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Paula Gordon Headshot

Our Deadly Cocktail

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America's role in the Trayvon Martin-George Zimmerman tragedy goes down as smoothly as any toxic cocktail: one part guns, one part race, one part stress, stir and duck. We've let ourselves become inured to guns, blind to how radically America's changing racial composition is threatening a very old caste system, and ignorant of what is now knowable about stress. And for garnish? A deaf ear to "lead us not into temptation."

Since context matters -- a lot -- here's where this chain of thought began.

The Cold War was very real to me. So my nerve endings shout "Checkpoint Charlie!" when approaching an international border -- any international border -- even what was formerly "the world's longest unguarded border" between Canada and the U.S. It's my turn to proceed (slowly) to the guard station. I'm reading the "Welcome to the United States of America" sign. I feel a sound before I hear it, my brain simply refusing to believe my ears. Rolling up to the Border Guard's booth I blurt out, "What IS that SOUND? It...it sounds like ... gunfire," my hand shaking as I show him my passport. The Officer's response is equally astounding. He smiles. "Yup, that's gunfire all right. Every three months, we have to qualify. And yes, we use real bullets. The same ones we have in the guns we carry. But don't worry. We use targets. Usually nobody even notices. This is Montana, after all. We're used to gunfire around here...."

He could just as readily have said, "This is America, after all...."

With that exchange still ringing in my head, the next day a Canadian friend asks us to "make sense of what on earth's going on in the States." Specifically, he wants a nice simple explanation of Trayvon Martin's death. Right.

Nothing is simple in America. Not guns, not fear nor motivations behind those who gin it up, not political or religious right-wing fundamentalist ideologies, neither patriarchy nor misogyny, not anti-abortionism from those championing the death penalty, and most certainly not race.

So I ask the friend for a recess, painfully aware that Mr. Martin, Mr. Zimmerman, and the terrible reality that forever links them is only one sorrowful event among an appalling number of similar situations. However, of the many possible elements in this case and so many others, one combination stands out: an all-too-ready gun-in-the-hand of someone under more stress than he could handle triggered disaster.

After thinking about it, I will now tell my Canadian friend about three volatile conditions of American life, three American facts: guns, race and stress.

Hard-core ideologists abetted by the current politically driven Supreme Court make common cause with the profit-driven munitions industry. Together, they prey upon confused and frightened (and seriously stressed) people who are both the assailed and the assailants.

The gun industry and their consorts among the host of extremists from our political and religious right-wing fringes have shouted down a long overdue, totally legitimate exploration of what place guns have in a society aspiring to be civil, never mind civilized. We've demurred when they've (mis)quoted the Constitution and mostly resign ourselves to sighs as a highly politicized Supreme Court majority shamelessly redefines the essence of the American Constitution.

We should also acknowledge the long-standing truism: violence begets violence. Guns are a tool of violence. Race is an excuse for violence. And stress? Good old fashioned evidence-based science (literally anathema to those on the fundamentalist right) is now helping us understand why that is. Among the many sources are reports like those in the current issue of Scientific American (April, 2012). Stress gins up a toxic and volatile cocktail for all of us. The chemistry of stress suppresses the normal control exercised by the neocortex while boosting primitive emotions and desires ... very dangerous with a gun in your hand. It's no accident we don't know what's been learned about violence and how to redirect the force it carries into something constructive. A lot of people profit -- psychologically, politically, and financially -- from ignoring evidence and diminishing our lives. We've let facile promoters of corrupt values, including specifically a culture of weapons-based violence, drown out crucial information we ALL need.

So how do we "make sense" of Trayvon's demise and all the factors indictable in that cruel endgame? What is the sense of America's appetite for fear and for its purveyors, for atavistic fundamentalisms, for right-wing gun-lust, and for the irrefutably racist elements found across the nation?

We, at least, find a starting point in the actions and words of two very different men who, ironically, share a name.

First, think of George Zimmerman as an Everyman among the countless people, women as well as men, seduced by America's gun-toting, right-wing agenda. No gun, different story. No "Stand Your Ground," different story.

Then listen again to what Robert Zimmerman, a.k.a. Bob Dylan, so presciently told us decades ago: "He's only a pawn in their game."

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