over who can buy assault weapons.  Any Joe can walk in to a gunshop and walk out with an AK-47, no questions asked.

With policies like that, is it any wonder lethal weapons end up in the hands of loonies and psychopaths?

Everyone knows what needs to be done: we need to make it much harder to obtain weapons, especially assault weapons.

After all, we don’t let kids get into cars and drive them without training and licensing, because we know cars can be easily turned into lethal weapons.

But actual guns, whose sole purpose is killing, we sell over the counter without screening or comment.

Back in the 1980s, it took a coalition of furious mothers to start the movement that eventually led to much stricter punishments for driving drunk, as well as greatly improved education for teens on the dangers of drunk driving.

Remember MADD, Mothers Against Drunk Driving?

Candy Lightner, founder of MADD

Those grieving mothers had lost their children to our nation’s lax drunk driving enforcement, coupled with a permissive, boys-will-be-boys culture, and they weren’t going to take their personal tragedies lying down.

Neither should we.

I want to see rallies in every state capital, demanding gun control legislation effective immediately!

I want to see Gabrielle Giffords at the head of a march on Washington, insisting that our nation’s leaders do more than put the flags at half-mast and shed some crocodile tears over the loss of innocent lives today.

Gabrielle Giffords

 

Gabrielle Giffords after being shot in the head

I want our society to show some backbone!

Not just on this issue, but on all the difficult issues that face us nationally and internationally today.

Enough sitting back and waiting for the next tragedy to strike.  Time to put down the remote, get off the couch, and get down to the business of making ourselves a better world.

Time to Meet Your Maker

OK, I admit it.  I love my air conditioners.  I have two window units, one upstairs and one downstairs, and they cool my whole house to a comfortable 70 degrees, no problem.

On a day like today, 95 degrees Farenheit and humid, you’ll find me huddled around the AC, whether it’s in my home, car or office, or out to the movies or a restaurant.

Even though I know full well that my AC addiction is part of the problem of global warming, am I going to go without?

Hell no!

Why should I swelter while everyone else who can afford it, and especially the fat cats who got us into this global warming mess, are sitting cool as cucumbers and pretty as you please?!

Thus you have the tragedy of the commons playing out all over again, all the time.

It will take a crash—a blackout, a total system collapse—to make us give up our creature comforts here in the heart of Empire.

Some people say that crash can’t come soon enough, and I guess I agree with them.

Certainly for the rest of the life forms on the planet, the sooner human beings get lost, and take our asphalt and our AC and our combustion engines with us, the more chance there will be for the planet to recover without turning back the clocks to zero and starting all over again with bacteria and plankton and the other very basic building blocks of life.

But am I going to commit hari-kari right now to speed this process along, playing martyr for the benefit of the songbirds and the orangutans?

No, I am not.

I am going to keep living, keep cranking up my AC and bopping around in my car, until there’s no juice in the wires and no gas in the tank.

***

Trying to keep cool, I just went to see PROMETHEUS, a bizarre movie if there ever was one.

In it, human beings go to meet their Maker, and discover that their alien progenitor is an impatient, violent, sadistic psychopath—at least by human standards—who, immediately upon being revived from an eons-long sleep, greets his human rescuers  with murderous fury and sets course for Earth with a full payload of biological weapons.

As I complained to my son afterwards, why is the human imagination always so dark and destructive?

Why couldn’t the screenwriters have imagined a happier scene, where the Maker showers the Earthlings with stardust and thanks them for waking him up?

No.

We are, it seems, an irredeemably violent species.

We deserve whatever violent end awaits us.

When it comes, we should bow our heads and acknowledge that we totally brought it upon ourselves.

In the meantime, it’s getting hot in here.  Time to crank up the AC.

Grassroots heroism: what we need now

The image that stays with me most from the blockbuster superhero action film The Avengers is not the thrilling climax when the hero uses all his power to wrest a nuclear missile away from its collision course with Manhattan and up into space, where it explodes a waiting battleship of nasty intergalactic invaders—although that was pretty thrilling I have to admit, especially in 3-D!  Man, that movie packs some powerful special effects!

But no, what really struck me were the scenes of ordinary human beings on the ground, dressed in their regular 21st century civilian clothing, sipping their lattes and strolling about midtown Manhattan one moment, and the next moment being terrorized from above by sinister alien rampaging monsters and soldiers.

Without Captain America, the Black Widow, the Incredible Hulk and the other heroes, all those people would certainly have been totally destroyed within minutes—and not just by the aliens, but by “friendly fire” as well.

This scene resonates with me on two levels.

On the one hand, it goes to show yet again how quickly an apparently normal, peaceful morning can turn to nightmare when militarized violence shows up unexpectedly.

And on the other hand, it underlines how deeply dependent we human beings are on the idea of the charismatic leader, the savior, the hero who will leap into action and save the day for us.

This has been true since ancient times, and it appears to be cross-cultural: every culture has its heroic myths and legends, in which men and women with superhuman strengths and powers do battle with dark forces on behalf of the rest of humanity.

Watching politicians of The Avengers decide to send a nuclear missile to destroy the entire city in order to kill off these alien soldiers, an order that their general resists but an ordinary pilot obeys, I am uncomfortably reminded of how much danger we are probably all in, every day, thanks to decisions made by the men in charge, who sit in remote splendor in faraway bunkers like the gods on Mount Olympus of old.

I want to see a movie made that points the way to a different model of heroism.

Instead of the superhero, David against Goliath type tale, I want to see, on the big 3-D screen with all the lavish special effects and brilliant actors, a tale that celebrates the ordinary heroism of people on the ground, who—understanding the danger of militarism and the mechanized violence that pervades human civilization, from agriculture to energy to education and entertainment—come together to offer whatever skills, talents and gifts they have to the common pool of resistance.

In this movie, the human beings would not cower on the ground while the battle of the titans raged overhead; they would not sink to their knees before the might of an alien invader; they would not follow blindly wherever the men with guns and uniforms told them to go.

Instead they would use the power of their collective will and determination to demand a change of course, and insist that it happen.

What I want to see celebrated on the big screen is the kind of grassroots resistance that we saw on the ground this past year in Egypt and other Arab Spring hotspots, or in the General Assemblies and protests of the Occupy movement.

Egyptian women protest in Cairo, April 2011

It is happening already in real life.  Hollywood and Marvel Comics, maybe it’s time to break with the fixation on the past and try a new story.

What President Obama and Eve Ensler have in common

President Obama did something really, really good this week.  He sent 100 Special Ops military “advisors” to Central Africa to help local government forces get rid of the Lord’s Resistance Army, a group of crazed, vicious thugs who have been terrorizing people in four countries for as long as many in the region can remember.

The New York Times reports: “For more than two decades, the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) has murdered, raped and kidnapped tens of thousands of men, women and children in central Africa,” Mr. Obama wrote in a letter to Congress announcing the military deployment. “The LRA continues to commit atrocities across the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and South Sudan that have a disproportionate impact on regional security.”

You don’t even want to know what kind of atrocities he’s talking about.  Joseph Kony and his men are depraved, sick torturers, rapists and murderers who have been at it so long that I doubt they can ever be rehabilitated.  They are part of a long cycle of violence in Africa that begins with the kidnapping or luring in of young children, boys and girls, who are then drugged, beaten and raped into total submission to the authority of the adults, and grow up indoctrinated into the lifestyle of terror.

For an inside story, read Ismael Beah’s memoir A Long Way Gone, or the chapter in my anthology African Women Writing Resistance by former girl child soldier China Keitetsi, whose memoir Child Soldier is available in an e-book edition.

I can’t help but think that there is an element of racism in the fact that it’s taken so long for the international community to unite behind the mission of bringing true security to Central Africa (including the Democratic Republic of Congo, where some of the worst human rights violations in the world are taking place daily, with women and girls disproportionately targeted.)

When Bosnian men were massacred, people thrown out of their homes, and women and girls imprisoned in rape camps by the Serbs, the Clinton Administration waged an all-out war to stop it.  All that and more has been happening in the DRC and neighboring countries for decades.  Decades.

Eve Ensler has done a tremendous amount to get the word out about the impact of all this violence on women, not just in Africa but throughout the world.  I particularly admire her because she has used art as the medium for her outspoken calls for solidarity and resistance with victims of rape and violence–starting with “The Vagina Monologues,” and moving on through a host of books and plays.

She’s also used digital media to get her word out and build a global movement to end violence against women, and I don’t think anyone does it better–check out her website, vday.org, to see for yourself.

Eve Ensler is a great example of a woman of privilege who has used all of her talents and gifts to reach out and help others–and not through begging, cajoling or guilt-tripping, either, but through the sheer power of her spoken and written word.

President Obama has the power to send in the military, and it’s good he’s at least taken the first step in that direction.

We ordinary people have power too, more than we often realize.  We can open our eyes to what’s really happening in our towns, our country and our world, and then allow our hearts to show us the way to action for positive social change.

There is no more urgent task for each of us in our lifetimes.  This is what we came here to do.

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