On this day in 1865, President Abraham Lincoln died of gun violence. The previous evening, the president had attended the theater, where a Southern-born actor with rebel sympathies slipped into the private box where Lincoln was sitting and fired a bullet into the back of his head. Stunned witnesses carried the badly injured president out of Ford’s Theater and across the street to a room at Peterson’s boarding house, where he died at 7:22 a.m. the next day.
It was a politically motivated crime, a vengeful coda to the Civil War, which had ended with the South’s surrender at Appomattox just one week before. Even now, 156 years after Lincoln’s death, the despicable act that deprived this nation of one of its brightest lights casts doubt on whether our republican form of government, which depends on civility and a respect for the popular will, can prevail in the face of a vulgar resort to violence.
Church is uncomfortable at times. On Wednesday, Ash Wednesday, I went to church in the middle of the day. The season of Lent was beginning: a period calling Christians back to the church and a deepening of their faith, a call that is not so easy to respond to, given that we are errant and have only a cloudy notion of God.
The sermon, which the bishop, Jeffrey Lee, preached, was about how our personal enchantment with the world leads to spiritual misery, characterized above all by our estrangement from human society. (Lee spoke at length about Eustace, the fictional bad-boy of C. S. Lewis’s The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, who, in his eagerness to claim a great treasure found in a dragon’s lair, clasps a gold bracelet on his hand, only to find that his greed has transformed him into a beastly dragon, too.) Christians may resolve to “give up things” for Lent, as is customary, but without divine grace we cannot restore ourselves, nor can we hope that such measures will bring us to a right relation with other humans, a relationship that we innately desire.
Which is why (here the bishop leapt to a startling conclusion) the Christian mission is inevitably collective. We would be miserable even if we could attain salvation alone, but, as it is, we simply can’t. Moving away from the wrong and toward the right involves turning from individuality and toward the common good. It involves assuming responsibility for the many wrongs we witness each day. Lee argued, for instance, that we, his hearers, were in some way responsible for the death of a respected police commander here in Chicago, who met his fate at mid-day Monday while trying to apprehend a convicted felon in flight after committing yet another crime. The commander, who just a few minutes earlier had been on his way to a meeting at city hall, was shot dead in the stairwell of a downtown government office building.
I left church about 1:30, pondering how I could be responsible for this crime. At about the same hour, I later learned, a crazed nineteen-year-old entered the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland Florida and, armed with a semi-automatic rifle and ample ammunition, began shooting dead the youngsters, teachers, and staff inside. After murdering 17 people, most of them in their teens, this ghastly creature slipped away to hide himself in the banality of a Walmart and Subway before being picked up by the police.
Fingers have begun to point, divisions to arise, as though this damning episode were a grand occasion for taking sides. But we are all on one side in sharing the responsibility for crimes so deeply rooted in who we are, whose sources are not just individual, but moral, legal, political, and communal. As inhabitants of a self-governing society, we are all responsible for the society we have. When it comes to gun violence, every person of conscience in the US can rattle off what needs to be done. That we fail to do it ranks as a tragedy, a national sin.
What more is there to offer amid the voluble discourse of this sad week, when violence took the place of order and justice? The United States: will the terrorism of Charleston and Orlando diminish them? Will we descend to the habit of a shrug when children are murdered in our schools, when movie-goers are gunned down in a theater, when a cafeteria worker is shot to death in the middle of a routine traffic stop, when a sniper decides to channel his anger into killing police officers?
Sadly, we may grow indifferent if the spiral of unjustified violence continues much longer. We may shun the news for fear of having to look at the latest, outrageous use of quick-murdering guns. We may all cease to bat an eye at the latest victims, the latest place when guns were used to sort out human conflicts that deserved to be aired in the courts. And when that happens, we will have lost the semblance of unity that has kept us going until now. We will be just another war-torn country, with battle-lines too subtle to stay on the right side of.
Congress, endlessly preoccupied with the 2nd Amendment, has forgotten the larger purposes that, according to the Constitution, justify our federal government, particularly its charge to ‘insure domestic Tranquility’ and ‘promote the general Welfare.’ Will Congress act, in whatever ways it sees fit, to promote the internal peace and safety that Americans of all races crave, and that, by right, we are all entitled to expect? Or will Congress forget its obligation to the nation, its members cravenly priding themselves on dedication to some lesser cause or party?
Changes in law are needed, but America also needs something more that’s harder. Americans need to look into their hearts and examine whether they are living up to the potentialities of our civic culture, a culture that has allowed us to dwell with one another in a relatively open and unfettered way. Americans need to recall the great civil tradition that has inspired generations to grow into a society where people who differ from one another nonetheless co-exist, enjoying ‘the blessings of Liberty’ and fitfully recognizing in one another our mutual humanity. We have striven according to an Americanness that is deeper than either religion or skin. This cultural effort will be imperfect always, but without it we will be condemned to grieve forever, anguishing over the most precious republican virtue lost.
I’ve been away. To Puerto Rico, ironically, which like Illinois is bankrupt, but which is free of the pretensions of grandeur that make living in Chicago, Illinois such a political and spiritual nightmare.
The City of Chicago paid $2 million to settle a lawsuit that whistle-blowing cops had brought, heading off a trial that would have centered on the police department’s code of silence. Mayor Emanuel, who was to have been called to testify, figured this was a good use of citizens’ money. What use is justice here anymore, anyway?
In the state capital, the legislature once again ended its spring session without passing a budget. The legislature has now failed of its duty for two years. According to the website Truth in Accounting, Illinois’s debt burden is $187 billion. Others place it at $148 billion. Illinois lawmakers are too cowardly to face the pain entailed in getting the state’s finances back in balance again. It’s difficult to divine why they are in office.
Chicago is a microcosm of all that troubles the nation now. The racial divisions, out-of-control violence, and public corruption are corrosive. Public order is fragile and in jeopardy. Over all this is a posturing ‘leadership’ that cares mainly for reputation and the superiority of being part of a political elite.
The sociopathic killings in Oregon on October 1 spurred another round of chaotic and frenzied comment. The dialogue began with the president, whose comments on the shootings came out fast, faster than news of the shooting itself. Whereas some might see the increase in mass gun murders in the US as a cultural, even media-driven, problem, the president understandably sees the Oregon massacre and others like it as having political roots. In his brief somber statement that day, President Obama argued that this form of criminality has grown out of political choices that ordinary Americans have made. Make different choices, and sociopathic rampages involving firearms will begin to wane. Most strikingly, the president appealed to the public for relief from a stale, inconclusive dialogue about gun violence that has become terrifyingly routine.
President Obama’s remarks are worth reading in their entirety. They are notable for what they did and did not say. The president did not call on Americans to back any specific gun-control measure. Instead, he made three general appeals.
1. GET OUT THE FACTS ON GUN-RELATED DEATHS. The president appealed to the journalistic world to assemble and publish comprehensive data about gun-related deaths in the US. It’s odd, but authoritative statistics about gun trafficking, gun sales, gun violence, and gun crimes are surprisingly hard to come by. Several years ago Congress barred the Obama administration from studying this problem or amassing authoritative statistics on public’s behalf. So, most of the available data is very old, incomplete, or statistically flawed. Instead, the job of monitoring the extent and nature of gun violence has fallen to a ragtag assemblage of voluntary efforts throughout the country, such as Slate’seffort in the year after Newtown, or the real-time reporting on gun violence that the good people at the Gun Violence Archive carry on. Accurate information about gun violence and its social costs could reshape the gun debate by silencing false claims and focusing public attention around effective policy aims.
2. RESPONSIBLE GUN-OWNERS ARE A KEY GROUP IN THE STRUGGLE TO PROMOTE GUN SAFETY. The millions of Americans who own guns are perhaps the only constituency capable of checking the influence of the National Rifle Association. The heinous mass murder of children and teachers at the Sandy Hook School in December 2012 effected an attitudinal shift, galvanizing responsible gun-owners in favor of stricter gun laws. Surveys show that 90 percent of gun owners now favor ‘common-sense’ gun-safety measures, a stance at odds with the unbounded pro-gun rhetoric of the NRA. In his message, President Obama appealed directly to gun owners, asking them ‘to think about whether your views are properly being represented by the organization that suggests it’s speaking for you.’ Gun-owners are uniquely positioned to speak out in support of prudent public-safety measures that do not impinge upon Second Amendment rights.
3. VOTERS MUST MAKE PUBLIC SAFETY A PRIORITY: Though many Americans favor tougher gun laws, they do not view this as a key issue when voting. As a consequence, the gun lobby and pro-gun advocates routinely get their way in Congress and state legislatures. The president urged voters to care more, and to pay more attention to candidates’ voting records (an issue that has lately vexed Bernie Sanders). Without legislators willing to vote for gun-control measures, the political struggle to inhibit the reckless use of firearms will go nowhere.
The president’s conviction that the will of the people can transform the gun debate is characteristic of an executive who has taken to heart his role as ‘the people’s sovereign.’ Time and again, the president has placed his faith in a democratic public to generate the “change we can believe in.” Whether Americans have the determination and wherewithal to fight for a safer civil society remains to be seen.