Guns, Cars, and the Lost Art of Civil Conversation

Rainbow

We can’t even talk any more. The horrifying massacre in Orlando is but another example of our “shoot first, ask questions later” mentality. The bodies weren’t even cold before people divided into factions. It’s a hate crime. It’s Islamic terrorism. It’s a hideous consequence of our insanely permissive gun laws.

Gun violence touches us all, because it can happen anywhere: in your neighborhood, on your street, at your kids’ school. Newtown, Connecticut could be Anytown, USA. A bar in Orlando might as well be a bar in Bangor, Maine. None of us are safe.

And yet all we do is argue, from increasingly absolutist positions.

Though I am mostly against war (who isn’t?), I find myself in agreement with my friends on the political right that Islamic jihad is an evil worldview, and that the civilized world will eventually need to take it down, much as Nazism was eradicated. And I agree with my friends on the political left that military assault weapons should not be in the hands of civilians. These positions are not mutually exclusive. Yet it seems we would rather shout at each other than work together toward a less violent country and world.

The latest shooting took place days after Muhammad Ali, America’s most famous Muslim, was laid to rest in Louisville. Ali’s memorial service included people of many faiths. He counted among his friends the Jewish comedian Billy Crystal and the Mormon U.S. Senator Orrin Hatch. By the end of his life he was so adored that most people had forgotten how hated he once was by a segment of Christian America for his opposition to the Vietnam War. But Ali never responded in kind. He sparred with Howard Cosell, and wrote poems, and made people laugh. His refusal to serve in the armed forces was rooted in his religion, his conscientious objector status as valid as any Quaker’s.

I don’t own a gun. It’s my choice not to own one, just as I choose not to own a car. In my opinion, America has too many of both. When I was raising children, I would not allow a gun in the house, because the chances of a tragic accident far outweighed the chance that I would ever need to defend myself against an armed intruder. Where would I have kept a loaded gun, simultaneously safe from small fingers and ready to respond to a surprise attack? The “good guy with a gun” fantasy is just that.

Second Amendment absolutists will tell you that the American people need guns in case they have to overthrow a tyrannical government. If a group like the Nazis came to power in the US, they say, wouldn’t you want to be armed? The problem with that argument is that some of the people making it also post on-line comments equating Obama with Hitler. You may not like the federal government much, but things will have to get a whole lot worse before armed insurrection becomes preferable to the way we live now.

These mass shootings, though… how can any conscientious American not be aggrieved by them, and the portrait they paint of our country? How can we make them stop?

This brings me finally to the thesis I’ve been circling: Absolutes are almost always wrong. In science and religion, politics and transportation, ecology and economics, language and mathematics, workable answers are usually found somewhere in the middle. The way forward emerges through listening and the art of compromise.

Absolutes are attractive because they are simple and simplistic; they tell their adherents what they want to hear. But we live in a world (a universe) full of nuance and shades of gray. We rightly condemn the random kidnappings and beheadings of the jihadists, but our moral standing on this would be buttressed if we abolished capital punishment here at home. The rights of gun owners under the Second Amendment will not be touched by a ban on the kinds of weapons used in recent mass shootings. But any discussion between hardened factions on these issues quickly turns into invective.

The hysteria of our public discourse is reflected on our roads. How easy it is to raise a middle finger to the driver who accidentally cuts you off, or yell something rude to a bicyclist in the left-turn lane. How ready we are to assume the worst in each other when our interests conflict.

Be very careful when attributing motives to the actions of others. Be considerate. Be courteous. Be kind. It doesn’t kill you, and it could save someone’s life.

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