For a brief period in the fall and winter of 1975 I simultaneously dated two men. One was David Hume Kennerly, the White House photographer for President Ford who received the Pulitzer Prize in 1972 for his photography in Vietnam and Cambodia. The other was Richard (“Flashlight”) Gordon, a member of a religious commune in New York state and former teacher at Smith College.
David was a little miffed. I don’t remember it being as much about my seeing another man as by the choice of Richard, a dropout with long hair, drawstring pants, and sandals. The Vietnam war was over by only a few months. David had been on the frontlines, he had photographed death.
Once he called me from San Francisco and said there had been an assassination attempt less than an hour before on President Ford. His gut had told him to demand that Ford go around the back of his waiting car, not the front – a move that surely saved the President’s life. The bullet skimmed by David, who credited his gut with saving his life then and in Vietnam.
“Ask that guy you see,” David said, “what he would do if people were running at him and shooting at him.”
Me: “Flashlight, what you do if people were running at you and shooting at you?”
Flashlight: “If I had a gun, I’d shoot them first.”
This issue of shoot first or not at all is a tricky one. Just because both the Pulitzer Prize winner and an imitation yogi agreed on shooting first did not mean to me that it was the best thing to do. (I had also started going to the commune, which centered around universal love. The mice were caught in humane traps and transported off grounds.)
Most significantly, death is permanent. I’m not making a case for no life after death. I am saying that when your body dies you no longer walk, talk, eat, feel, think, dream, kiss, hold hands, study, go to school, go to theater, feed your children, have children, dance, sing, raise a family, make love. You’re dead.
We tend to slide over this fact in regards to other people, especially when the number of dead gets large, especially when we kill by drones, especially after we decide to hate them, especially if they have killed people we like or identify with, especially if they believe things we don’t believe, especially if we are afraid of them, and especially if we think they want to kill us.
Yet we never lose sight of the fact that we personally don’t want to die. We are fully and always aware when it comes to ourselves that death means the end of being here.
So, is it all about clearing the way so we feel we won’t have to die, at least not soon? Some Israelis said of Gaza that it occasionally needs mowing. It’s not that Israelis are meaner than other people. It’s the position they are in that includes fear, historical beliefs and harsh realities, isolation, and having the power at hand to “mow.”
Circumstances, real and imagined, affect how people – individually and collectively – perceive. In turn, what people perceive affects what they are willing to do to others, including to kill them. Given a potent dose of the “right” circumstances many, maybe most, people lose empathy. They become empathetically illiterate.
Look at ISIS. They perceive – literally live in – a different reality than most of us do. Their beliefs, which are circumstances, seal them inside a “truth” that gives them a mission and radical zeal. They want power and territory to bring the world into line with their image of truth and they will kill for it. You and I may not buy into their vision but they are pretty intent about it. They believe their perceived reality.
We could also say that we in the US perceive people are coming at us, and our friends and other good people, with the intent to kill us. It seems real from here. What can we do except shoot before they get here or before the number of dead becomes even more astronomical? Hold that question.
Why two beheadings was a catalyst instead of more than 140,000 dead Syrians and 900,000 Syrian refugees and displaced people is another question. Well, we know why. The beheadings were two from the US home team. Our empathic literacy only spoke English.
In the midst of this violent catastrophe we forget that all people are people are people are people and killing means real people die.
Our major flaw as human animals is that we forget that each of us is potential and future and love and art and creation and compassion and beauty. We forget our existence is an incomprehensible miracle, and it ends.
Given the stakes, you would think we would put more thought and action into creating circumstances where people perceive their good as invested in the good of others, where we give each other what we all need so we become friends and family, so it becomes unthinkable to kill each other.
But once the horror is underway, . . . Well, I, too, would probably pick up the gun and shoot first if the option were between them and me. Certainly I would if it were between them and my family or friends. Now, I wouldn’t hesitate for a second to save myself or family or friends if faced with murderous assault.
I know that in reality this is a moot point since I personally will never fight in a war and I will never own a gun, but if I am hypothetically willing to kill in some circumstances, how can I say my nation never can?
And I believe, faced with a choice between my death and that of a member of my family or a close friend, I would go on the sword. Hopefully this is never tested.
But it is tested endlessly around the world, isn’t it? Parents are constantly giving up their lives to save their children due to real and desperate circumstances. Average people do heroic things.
Can we average people do what is needed to prevent future wars and lessen the wars now around us?
Average people brought an end to the war in Vietnam even if it was late in the game. Such a futile stupid war.
Has there ever been a wise war? President Carter referred to war as sometimes a “necessary evil,” which raises the pertinent question of if wars can be prevented in advance by actions taken by you and me, average people.
Assuming the answer is “yes,” the most pertinent question is, are we willing to build communities across cultures, to minister to each other’s needs, and to become empathically literate in all languages?
It would take conscious evolution of our consciences, voluntary opening up, leaps of faith in ourselves and others, and going against our impulses to shut down and shut out. Many good people do peace-making work now. How do we build on their work to create a massive coalition of the willing? This is the question. What are the answers?
The question “shoot first or never shoot” must become obsolete, a relic of when we were more primitive. War photos of dead, wounded, and dying men, women, and children should only be seen in historical archives.