On the sanctity of (some) life

This morning’s news about the shooting in Aurora has left me deeply unsettled, and while I’m not sure how well I can articulate my thoughts about it, I’m too distracted by them not to try. Fair warning: this is a personal post, and it’s driven by emotion and experience rather than by research.

Aurora is terribly close to home for me. I have immediate family members living there (the closest mere blocks from where the shooting took place), and it’s very near to where I grew up. I know that my family is ok, but I’m still worried about second-degree connections: my brother’s friends, people I knew growing up. I’m trying not to imagine the people getting bad news instead of comforting news today, because it’s too hard to think about.

Looking back on the many years I spent in Colorado, I realize that it felt like an extraordinarily safe and sheltered environment, and that my community of family and friends actively thought of it as a safe and happy place. My family worried when I moved away for the first time; they worried even more when I moved to New York. But from a distance, Colorado doesn’t appear so safe. It isn’t just this incident; it’s the recent shooting in City Park, where EF heard the gunshots that killed a police officer; it’s Columbine, where my cousin was a high school senior trapped in a music room; it’s the 23-year-old shot and killed in a random attack just blocks from my family’s home in 2009. I don’t know anybody that has witnessed first-hand this kind of violence in New York. In Colorado, I know far too many people who have.

I recognize the privilege of having grown up in a space that felt safe and sheltered, and I know that there are many places — perhaps especially the NYC of the 80’s, when I was growing up — where I wouldn’t have been able to take personal safety so lightly. I know there are many, many, many violent incidents that I don’t know about because they don’t make headlines.┬áThe unbelievable prevalence of gun-related violence in this country is a big part of what’s troubling me, but I think there’s also something else, something about the ideological inconsistencies that pervade our country’s systems.

We simply don’t seem to understand the value of human life. We sometimes think we do — indeed, anti-choice rhetoric trumpets the idea that life is sacred. But we don’t. I’m far from the first person to say this, but as a nation we seem to care only about certain life in certain circumstances (see Judith Butler’s work on “grievable” life, for instance). A system that truly prioritized the value of life would provide health care first and foremost, to everyone; it would fund education and shrink its military; it would certainly eliminate the death penalty; and it would make it a hell of a lot harder for people to get their hands on guns. It is simply astonishing to me that as far as political viewpoints go, valuing the sanctity of life in the case of an unborn child is very often bundled with an enthusiasm for the right to bear arms, a tolerance of the death penalty, an acceptance of military action, and a discomfort with universal healthcare. Whose life, then, are we talking about?

When I was an undergrad, I was part of a community that held remarkably consistent views on the value of human life. It’s probably not possible for, say, a government to espouse that kind of system. I also don’t mean any disrespect at all to people who serve in the military, though God knows I wish they didn’t have to do the things they’re assigned to do. I’m simply perplexed by the degree to which people can rationalize the underlying systemic structures that make events like the Aurora shooting so mind-numbingly common. It is not civilized. I’m heartbroken that it has happened so close to my loved ones, and I’m both frustrated and ashamed to think that nothing at all will change because of it.

2 replies on “On the sanctity of (some) life”

I’m with you on a lot of those thoughts today – thank you for sharing. As a professional social media community manager I’ve also debated whether or not to comment about the shooting publicly, and how our organization should/shouldn’t justify making a big deal out of this violent event when there’s so much violence happening elsewhere in the world that we’d never cover. (The massacres in Syria in the past month? Not newsworthy to the majority of us.) The senselessness and the close-to-home-ness of this mornings’ shooting makes us all feel this event so deeply. But I agree, it’s disheartening to think that because there’s no easy person or situation to blame, we get lost in the sadness and misplaced anger, forgetting that our own systems and ideologies are driving this “civilization.”

Thanks for commenting, Alison. It must be very tricky in your role to comment in personal capacity on this kind of thing.

I think it’s impossible for people to invest the same degree of emotional energy in every event — there’s simply too much happening — and it’s completely natural to react more intensely about what happens close to home. (Though emotional investment and being informed are two different things — not experiencing the same emotionally acute response to the violence in Syria is a far cry from not being aware of and troubled by what’s happening there.) And, as you say, senselessness changes the way we process the trauma, too. That’s part of what feels so heavy about this — there’s no overarching ’cause’ that can help people to make sense of the violence, not even a sense of duty or service or sacrifice. There’s just no reason for it, besides our lack of collective will to make it harder for people to buy guns. Theaters are responding by banning costumes. Costumes! Can’t we ban the assault rifle instead? Sigh.

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