Thirty years of gun-slinging mass murder American style -- crisply documented by Mother Jones -- had almost pushed me into mute hopelessness. But feelings of despair offer no answers, so I went looking for antidotes. I had found two, before the horrific gates of gun violence hell touched my own family.
First. Recognize the truth about the National Rifle Association. The NRA is a shill for the munitions industry, hiding behind the skirts of the Constitution and the fears of the paranoid. A Violence Policy Council study provides the data supporting its assertion that the NRA is "a virtual subsidiary of the gun industry." I will go further and suggest that the NRA is a lethal and noxious mixture of marketing arm and lobbyist for gun makers. Their talk about Second Amendment rights is an excuse as well as a smoke-screen. It is also profoundly dishonest. Follow the money. Then I heard from Dr. Paul Ekman, Professor of Psychology Emeritus at the University of California San Francisco. For decades, he's been studying emotions, including anger, the most common precursor to violence. His response to Jane Brody's New York Times editorial "Keeping Guns Away from Children" begged for action:
Jane Brody's excellent column mentioned but did not emphasize the simple step of trigger guard locks rendering a gun inoperative. It would prevent children, treating a gun as a toy, from killing themselves or others. It would also have prevented the Newtown killer from using his mother's guns to kill her and then the children and teachers. While opposed in the past by the NRA when advocates pushed for laws making gun locks mandatory, the NRA might join in a campaign for voluntary gun triggers, encouraged by tax deductions, free trigger guards (which cost less than $10), public acknowledgment, 'I locked my gun' label pins, etc. It won't prevent all use of guns to kill people, but it will help.
Tell the truth. Act on it. Make a start. Or, as my heroic Congressman John Lewis advises, quoting a West African proverb, "When you pray, move your feet." Now, finally, we have a President sufficiently stalwart to begin moving in the right direction.
Personally? A message at 1 a.m. is rarely good news. My dearly beloved cousin. Dead by his own hand. Handgun to the head, .45 caliber.
His precious life and its violent end is far more than one more appalling, grisly statistic of the obvious -- Guns Kill. This gentle, generous soul's life is a compendium of The Great American Tragedy: America's passionate cultural embrace of violence.
Richard Slotkin documents how our very American addiction to violence as old as the nation, building one terrible story at a time. To grow up as a culture, Slotkin told us, America will be required to deal with race and with violence. My cousin paid the ultimate price for our failure to renounce our childish infatuation with the latter.
Cousin's beautiful, tortured life -- needlessly, relentlessly and systematically violated -- feels for all the world like a morality play. This is my version of my preciously dear, very dead Cousin's sad chronicle.
As a child and youth, Cousin's father beat him, relentlessly. This particular family's violence was all too neatly summed up last summer when Cousin artlessly said to me, "Oh, I could never have had children. All I know about raising kids is that you beat them."
Was his father working out his "survivor's guilt"? Untouched himself, his three-year-old son was "squashed like a watermelon" as the family came to describe how Cousin lost his spleen in a car crash. I know something about automobile smash-ups. My mother was killed in one. A drunk driver almost killed my sister-in-law; and the one this Uncle caused was an indelible part of Cousin's life. Americans flinched at automobiles as purveyors of violence. So we did something. We got seatbelts, MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving), Ralph Nader (Unsafe at Any Speed) airbags, and lots of government regulation. Actions, not rhetoric.
Whatever the cause of Uncle -- a genuinely scary man -- acting out against his own flesh and blood, it did not stop at home. This bully of an man was first a teacher, then for decades, a primary school principal. Take note, anyone misguided enough to suggest either should "pack heat." Uncle loved to regale family gatherings with how regularly the parents of students he'd beaten thanked him, personally, for administering corporal punishment -- on their own children. Surely such actions -- and inaction -- of those who should be protecting our young, not abusing them, would insult even the Marquis de Sade.
Cousin's mother -- my father's sister -- did ... nothing. Nor did any of the rest of the extended family's adults offer sanctuary or intervene in any way on the little boy's behalf. At most, they avoided Uncle. Adults who could have done something were too intimidated, even when we all were witnesses to Uncle's clear threats to his little boy, invariably snarled at the end of our infrequent visits. "You just wait 'til I get you home..." Neighbors and people of the town knew Uncle was violent and kids the victims, but did nothing. It was a military dependent community, a community where violence is the raison d'être. Was that an excuse or a contributor? Somehow, Cousin endured.
When Cousin graduated high school, his well-founded ambition was to attend film school on the West Coast. Here again, Uncle intervened. "Forget the 'artist' non-sense," Cousin was told. Uncle was intent on "making a man" out of his son. So while Cousin was making plans to fulfill his dream, not only did Uncle refuse to support him in it in any way. This guy actually went down to the local draft board to demand that these men, his friends from Rotary, draft Cousin. In the middle of the Vietnam war! It wasn't a death sentence, but it was a command performance of Russian roulette.
To avoid the draft, Cousin signed up. To his father's dismay, he became an "MP" -- the army's military police. What an ingenious way for Cousin to distance himself from the killing! Then the unthinkable happened. Forget the obvious hazards of soldiering or policing. The military itself betrayed Cousin (and thousands like him.) Then they lied about it. For 50 years.
Read Jon Mitchell, in Japan Focus "Were U.S. marines used as guinea pigs on Okinawa?" (December 23, 2012). In it, he documents the facts behind vets' decades-long accusations of chemical poisonings. The larger society? We refused to believe it, turned a blind eye to this gross and violent abuse that continues to destroy lived. Again, the community turned its face away.
My cousin was under orders to participate in the horrors of "Operation Red Hat." His first duty station in 1970 was to Edgewood Arsenal, where the human-testing research for the weaponizing of chemicals was done (detailed, sad irony that it is, last month by The New Yorker.) The next year, Cousin was sent to Okinawa with the 267th Chemical Company. It had been his duty to help them move the toxins from place to place as the military tried to cover up what they were doing. All he could say when I sent him the articles was "... Damn them."
Eventually, Cousin returned to face the rage that America focused on returning Vietnam vets. Too many in my own family were among the unforgiving, caustically indifferent to the reality of an MP's service. Never think our penchant for violent language is harmless!
As he aged, Cousin turned to the Veterans Administration for help with the damage to body and soul consequent to having served our country. No question, the frustrations he experienced dealing with the VA fueled his anger, a fury commensurate with the repeated degradation and humiliation he experienced at their hands. A different kind of violence, more subtle perhaps, but no less potent.
And now, this kind soul has blown his brains out with his own ".45". Will he be dignified as a casualty of the unforgivable "Operation Top Hat"? Will he be counted among the suicides of current and former service people, far too many of whose mental health had been ignored long before the additionally tragic suicide statistics from Iraq and Afghanistan? Or even as a victim of child abuse? I'm guessing none of the above. I doubt he will be counted at all, except in his local county's monthly morbidity reports.
But I will tell you truly. His life did count. And he was counted -- counted as immeasurably dear to those of us left behind to affirm his life. As it is for those of us grieving, it also is up to every person of conscience in this mighty nation of ours to face up to our culture of violence.
We must stop the violence in our own lives, event by event, at every level. Rethink the toys we give our kids and the stories and "games" we condone as they internalize the unthinkable in the name of "play." Refuse to give a pass to adults -- any adults -- whupping up on their own or anyone else's kids. And yes, take away guns that massacre little suburban kids and are the instruments of gangland slayings in the streets of our cities. Regulating guns is a necessary -- and not sufficient -- step in the right direction. And it is only the first step in countering the collective and appalling capitulation of our larger society to our lesser selves.
Now I'm working to clean up the wreckage of my cousin's life. I refuse to let his death be in vain. In our lives, at least, he does count for more than just one too damn many victims of violence, of guns, of a profoundly American Tragedy.