I know, the world is a violent place. But doesn’t this summer, and the last few weeks, seem especially so? From the global scene to the most personal, we seem to have settled for violence as the “new normal” at every level.
This week, we observed the 13th anniversary of 9/11. That terrible day affected all of us, each of us being able to describe where we were and what we felt as the Trade Center towers fell. Yet, 13 years later, things have seemed to go from bad to worse globally, despite all our efforts to make ourselves “safer” (whatever that means anymore). How ironic for the President to appear on TV on the eve of that anniversary to announce to the nation that we are once again going to “war,” without ever using the word. Back in 2001, who would have believed that we would be identifying a group and describing them as “too violent for al Qaeda”?
One of my favorite tee shirts proclaims “I am already against the next war.” There are now teenagers living in America who have never known a time when their country was not at war. The President announces that not only will we be bombing ISIS in Iraq, but also in Syria—and no matter what you think of that country and its detestable regime, it still is a sovereign nation, whose borders we are about to violate. There are many smarter heads than mine that think this is the best of all the bad options our reluctant-to-intervene President has. Despite all his assurances that we will only be involved in air strikes, does anyone think that our involvement won’t immediately deepen when (not if) an American plane and its pilot gets shot down, either by ISIS or the Syrian government?
The fact is, America is involved in war in several places. For years now, we have been bombing (and sometimes using boots on the ground against) targets in Yemen, Pakistan, Somalia, and Afghanistan. Now add Iraq and Syria to that list of places in which we are engaged in war (although Iraq never really left). Such ongoing military action gets almost no acknowledgement, never mind serious scrutiny.
In our internal national life, the killing of an unarmed young black man in Ferguson, Missouri, has revealed the kind of violence many of our citizens face every day. This has produced an unearthing of the unequal and unfair policing of African Americans rampant across this nation. How ironic that the 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer turned what should have been a celebration of how far we’ve come into the recognition of how little progress we’ve actually made. Add to the violence on the streets the ongoing, current and flagrant attempts to limit the voting rights of those who are already oppressed. The police officer who precipitated this crisis by shooting this unarmed teenager remains uncharged and free (not to mention paid!), despite an ever-growing number of eyewitnesses who describe his behavior as excessive and disproportionate to what was called for by the situation.
Then, in recent days, we witness the brutal domestic violence of a football running back knocking his fiancé senseless and unconscious in a casino elevator. That violence (apparently known to team and league officials before the release of the second video) is treated with a slap on the wrist, until the elevator video is made public by a tabloid news outlet. And as comedian Chris Rock aptly points out, “Just to be clear. Ray Rice was not fired for beating his wife. He was fired because a video of him beating his wife was released.” The NFL couldn’t have acted more ineptly and immorally in response to what they knew. Yet we have several perpetrators of domestic violence (one of whom has already been convicted!) continuing to play on the football fields for our collective enjoyment. Social media has been the scene of more “blaming the victim” than I have seen in years, and points to a “boys will be boys” attitude toward violence against women, which is alive and well in 21st-century America. No, we’re not all women batterers, but we all participate in a society where an epidemic of violence against women is rarely acknowledged, and where the denigration of women is as rampant as ever.
The pervasiveness of violence on all these levels has, at the very least, increased our personal and corporate anxiety about the world in which we live. Anxious people make bad decisions, and anxious people will do almost anything to make the anxiety go away, and doing “almost anything” rarely leads to solutions.
On a personal level, I know that actually turning around and facing the anxiety that stalks me is the first step in becoming free of that anxiety. I think the same is true for communities, nations, and the world. Yet it is the last thing we want to do. Congress is debating whether or not to debate going to war. It, and the president, won’t even use the word. American society resists having a conversation about racism 150 years after the abolition of slavery and about the cancer along racial lines which still infects us. We look at the pathetic, abused spouse and press her for “why didn’t she just leave him?” rather than demanding of him “why did you hit her?”
Confronting violence at every level begins with confronting the anxiety that produces it. A society which is willing to accept increasing levels of violence is a society that will beget more of it. If the bar for our outrage is increasingly raised, we will find ourselves finally outraged by nothing. Our silence needs to be replaced by outraged voices which demand that Congress fulfill its constitutional obligation to take responsibility for declaring war. A national conversation about racism and the violent results it produces for people of color must be sought by white people. Commercial sponsors of the NFL need to leave in droves to get the attention of those who profit mightily from its lax moral standards.
If we are to combat the violence that now pervades our society, we must calm our anxiety, find our voices, and demand a better world.
The Rt. Rev. V. Gene Robinson is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress, Washington, DC, and the IX Episcopal Bishop of New Hampshire. Follow him on Twitter @BishopGRobinson