In the 1950s our home in Houston, Texas was bombed, because my newspaper editor father had endorsed the first African American candidate running for a position on the local school board. Though no one was injured, as a teenager it was terrifying to feel so vulnerable to a hatred I couldn’t understand. So, I am certainly not an advocate for terrorism. And as both the daughter of one newspaper editor and the mother of another, I am a strong supporter of freedom of the press, but not of a press without a conscience.
Words can be as inflammatory as bombs, as most revolutions have proven. Certainly sarcasm and ridicule are generally recognized as deadly for peaceful relationships, whether personal or political.
The violence involving the newspaper Charlie Hebdo in France seems almost a chicken and egg situation with both sides shooting from the hip at anything they don’t like. We tend to applaud the revolutions seeking democracy, violent or not, because we understand them. Other than the Irish, most of us don’t understand the ones that use a religious excuse for violence as a way out of being helpless as a minority.
So much of the violence in the world, even genocide, grows out of a long and painful history of conflict, that is only known up close and personally by the participants. The rest of us only see the resulting boiling over of centuries of equally shared hate filled interactions.
I certainly don’t know the solution, but in my eighty-two years as an American, I’ve been taught to fear, and thus hate, the Germans, the Japanese, the Italians, the North Koreans, the Russians, the Chinese Communists, the North Vietnamese, the Pot Pol Cambodians, the Communist Cubans, Al Qaeda, the KKK and more.
Though I accepted America’s excuse of shortening World War Two by dropping atomic bombs on two civilian Japanese cities that resulted in at least 250,000 civilian casualties, from much of the world’s view, Harry Truman could be grouped with Hitler, Stalin, and Pol Pot as a mass murderer of the innocent.
How do we begin to break the unending cycles of fear and hate that perpetuate violence?
I oppose violence in any form, including vindictive, abusive, ridiculing, hate filled and irresponsible writing, cartooning or speech. Again, I wholeheartedly support the right of free speech, but not freedom from conscience or responsibility. Ridicule is not an effective response to any threat. It is self-serving egotism. It simply pours fuel on the fire.
Pouring fuel on the fires of hate and fear, however we do it, is not only immoral, it is self-defeating. Every one of us is called to become a peacemaker in whatever way we can. There are no winners in wars. Violence of any kind kills our souls.
When I first heard about the horrifying massacre of young children in Connecticut, my response was that I should buy an Uzzi and volunteer to guard the nearest school any of my grandchildren attended. Realizing that I have grands and great-grands in six counties and three states, I decided to start a movement to arm grandparents as guards in the schools of America. When I calmed down a little, reality reared its ugly head. Mental pictures of me (and those like me) forgetting how to get the safety latch off or shooting the maintenance person, because the glare from a window behind him made the mop look like a rifle, squelched that idea.
I’ve followed the responses and proposals in the media and on the internet and thought a lot about violence and counter-measures, that I’ve witnessed in my seventy-five years.
I don’t have statistics to compare the amount of violence in the decades since I first experienced it personally in 1954 (See post: My Introduction to Violence), but I remember the Kent State student shootings by the National Guard, innocent young black children killed over integration, a father shooting five or six elementary school children on the school playground in my neighborhood in Houston in 1959, The Texas University sniper killing students from its Campanile, and of course the killing of the children in the preschool in the Federal Building in Oklahoma City. If there seem to be more of these now, perhaps it’s partly because of increasing population, partly because of the impersonal anonymous climate of larger and larger institutions, and partly because we don’t imprison the mentally ill in insane asylums any more, but haven’t found a viable alternative for those who are a danger to themselves and others.
But with the killers being students, parents, outsiders, extremists, and even the National Guard, it appears to me that while we certainly have to try to make our schools safer, there really isn’t any way to prevent an insane homicidal/suicidal child or adult from killing groups of children. Groups of children are vulnerable in the school, on the play ground, going from building to building between classes, on school buses, waiting to load onto school buses. They are vulnerable at Science Museums, Chucky Cheeses, Disney Land, Park playgrounds, Zoos, Skating Rinks, Little League games, school sporting events.
Several thoughts confuse the issue of gun control. The guns that killed in these cases were not in the hands of known criminals. And some were ordinary guns, not repeating rapid-fire guns, and then some were bombs. And just about anybody that can read, can make a bomb today.
The problem calls for more than just arming personnel in schools or curtailing the sale of certain types of guns or turning school buildings into bunkers.
My concern is not just the tools of violence, but the hatred that fuels it, a hatred that now comes out in elections, in sports, in marriages, and even in the name of religion. What is the source or catalyst for so much hatred?
To find that answer, we can only begin by looking within.
About 1954 when I was seventeen, someone set a bomb off in our entrance hall. It was the night of an election with a black woman running for the school board in Houston, Texas. Segregation and the myth of separate, but equal schools were still firmly in place, and the black schools had never had representation on the board. I believe she was the first black candidate.
My father was a newspaper editor and had written editorials supporting her.
The bomb was not like bombs today. It didn’t destroy walls or knock down the door, but it had enough impact to cause the confetti packing and sharp pieces of slate to become embedded in the door and walls. It was set off about three in the morning, my father was still at the newspaper covering the election, and I was half-way down the stairs before I decided not to go to the door. That was my first personal experience of the human capacity for senseless violence.
Though my mother was from Mississippi and my father was from Louisiana, they had taught me that prejudging people on the basis of their skin color was not only wrong, it was ignorant. And ignorance was THE mortal sin in our family.
When I married and moved to Nashville, Tennessee our friends were mostly doctors and lawyers and college professors. In the middle sixties I decided to join the NAACP after one of my friends, who was a volunteer at a local hospital, informed us all angrily that, “There was no way in hell, she was going to carry that n_____ baby out to their car. And she told them that right then and there. She didn’t care who heard her.” Obviously, a college education isn’t always a cure for ignorance.
So in 1968 I was working at the NAACP office when the Poor People’s March came through Nashville. There were many young blacks from out of town, who belonged to more militant organizations like SNCC and CORE, going in and out of the office where I was answering the phone. Their obvious strong hatred of whites, even those of us working for the NAACP, was frightening.
It seemed to me that America was headed for a bloody race war where many innocent people on both sides would be destroyed. I began to pray fervently for a miracle that would prevent that.
I have come to see Martin Luther King as that miracle. I believe whites should be as grateful to him as blacks.
I thank God for Martin Luther King.