Christmas morning. It’s 4:30 a.m., and I’m already up. It’s my birthday. My family is asleep, and I’m listening to harp music on a genuine 1950 Zenith cabinet radio, a birthday gift from my wife.
I’ve been thinking about Newtown a lot. I’m a father. The greatest joy of my life. The thought of losing a child, like so many did in Newtown, in such a brutal manner, just feels incomprehensible.
A few weeks ago I was at a party hosted by a woman whose house was tucked into a pocket-sized hill. The house was sided with wood that had weathered like a tree. In this house, packed with people, artist-types, I sat in a Victorian-like sofa, when a tall man, balding, and wearing a brassy red shirt, sat down next to me. He was a psychologist and when he spoke he looked straight ahead; his clean-shaven cheeks creased resolvedly.
“Human behavior is a mystery” he said. “Sometimes it’s unexplainable.”
“And wicked” I said, though I didn’t mean it in a religious sense.
He nodded. We didn’t talk about Newtown.
He went on to say he was reading “Crime and Punishment” by Dostoevsky and found Raskolnikov to be a tortuous soul, who, nevertheless accepted his guilt, and, at times, reveled in it.
I told him I was reading Beckett, but I wasn’t sure what he had to say on the matter except that even in the void, ultimately, there had to be love.
“Spoken like a true Tolstoyan,” he said.
At night, when I can’t sleep, sometimes I go outside and stand in my driveway and look at the stars. The vastness of the universe is truly unfathomable. That alone, it seems to me, should be reason enough to cure us from killing each other.
Milan Kundera, in “The Unbearable Lightness of Being,” said: “The majority of people lead their existence within a small idyllic circle bounded by their family, their home, and their work. ... They live in a secure realm somewhere between good and evil. They are sincerely horrified by the sight of a killer. And yet all you have to do is remove them from this peaceful circle and they, too, turn into murderers, without quite knowing how it happened.”
This sociological view of human behavior predisposes that we are all influenced by our surroundings, a commonly held theory. And who would argue against it? Yet, what are we left with? The beautiful, and, yes, sometimes, the ugly foibles of existence. Ultimately, I believe, we must move toward a dynamic compassion, one which takes into account that we can never truly know what it’s like to be anyone other than ourselves, but, in this knowledge, we can look at our “fellow selves” and find understanding.
Americans are a forward-thinking people. “Americans, it seems, have no past. But memory is what makes our lives,” said the filmmaker Louis Brunel. “Without it, we are nothing.”
As a forward-thinking people, we Americans try to obliterate the past. We are experts at forgetting. We forget that we wiped out an entire race of indigenous people, obliterated a four-legged hooved animal, and enslaved millions of dark-skinned peoples.
In 2012, in Durham, there were too many murders. Most of them victims of gun violence. Several were children. Some victims, like Shakanah China, in 2011, were simply playing in their front yard, when they were gunned down from a drive-by shooting. She was 13 years old. Others killed in 2012: Crayton Nelms, Nod Rivera, Mohammed Arfan Sundal. Twenty-seven in all! If I could I would name each of them.
No amount of “good guys” with guns would probably have saved these Durham citizens. It certainly wouldn’t have saved Shakanah China, who bled to death in front of her younger brother. When are we truly going to address violence in Durham?
And then there is Danilu Villatoro, who was shot by children, possibly as young as 12.
Arming more people, it seems to me, is a perversion of justice that provides neither a short-term solution, nor gets at the root of our problem, namely fear. We fear what we don’t understand. We fear what is not like us. Why? Indeed, the surest way to cut through to the human isn’t by the heft of a loaded weapon, or through killing, or torture, but through human to human understanding. What else is there to do?
So this brings us back to crime and punishment. Dostoevsky said in “The Idiot”: “Don’t let us forget that the causes of human actions are usually immeasurably more complex and varied than our subsequent explanations of them.” In Durham we have adults killing children and children killing adults. Durham ranks in the top 6 percent for crime in U.S. cities. Surely that is enough to outrage us all? But what are we going to do about it? Let’s bring together law enforcement, legislators, mental health professionals, educators and community leaders. Can we come up with a comprehensive plan to reduce violent deaths in Durham? I believe we can.
The time is now. Robert Wallace is the author of “A Hold on Time,” a novel. He can be reached at email@example.com
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