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Speak the Silent Cries of the Innocent & of the Perpetrators

An unsettling consciousness of the contrast of my life in Austin with both the victims and perpetrators of violence at Nairobi’s Westgate Mall induced a restless sleep last night. I went to sleep wondering what emotions and fears the 30-plus hostages, the scores of wounded, plus families of the deceased were experiencing after the trauma of the day’s violence.

Westgate

A prior, 24-hour span, Friday to Saturday, had been as near to idyllic as one could hope for.

-My wife and I witnessed our middle daughter being honored as one of ten high school homecoming court nominees, a first for any IB (International Baccalaureate) student from her high school.

-We experienced a welcome summer-to-fall seasonal change, with an overnight temperature drop of 10 to 15°F, thereby coaxing our family outdoors for an evening sit in our lawn chairs, while nursing a hot, sweet mug of cardamom tea.

-We watched a documentary movie (Searching for Sugar Man) so excellent and tragic, that even our 9- and 12-year-old daughters were captivated by its feel-good story. It chronicles a blue-collar, Deer Park Michigan, Latino-American musician, Sixto Rodriguez, shunned and relegated to near poverty status in his native North America, yet who gained near cult status in South Africa during the apartheid era, for music that facilitated freedom of anti-apartheid expression. His self-composed lyrics resonated with people, particularly anti-establishment minded, white South Africans, whose lives were being constrained and compelled by an unjust and immoral political institution.

Rodriguez1

-The final day’s cherry on top was sharing intimate moments with my wife, whose Friday night portrait I had been “forced” to repeatedly look at since posting it on my FB wall.

A last act before sleep was viewing picture galleries of the al-Shabab attack: lifeless bodies lying crumpled and bloodied at the base of stairs and escalators; a twisted and contorted woman’s arm/elbow obviously disfigured by shrapnel; and panicked children being evacuated by security personnel or cowering in confined mall spaces, sheltered by the protective, yet useless-against-bullets arms and bodies of family members.

What had begun as a fun-filled day of shopping for thousands of Kenya citizens, residents and visitors, became in an instant a nightmarish rhythmic of grenade explosions, AK-47 gunfire, tear gas, and I’m sure the high pitch shrill of emergency sirens and human wailing and screams.

The numbers dead changed from a midnight 39 to a Saturday morning 59, with three to four-times that number of wounded.

Obscured and sidelined by Kenya’s tragedy were equally tragic same-day events elsewhere, including a suicide attack on a church in northwest Pakistan, killing more than 75 people and wounding 150. Another 60-plus Iraqis died at a funeral, with more than 120 wounded.

It is purported that some of the al-Shabab militants not only intentionally spared Muslims, while targeting Westerners, but also shouted out “Allahu Akbar” – God is great – as they fired indiscriminately in the mall.

Dignity of Diff

Jonathan Sacks remarks in his 2002 book The Dignity of Difference –

“Time and again in recent years we have been reminded that religion is not what the European Enlightenment thought it would become: mute, marginal and mild. It is fire – and like fire, it warms but it also burns. And we are the guardians of the flame. . . .

Two conversations are now necessary. One is between religious leaders on the one hand, and politicians and business leaders on the other, as to the direction globalization must take. This has brought benefits to many, but distress, disruption and poverty to many others whose voice we must also hear. . . .

We must speak the silent cry of those who today suffer from want, hunger, disease, powerlessness and lack of freedom.” (italics added)

An anti-abortion film, The Silent Scream, was produced in 1984. It allegedly showed via ultrasound the silent screams of a fetus in pain during an abortion procedure.

I thought to myself, “What silent screams born from perceived injustices or personal and prolonged experiences of suffering provoke and motivate acts of violence?”

Simply and quickly branding them as politicians and the media often do as “terrorist” conveniently legitimates retaliatory acts of punitive violence, yet it overlooks the formative life events and context that birthed the “terrorist.”

Certainly, there is no conscionable excuse for acts of violence against innocent people, such as the al-Shabab attack. Yet reactive political statements resolve little except to assuage initial public anger and outcry, such as Kenya President Uhuru Kenyatta’s — and any number of similar global presidential statements — in which promises are made to “hunt down the perpetrators wherever they run to.”

We as nations are naive and ignorant at best, arrogant and stupid at worst to think, let alone voice false assurances to the public that the likes of al-Qaeda will eventually be defeated and decimated — no matter how many singular and significant “victories” we might have along the way, such as the assassination of Osama Bin Laden.

We might periodically succeed in eradicating this or that regional or global extremist group like al-Qaeda or al-Shabab, but will prove ineffective in the long-term unless we “target” (let me use a militaristic term) systemic influences like widening economic disparity, which are the birth places of extremism.

On the contrary, should we not individually, or as communities, (faith) congregations, corporations, organizations and nations focus more attention and exert more effort to ascertain, help alleviate where we can, and “speak the silent cry of those who suffer from want, hunger, disease, powerlessness and lack of freedom?” After all, much of the wanton acts of violence and terror are last-ditch efforts to be heard.

Insignificant as my voice may be, that is a primary objective of Life — to speak and give voice to the silent cries of “the Other,” who Edward Said described as those who have been excluded, subordinated, demonized and dehumanized by whichever social, political, or religious group wields overt, subtle and underlying power at any given time.

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Confessions of a (former) Killer and Gun Lover

Given the tension in the United States over gun rights and the prospect of tighter gun controls, I want to contribute a few thoughts on the subject myself.  I start with a confession.

I confess that I was a killer of African wildlife and I was a lover of guns (although the latter sounds a bit kinky as I write it).  Okay, so I’m not a former killer of people as my blog title might intimate at, and you’re disappointed in a sick-kind-of-way because that’s why you clicked on my blog. Please don’t disengage.  Read on.

Don't I look "tough"!:)

Yes, I thought I was quite the dude.

First, a preamble: This blog is not a diatribe against guns, gun ownership or hunting. I accept the arguable concepts of self and national protection, as well as conservation reasons for hunting or culling. Rather, I write as someone whose perspective on guns and hunting has changed, and this is my attempt to explain in part why.

I don’t recall ever choosing these twin interests.  I simply was born into a family and culture where owning guns, shooting guns, and hunting with guns was entertainment and identity.  It helped that once or twice a year guns and hunting resulted in a freezer filled with venison of wildebeest, impala, eland, hartebeest, warthog, yes, even the occasional zebra or cape buffalo. I admit I enjoyed going on several day “hunting safaris” in Kenya, Tanzania, and once in Botswana.

There’s something magical about camping out under the canopy of an African night sky, as Hemingway did, while nursing a cup of coffee, chai, or hot chocolate around a warm, crackling campfire – my family were teetotalers, therefore, regrettably I never knew the greater joy of nursing a glass of Cabernet Sauvignon until much later in life – listening to the nearby sounds of hyenas and jackals, and occasionally, a distant rhythmic chorus of lions (hear at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iC5vrt7eGG4), all while gazing up at the ga-trillion stars that mesmerized and enthralled your wonderment of life and being alive.

My family didn’t always go on safari just to kill.  Even on “non-kill” photographic safaris, however, hunting was ever-present on our minds.  We enjoyed wildlife viewing safaris to national parks, including Masai Mara, Amboseli, Samburu, Serengeti, The Ark, Treetops, Lake Nakuru, Ruaha, and Ngorongoro Crater. Although we exchanged rifles for cameras on these occasions, this did not stop the males among us from incessantly referencing this and that particular animal from a hunter’s eye.

“Wow, look at the horns on that impala!”  Or, “Wow, what I would give to have my rifle right now!” Or, “That Zebra stallion has dark, beautiful stripes – a lot nicer than the zebra I shot last year.”  Sometimes my siblings and I would so intensely want to shoot a prized trophy that we would act out a shot, positioning our left and right arms and hands outward toward an animal, as if holding a magnum calibre rifle, and then making a shot sound with our mouths, while simultaneously pulling on an imaginary trigger. Of course, on these “hunts” we always bagged our animal.

An elephant "shot" with camera at too close proximity.

An elephant “shot” with camera at too close proximity.

This interest and love of hunting and firearms lasted longer than I care to admit.  And when guns no longer featured into my home inventory, they were temporarily replaced with a compound bow.  I transitioned to bows for two reasons.  Most importantly, I lost bi-lateral high-frequency hearing for a combination of likely reasons, one of which, were rifles exploding in close proximity to my unprotected ears.  Stupid, stupid, stupid! Secondly, once you master “the shot,” which I did, rifle hunting offered little pleasure other than “the stalk.”   The rush that comes from observing first-hand the skill of an expert tracker as he reads the telltale signs of animals and nature, and leads you ever closer to your intended quarry is the topic of many a-fireside-conversations.

Tracker follwing animal spoor

Tracker following animal spore

What changed my mind about firearms is difficult to articulate in words. Obviously there exist any similar number of “Newtown, Connecticut” type incidents to point at, yet those have all occurred at a safe and sterile distance from my own life, and despite the horrid, tragic, and senseless loss of life, including small children, they were not the effective change agent for me.

Although I could add as a caveat, that during my family’s residence in South Africa, we once counted up the number of friends and acquaintances we had known murdered and it came to about 20, and add to that almost 50 incidences of armed hijacking (I lost count after 40).  Yet even there, amidst what psychologists and social theorists define as “a culture of violence,” mindsets were mitigated because South African society absurdly yet understandably came to accept violence and crime as simply part of “the culture.”  After all, if you’re unable to stop or stem violence you still have to live with it.

Zapiro cartoon depicting an endemic "culture of crime" in South Africa

Zapiro cartoon depicting an endemic “culture of crime” in South Africa

For me, a change of mind and attitude toward guns and killing germinated during the summer of 2001.  That summer just prior to 9/11 was singularly formative in reshaping my worldview and identity, and, of course, post-9/11 only reinforced my sense of shared identity with people of the world, given that more than 90 countries lost citizens on that day.

As part of my postgraduate studies I had the fortune to attend summer/2001 seminars at Bossey Ecumenical Institute in Geneva, Switzerland. This studies-abroad experience was singularly transformative, in that, for the first time I was obligated to temporarily suspend my protective, American cultural identity bubble.  If I was to get anything out of the three weeks’ study, I had to place myself in the vulnerable and unsettling position of having to listen and vicariously experience life and faith through the shared experiences and perspectives of individuals, who I shared few life commonalities with.

A discussion about homosexuality and interpretation of holy scriptures arose one session, particularly over how subjective truth is, and how people are selective (pick and choose texts that best fit their interpretive and cultural lens) when it comes to contentious issues.  My mindset at the time was conservative, so both my thought and contribution was in effect to try to claim a high ground of “absolute scriptural authority” (*postmodernism posits that all truth is interpretive and provisional – I agree) and disregard or at least minimize the reality and day-to-day experience of those who of necessity have to live a daily branded life of being gay.

At some point in the discussion, America’s gun culture came into play.  A participant from India, about my age, heterosexual, and married shared something that struck a deep chord of change in me.  I take considerable liberty in recounting these twelve years later what exactly she said –

“Being tolerant or even advocating for homosexual rights is about perceiving God as ‘life-giving.’  Whatever is life giving or affirming of life is of God, because God is the ‘giver of life.'” She contrasted the “sin” of homosexuality with the “sin” of America’s penchant for guns, violent entertainment, and sometimes aggressive interventionist strategies abroad and posed this concluding thought: One affirms life and the other destroys life, therefore which one poses the greater societal ill and danger?

In November, during the period leading up to Thanksgiving, many, if not all North American Jain communities, hold all-night prayer vigils for the millions of turkeys that are slaughtered for our ritualistic feast day.  In case you know nothing about Jainism, it is an Indian religion, of which one of its underlying tenets of faith is “ahimsa” or “non-violence.” Gandhi’s non-violent means of protest took its inspiration from Jainism, and later Martin Luther King, Jr., as well as Nelson Mandela were inspired by Gandhi.  So there is some truth in saying that Jainism singularly sparked social revolutions on three separate continents and through three historically significant individuals.  When I shared the Jains’ prayer vigil for turkeys with my world religion classes each semester, I inevitably heard snickering.  To young identities shaped by a pioneering, minutemen and wilderness-subduing history, such as is the United States’, the idea of commiserating with birds to be slaughtered seems the utmost in absurdity.

Yet is it?

Which is more out of kilter?  A near obsession by many with all things guns – gun shows, gun collections, gun rights, and guns themselves, of which the latter were the primary contributing factor in 8,600 of 12,700 total murders in 2011? Or an “absurd” valuing of life; one that advocates non-violence even to the point of holding all-night prayer vigils for turkeys?

You be the judge.

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