I am always worrying about our vulnerability as individuals living in a contaminated environment, or about the instability of our planetary ecosystem now that global heating is underway.
But one thing I don’t usually worry about is whether my son will be shot and killed on his way to buy candy at the corner store.
This is a mark of my privilege as a white person living in a predominantly white neighborhood in a small, relatively wealthy town in New England.
My sons are in fact half Hispanic—their father is of Mexican heritage—but they “look white.”
It would never have occurred to me, before learning of Trayvon Martin’s recent murder at the hands of a neighborhood vigilante, that one of my kids, coming home from the local convenience store wearing his hoodie up because of the rain, could be accused of robbery and fatally shot by one of my neighbors.
There is so much that is wrong about this scenario that I hardly know where to start.
I deplore the racial profiling that turned an innocent kid into a moving target. I abhor the despicable behavior of the local police department, which chose to let the killer go free—with his gun!—without even holding an investigation.
But there is a more fundamental issue here that we as a society need to confront.
Why are there so many civilians with guns in our country?
This is at the heart of all the school shootings that have been occurring with alarming regularity in recent years.
It is of deep concern to the millions of victims of domestic violence in our country, who must live in fear of the gun in the drawer.
It is certainly at issue in the Trayvon Martin case, where a young man lost his life because of a trigger-happy “neighborhood watch” patrolman gone bonkers.
It is high time we as a nation stood up to the NRA “right to bear arms” folks and began a serious national conversation about gun violence in our country, and around the world.
I spend quite a bit of my professional life teaching and writing about violence that happens in other countries.
When you teach college classes in literature and human rights, you are often reading accounts of genocide, civil war and ethnic cleansing in places like Africa, in Asia, Central and South America, the Middle East.
My students and I regularly read horrifying stories of how civilians are caught in the crossfire between heavily armed warring groups.
One side is usually the state-funded military and police, the other side an oppositional force, labeled “terrorists,” “subversives,” “rebels,” or “freedom fighters” depending on your ideological viewpoint.
In between are the ordinary civilians who are generally just trying to keep their heads down and survive. Women are especially at risk in these situations: vulnerable to rape themselves, they are often forced to watch their children raped and tortured, their husbands executed.
It’s easy for us to think about this kind of violence as something that only happens far away, and to feel that we here in the U.S. are morally superior and righteous.
Easy, that is, until we stop to consider two important aspects of these faraway conflicts that are almost never discussed in the news media or in college classrooms.
One, in virtually all cases of civil conflict worldwide in the past 50 years, the guns and other weapons have been supplied by U.S. arms manufacturers and dealers, or their European counterparts.
Two, in many cases, the folks on the ground in hot spots like Iraq, Afghanistan, or Congo are fighting proxy wars for First World corporate control of resources. In other words, they’re fighting Wall Street’s wars.
So we here in the U.S., despite our self-righteous sense of moral purity, are in fact deeply implicated in every violent confrontation taking place over there in other parts of the world.
What does this have to do with Trayvon Martin?
Let me spell it out.
The same gun manufacturers and dealers who are arming, say, the Syrian Army and the “opposition forces,” or the Ugandan Army and the Kony “rebels,” are also supplying guns to American servicemen like Sergeant Bales, who flipped out and massacred innocent Afghan civilians in their beds last week; to American police officers who regularly appear in the headlines for unwarranted use of lethal force; and to American civilians like George Zimmerman, who shot an unarmed teenager walking home through his own neighborhood—a supposedly safe gated community in Florida.
And this doesn’t even begin to touch on gang violence worldwide, or narco-violence, all of which is carried out at gunpoint.
With so many guns floating around in our society, it is inevitable that innocent people are going to get shot, all the time, every day.
Here in the U.S., and around the world, we need to rethink the heedless way we have given gun manufacturers and dealers such freedom to operate.
Giving anyone and everyone access to a semiautomatic weapon is just asking for violent confrontations among civilians, and between civilians and police.
As a global civilization, we have put too much emphasis for too long on unbridled freedom to create, even when what we are creating leads to destruction and mayhem.
Chemical companies are given a free hand to churn out thousands of new chemicals and put them into the market without sufficient testing for longterm effects on humans and the environment.
Car manufacturers are given a free hand to drive national transportation policy, prioritizing highways over mass transit at great cost to the environment.
Oil and gas companies are allowed to drill ever deeper, their profits pushing our entire political system into a status-quo paralysis just at the time when we need to be vigorously mounting a huge R&D effort in renewable energy sources.
Shooting a kid, bulldozing a rainforest, poisoning an aquifer…these are just differences in degree.
Next time it could be my kid, or yours—at the hands of a crazy civilian, or an enraged policeman. It could be your tap water catching fire from gas fumes, or a tornado spawned by global heating running amok in my backyard.
I’m tired of living under the constant threat of violence. I say it’s time to hold the gun manufacturers and dealers, the oil and chemical companies, the car manufacturers and all the other agents of destructive technologies accountable, and tell them in no uncertain terms that we’re ready to stand down.
Let’s use our prodigious technological capabilities to make our lives better, not to create ever more sophisticated means to take lives away.