"Can't we all just get along?"
- Rodney King
In 1991, a man was pulled over after a high speed car chase and beaten mercilessly by the police. It would have been just another day in Los Angeles, with white racist cops venting their hatred on another black man, had it not been for the person who recorded the beating and made it public. That resulted in the cops going on trial and Rodney King - the aforementioned sap how got his face broken - becoming a public name. It was AFTER the cops' trial where none were convicted that anger, frustration, and justice denied once again resulted in riots in LA and elsewhere in the country. Any white person unlucky enough to be near a black inner city neighborhood when the verdict was announced was in trouble. It was during this mayhem that a bewildered Rodney King uttered his famous phrase.
That phrase has been reused often - generally for comic effect - since then to punctuate the naive notion that we could actually all get along. "What? - people not
lash out in violence?", implies the quoter. *chortle, chortle*
Charles Darwin theorized that we evolved from a primative ancestor. As mankind and society have moved forward through time, it seems that we have had trouble as a species leaving behind that reactive violence that seems so normal in the animal kingdom and so abhorrent in ours. It seems we still dip our toes into that primordial soup from time to time and lash out in anger, hatred, and fear.
The mass murder at Sandy Hook Elementary last December seems to have finally held a mirror up to our faces and forced us to take a long hard look at ourselves. Who are we? Are we a country of rational human beings capable of overcoming our fear and moving towards understanding, or are we superstitious members of a blood cult that sees human sacrifice as a regretful necessity to appease the gods of freedom? When we see gay marriage becoming more commonplace, I hope for the former. When senseless murder occurs on a daily basis I have to sadly conclude the latter.
I was in New York on 9/11. I was living in Atlanta during the Centennial Park bombing. In both cases, the need to make sense of the senseless overpowered common sense and decency. A good and honest man named Richard Jewel was initially identified as a "person of interest" in the Centennial Park bombing (although I suppose that was not the phrase used at the time) because he identified the bomb for what it was and got people to move away from it before it exploded. That was all the media and court of public opinion needed to convict him of the crime. Eventually, Eric Rudolph was convicted of that bombing as well as the bombings of a couple abortion clinics and a lesbian night club. Richard Jewel, however, had his life upended for no good reason other than the public's bloodthirsty desire for vengeance.
After 9/11, American Muslims and anyone that looked vaguely Middle-Eastern suffered the same fate. Arabic-looking citizens and immigrants were beaten. Even Sikhs - people who practice a religion unrelated to Islam - were targeted simply because of their signature turbans.
Watching the news yesterday (or - more accurately - avoiding it), it struck me again how impatient we are for that moment of "we got him!". CNN disgraced themselves for making this very announcement on shaky information, only to have to retract it an hour later. Descriptions of a "dark-skinned male" have circulated. Photos of people with backpacks have been posted to online media with accusatory questions of "could this be the bomber?" I am not alone in wondering if in our haste to feel safe that the culprit is under lock and key, we are creating another potential Richard Jewel
Feeling powerless to prevent violence makes people lash out in ways that diminish us as a society. "Vengeance is mine, sayeth the Lord". The people, however, have chosen not to listen. Were we still living in the Old West, there would be any number of innocent people strung up on light poles by a mad mob of people seeking to regain the lost power they never had. Instead, they are targeted, dragged through the mud (sometimes literally), and then discarded when another one is identified.
We as a species have to do what we can to remove that prehistoric animal from our souls. We have to push back that snarling beast when we feel it rising up. As a whole, we actually do a pretty good job of it. There are some not so evolved, or so in control, which is why we need police, courts, the military... However, we also need to repress that urge when we individually or collectively are victimized by the less civilized. Otherwise, we become them.
One of the 3 dead as a result of the Boston Marathon bombing was 8 year-old Martin Richard. He had a simple message for the world that we should all consider as we try to make sense of the senseless and try to find someone to blame:
Slow down, take a deep breath, and be absolutely certain that we have the right person or people. And then - let the courts do their job.