Monday, January 10, 2011

Thoughts on the Giffords Shooting

I'm sitting on the bus this morning, looking out the window, when I hear man shouting as he slowly enters the front door. Apparently, the driver hadn't moved up enough for this man, who appeared to have something wrong with one of his legs and was limping. I turn. He gets on, leans over towards the driver, a woman, and starts shouting even louder. He's bent over her so that he's almost in her face. I'm impressed by the basic calm from which she responds to this man, but I'm also wondering where this is all going. The man finally stops yelling, pays his fare, and sits back down. A few seats in front of men another man turns, and is laughing as he looks me in the eyes. All I can do is shake my head.

In the wake of the attempted assassination of U.S. Congresswoman Giffords, and the murder of six others, I have been contemplating what can be said. There have been piles of posts in the Buddhoblogosphere about it, and honestly I wasn't sure I wanted to add another. Soto Zen teacher James Ford posted an impassioned sermon on his blog yesterday, covering a wide variety of issues. Peter has simple post that quotes Sarah Palin and expresses a fear about violence in the U.S. many outside and inside the nation feel. Algernon's post expresses a sense that there probably won't be enough learned from this tragedy to prevent another one from coming soon. Genju writes that instead of just saying this is "part of life," we need to actively engage the actual circumstances of what happened, our own reactions, and our collective responses. Ethan Nictern calls for people to become resensitized to violence. Kyle attempts to consider all of this from the perspective a political moderate, which is, by the way, how Congresswoman Giffords' political views would best be characterized. And there are a fair number of other posts, many continuing the theme along the lines of where's right speech in all of this?

Here are few of my observations and questions.

1. The focus on psychological disorders, and views that this was just an act by some lone "crazy guy" are not only insulting to people struggling with psychological disorders, but is also an easy way to disengage from what happened. Instead of recognizing that each of us contain the seeds to be a murderer, and claiming some sense of responsibility for the society we live in, many people are choosing to label Loughner a "nutter" and wash their hands of it. Certainly, something is great off kilter with this guy, but he's also a product of a society we all are a part of.

2. Representative Giffords is Jewish and Mr. Loughner claimed Hitler's Mein Kampf as amongst his favorite books. I'm surprised there hasn't been more public consideration of this as a possible hate crime. (Law enforcement officials are looking into possible connections with anti-semitic and white supremacist organizations).

3. After talking with several dharma brothers and sisters yesterday during a board of directors retreat about technology and it's intersection with practice, I've been considering the impacts that "instant access" to information about violent acts like this, as well as the ability to comment on said violent acts, might have on all of us. When that man started yelling at the bus driver this morning, I keenly felt recall of the Giffords' shooting, among other things. Less than a hundred years ago, it was probably true that many people wouldn't hear about this event at all, and others probably days after the event, and not nearly at the kind of volume and pitch that news and reflections come to us today. Part of the weakness of Ethan Nictern's call to become more sensitive to violence is that the interconnectedness we now share through 24 hour a day access to, and even bombardment of, worldwide events is that even if you "unplug" much of the time, most of us still can't avoid being impacted by something that happened half way around the world. And in any given day, this might mean half a dozen or more awful, violent, or otherwise sad events, in addition to whatever is happening in our own lives.

A lot of people still struggle with the idea that "online" is real in some way, and yet it's so very clear to me that dramatic events like this have very, very real impacts on people. On the one hand, the interconnectedness of the internet can allow people to develop more compassion and generosity towards others they otherwise would never have even been aware of. On the other hand, the constant flow of "terrible news," from floods in Australia, potential civil war in Ivory Coast, continued misery in Haiti, to the shooting in Arizona can easily lead to an underlying sense of overwhelm, even amongst low level media users.

I go through periods where I greatly reduce the amount of news intake in my life, and I years ago abandoned TV watching because it mostly left me feeling drained and more deluded. But those are secondary responses. I'm convinced that humans as a whole haven't caught up to the technology so many of us are now embracing.

So, one of the things I am greatly interested in is learning to apply ancient spiritual teachings to our very modern cyber context in a way that helps us discern our actual experiences with new technologies, and respond from a place of wisdom regarding those experiences. This, too, is a path of peace.

Edit: Robyn's comment about male on female violence, as well as gun use, reminded me about this post I wrote awhile back. This is yet another element being under discussed in the Giffords' case.


Robyn said...

Just another thought to add to the growing pile....I have been reading some rather convincing points of view about how this was (yet again) male violence against women. Reading your story about the female bus driver and angry man, I thought you would mention that in the list of why this is extra disturbing.

In among the many things I have read, someone actually had statistics of how many more times men are likely to use guns against women than women against men. (Please, can we just stop using guns?). But it was a breath-taking number - something like 3.5 million. I have no idea if it is accurate, but....

When will we ever realize that men and guns are a terrible mix? And specifically, that it is, in fact, MEN and guns.

Nathan said...


Somehow, I forgot to add the gender/violence piece, even though I read a few articles this morning making that exact point. I wrote a post last summer I think about men and guns. Maybe it was longer ago than that. I'm going to go look for it now.


Genju said...

Powerful post, Nathan. Almost exactly a year ago a federal police officer who was about to lose his job stabbed one of our municipal officers in the parking lot of the ER. Eric died almost immediately despite having several medics and surgeons work on him in the parking lot. He was 51 and had been hired three years before. That night, the man who killed him had also stalked the officers coming off-duty at the station and some of my friends leaving escaped being his victims.

I am grateful that you pointed out the misperception of mental illness being linked to violence. It is the toxins of anger, neglect, disenfranchisement, despair and desperation. I also want say "oh it's all because of the guns" but I don't know. Canadians (used to) have less worries about armed assaults but the violence is still here. We're just so frickin' civilized about it though.

btw, I remember the post you wrote about men and guns... I think it was after the psychiatrist at Fort Hood.

Sorry for the ramble...

Unknown said...

"the constant flow of "terrible news," from floods in Australia, potential civil war in Ivory Coast, continued misery in Haiti, to the shooting in Arizona can easily lead to an underlying sense of overwhelm, even amongst low level media users."

I don't even have TV access - mainly only listen to NPR for news - and this is still a big issue for me.

But it's not just the information. It's the sense of powerlessness that I have - and increasing lack of conviction that anybody can do anything meaningful to avert some unknown horrible calamity that's going to harm millions of people, not to mention animals and the planet.

Or just that U.S. culture has become unbelievably sick and decadent and it's not going to turn around. You can wall yourself off in some cultural bubble (as I have), but the combination of inequality and materialism, religious fanaticism and hedonism, and so on is producing madness that affects us all.

I vacillate between talking myself into being more hopeful and working on being more accepting. My husband has a much sunnier outlook, doesn't think things are so bad, but I have a hard time being convinced.

Part of the problem is also my age - I lived through too many political disappointments, dashed ideals, etc. I also find myself hoping that the younger generation will have the energy to find better directions that my cohort seems to have missed.

This seems like a cop-out, but after the hypocritical grandiosity of the Reagan years, the missed opportunities and disappointments of the Clinton era, eight years of "outrage fatigue" under Bush II, and now my weariness with the technocratic, on-board-with-Wall-Street pragmatism of Obama, I'm just burnt out.

If anyone has any thoughts on how to get a better attitude, I could sure use them! :)

Nathan said...


I have been convinced for a long time that the best, most fruitful action comes outside of electoral politics. I've read piles about social movements large and small around the world, both historical and current. The successes are often either experienced completely outside of elected systems, or they come from engagement with politicians after much other groundwork has been done.

But at the same time, I hear you about the myriad of disappointments, and it seems harder to get significant social change movements going and sustained in the U.S. than it was in the past. Many people are simply checked out, enjoying American Idol and their favorite drug of choice. And others are so fragmented and pitted against each other.

I do think we can accept the sick place we have come to as a society, and still find ways to envision a more sane future, and work to build that in some way.

Nathan said...


I think you're right to wonder about the gun issue. I have as well. Easy access to guns, like many states in the U.S. allow, makes gun violence more prevalent here than in Canada and some other countries. But it's bigger than guns; they are just a deadly tool in the story.


Unknown said...

Nathan - I agree with you completely, although day-to-day doing my little bit to promote sanity feels so inadequate. But what else can you do? I do find myself turning more and more toward contemporary Buddhist thought and meditation for solace (in addition to the yoga, which remains central for me). But I am skittish about what seems from the outside like the relatively sectarian nature of Buddhism. That however is another issue.

The main thing that I wanted to add is that over the past several decades, there have in fact been quite successful social movements in the U.S. - they have just all been on the Right. It is only on the Left/liberal side of the spectrum where that capacity seems to have hit some sort of dead end.

I speculate it's because the conservatives and right-wingers believe in their (to me) simplistic visions of what will turn society around - whereas left-of-center, we have either lost our visions (in any coherent form that translates into a concrete political agenda), no longer believe in our proposed solutions (we know what we want but can't imagine how to get it - my situation). Or we've just given up or moved on to other things (maybe like yoga??).

Nathan said...

Hi Carol,

Yeah, I often feel that sense of not being able to have much impact myself. It's really challenging to see such little in terms of tangible results.

I've been trying to develop a seven generations approach to whatever I'm doing. That what I'm doing now is planting seeds, a few of which can and do fruit in the short term, but many of which I might never see. There are countless Buddhist teachings pointing to letting go of all outcomes, something I totally agree with intellectually, but still struggle to actually do. I see the same in yoga, in doing asanas, for example, without trying to achieve some standard of perfection. Or in the embodying of corpse pose.

I figure all I can do is keep practicing, and bringing that formal practice deliberately into the social/political issues that most compel me to act or speak.

But until people start coming together more, and working more collectively, it's going to be really tough.

j.m.m. said...

Thank you for your post. I live in Tucson and am feeling shell shocked after the events of Saturday. It seems like everyone here is in a bit of a daze, trying to make sense of the senseless and slightly overwhelmed by emotions that are hard to even identify.

You mention how with today's technology and media, it's easy to become overwhelmed by all the urgent, instanteous, catastrophic, and continuous news. I think an equal danger lies in the fact that 'news' is as unreal as the 'entertainment' with which we are bombarded. I think that the emotional desensitization in our society is due to a blurring of the line between what is 'real life' and what is 'produced.'

I once heard a marketing rep at my company extolling the amazing benefits of twitter. He pointed out how the videotaped death of an Iranian woman, Neda Agha-Soltan, shot by the military at a protest "brought the world together" - how it broke records that day as a topic on twitter. It had, he beamed, exceeded the tweets even about 'John and Kate plus eight.'

In my opinion, there is something wrong when a live human being, bleeding to death in real time in a street somewhere on the other side of the globe is no different than a celebrity family on "reality" TV carrying on with carefully scripted crises and drama - a topic to 'tweet' about. Where is the humanity when a human becomes a topic? When we relate to someone like Neda as a distant observer of and commentator on her death? She becomes an object, no matter how good our intentions.

With the level of media that pervades our existence, we are all just observers and no one's pain is really real to us. It's just something we watch and comment on. We are buried under images, real and created. We can't feel for them all. We can barely take them all in, let alone discern and process what's real, and then feel something genuine - empathy, sympathy, compassion - on top of all that.

I think I need a long vacation from all media. I think we all do.

Nathan said...


it's very true that we need to change our relationship with the media, and also that the commonplace exploitation and objectification must be transformed into something more humanistic.

it seems harder these days to get away from the media. i don't know what it's going to take before something changes for the better.