Prophets are killed because they suggest change in the interest of humanity that requires cultural or legislative compromise.
We are tribal beings. That’s our anthropological legacy. If we don’t belong to something, our identity becomes unmoored and we lose purpose. So we humans guard our identities as if our lives depend on it. Often, we will even deny flaws in our belonging system in order to protect the base of our identity. We will blame the messenger who points out the flaw, because the system must be defended. Hence, we kill the prophets.
For many humans, living in the United States, our national identity is our pre-eminent identity. We are offended when our country is criticized, and we see its critics as enemies. That’s why we panic if the flag is “disrespected.”
Our Constitution is the codification of that identity, and many see any amendment or change as inherently sacrilegious.
Since 1776, there have been 1.5 million gun-violence-related deaths in the U.S. In the same period, there have been 1.3 million war-related deaths on U.S. territory. On average, 33,000 people are killed every year, and sensible gun laws would make a difference. But those who benefit from the sale of guns understand the power of identity politics and frame their PR messages as a defense of our Constitution, our belongingness and our very purpose.
They say: A basic freedom that defines you is under threat. Your country is under threat to be unrecognizably altered. The freedom that defines your nation will begin an irrevocable deterioration that will spread to every area of life. There are enemies within who will turn the country of your identity into one that looks like your enemies’. Take a stand on the gun issue or your country and you will never be the same.
This all flies in the face of the reality that when our Constitution has proved inadequate in the past, we have amended it.
The facts are that, for decades, our citizens have been harmed by inadequate protections. That we spend billions to save far fewer American lives in other contexts. That we change multiple laws, compromise many other freedoms, to prevent far fewer deaths. That when it comes to the right to life, and the pain of death, there should be no difference between lives lost to external terror and lives lost to internal terror.
But the NRA and the gun lobby understand our belonging obsession and the irrational nature of our fear of identity-death.
For centuries, the power of the gun reinforced — did not threaten — identity prejudices. Guns protected Americans from non-American “savages” in the taking of America. Guns captured runaway slaves in the building of America. Guns enforced Jim Crow laws. Guns protected “vulnerable” whites from hyped “urban gangsters.” And as guns proliferated with deadly impact in my Minneapolis community, many thought, as a neighbor once told me, “Good, that’s one less 911 call.”
Now both perpetrators and victims are undeniably white, undeniably well-off and undeniably the products of families with whom politicians, newscasters and the powerful identify. And now these survivors have the magical combination of youth, maturity, prerogative and technology to show the terror as it unfolded and to articulate the angst, disillusionment and betrayal resulting from our identity-defining laws. Maybe now, the weight of 33,000 disposable lives will be tipped by these 14, in their significance to our identity, against the holiness of the Second Amendment.
Maybe now, finally, the sophisticated and crafty duplicity of the NRA and the complicity of the politicians it buys will become clear for all to see.
I hosted dozens of vigils for murder victims on the North Side of Minneapolis. At each vigil, I had family, friends and supporters write a paragraph to the mayor and City Council, asking us to act in proportion to the scope of the human tragedy. I had these statements typed up and distributed to each leader. Each received dozens of such packets over the years. My hope was to hold up the equal humanity of each victim and to inspire a fully human response from the mayor, council and police chief. I’m grateful that our city leaders heard us and responded within the sphere of their influence.
Sadly though, across our nation, white, upper-class “innocents” are experienced as more fully human. But if their participation in our bloodbath is the only way to humanize our greatest public health youth crisis, we should embrace the enlightenment and hold no resentment for all the years of neglect.
In some ancient religions, an innocent would be slaughtered to appease the gods and save the people. We’ve sacrificed enough. Maybe our cultural shamans and the little gods we worship will finally listen to the prophets, evolve our system, change our laws to protect all lives and save our nation.
Seize the day!
Don Samuels is a member of the Minneapolis school board and a former member of the Minneapolis City Council from the Fifth Ward.